What these recordings reveal is that CNN’s cartoonish role as a determined and vituperative “fake news media” foil to Trump — while perhaps real for some of the reporters and broadcasters involved — is at least to some degree kabuki theater for executives. Even as president, Trump to network leaders is first and foremost a commodity, and an extraordinarily valuable one at that. Were he not president, Zucker might very well be offering him that weekly show.

As the creator of The Apprentice, Zucker surely understands both the nature of Trump’s ratings appeal, and the Reality TV value of having CNN reporters play gesticulating heckler to Trump’s Bill Hicks act…

When Zucker tells Cohen he’d love to talk to Trump “every day” but can’t, because “I just can’t have that,” he’s explaining exactly what the coverage “change” was about. Going more negative while increasing the raw amount of attention — “copious coverage and aggressive coverage” — allowed networks to retain or even increase the monster ratings Trump offered, without earning the social opprobrium that came with giving him softball coverage.

Zucker loved Trump for the same reason baseball owners once loved the juiced-up homers hit by Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire: he put butts in seats. He just can’t afford to be seen loving Trump.