In the wake of President Donald Trump's repeated attacks on the media, CNN's president criticized many leaders in Congress for not speaking up.
"I do think that one of the things that has surprised me is how gutless many Congressional leaders have been in standing up to these attacks on the media," said CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker, in a discussion with reporter Wolf Blitzer held Sunday at the Temple Emanu-El Streicker Center in New York City.
Since Trump's election, he has blasted U.S. news media for spreading what he calls "fake news" — a designation he often makes for reports that are critical of the administration.
In a recent appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference, he criticized the use of anonymous sources and doubled down on recent critiques. On Twitter, he claimed "fake news media" are "the enemy of the American People" and "a great danger" to America and likened critical news coverage to "a total political witch hunt." CNN and The New York Times have been two of the president's most frequent targets.
Zucker praised Sen. John McCain's recent comments on the media. McCain, who has been an outspoken critic of some of Trump's actions in the Oval Office, called the free press "vital" in an interview earlier this month with NBC's "Meet the Press." Without it, McCain cautioned, America would lose too many "individual liberties," adding, "that's how dictators get started."
"McCain had the guts to say it, and he deserves to be commended for doing so," Zucker said. "But frankly very few of his colleagues have stepped up and spoken publicly about it, and that is gutless."
Zucker called Trump's bashing "very strategic," "calculated" and "very dangerous," as he's swapped his old political opponents, including "Crooked Hillary" Clinton and "Little Marco" Rubio during the campaign for a new enemy: the media.
"I think bashing the media, trying to delegitimize the media, plays very well with his base, and I also think he's trying to, you know, protect himself a little bit in case something comes out in the future that he doesn't like or that is not is good for him," Zucker said. "He's setting up the idea that what's out there is not real, is fake."
On Friday, Trump's White House went one step further in its efforts by restricting access to one of its press gaggles by barring select outlets — including CNN — from attending.
"It is completely unacceptable what the White House did, and major media organizations should all stick together," Zucker said. "And if that happens to any of our colleagues, we will not stand for it."
Zucker and the Trump administration did not respond to CNBC requests for further comment.