He is a favorite target of President Trump's ire, the leader of a television network that the White House routinely accuses of peddling "fake news," and a contentious figure in his own right whose showcasing of Mr. Trump in the presidential campaign led to howls from the political establishment.
But nibbling filet mignon in a private dining room overlooking Central Park, Jeffrey A. Zucker, the president of CNN, did not look like a man perturbed.
"Our folks are just doing their jobs," Mr. Zucker declared at a recent lunch with journalists, who prodded him about the slings and arrows that Mr. Trump has gleefully lobbed his way. "They wear those insults as a badge of honor."
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A battle-tested executive, Mr. Zucker, 51, has rarely shied from a fight. He has also never faced an antagonist quite like this.
Minutes after Mr. Zucker had finished his steak, Mr. Trump was on television screens around the country attacking Mr. Zucker by name from the East Room of the White House. In an extraordinary news conference, Mr. Trump denounced CNN as an organ of "anger and hatred" and accused Mr. Zucker directly of "bias."
In an era of hostility and suspicion toward the news media, perhaps no battle is more pitched than that between Mr. Trump and CNN. The president has shouted down the network's correspondents, posted insults at its anchors in real time on Twitter and turned anti-CNN epithets into a rallying cry, electrifying the crowd on Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference by slamming the "Clinton News Network."
Later, CNN's White House reporter was one of several journalists barred from attending a briefing with Mr. Trump's press secretary, Sean M. Spicer, a move that the network called retaliatory and that the anchor Jake Tapper, in an on-air monologue, deemed "un-American."
The old CNN may have shrunk from conflict; the new CNN is leaning into it. Once the down-the-middle nerd of the cable news playground, CNN — under the guidance of Mr. Zucker, a former sports and morning show producer with a yen for flood-the-zone programming — is now an elbows-out player in national politics, vociferously pledging to hold a truth-averse White House to account.
It's a quarrel fueled in part by the yearslong, up-and-down relationship between Mr. Trump and Mr. Zucker, two outspoken television addicts who once enjoyed a rapport. They have known each other since the early 2000s, when Mr. Zucker put Mr. Trump in prime time as host of the NBC show "The Apprentice," and both share an obsession with ratings and a love of spectacle.
Once in frequent touch, the men have not spoken to each other since December — "not a good conversation," by Mr. Zucker's description — and the dispute has bled beyond questions of coverage into the realm of corporate intrigue. Time Warner, CNN's parent company, is preparing for a takeover by AT&T that requires approval from Mr. Trump's Justice Department.
Television news is a cynical business, and some current and former executives say the battle is win-win. Mr. Trump's lambasting of CNN is red meat for a Republican base angry at the mainstream press.
CNN has seen ratings rise as its reporters land big scoops — including major stories about Russia and the Trump campaign — and the network takes pains to promote its tough-minded attitude. Mr. Tapper's skeptical interview with the White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, for instance, went viral.
Still, Mr. Zucker, who declined a one-on-one interview for this article, was concerned enough to commission a study of how Mr. Trump's attacks had affected CNN's reputation. (He said the study had reaffirmed the network's credibility.)
And the network chief finds himself in the unusual position of being castigated by Trump loyalists, just months after some Democrats and Republicans attacked him for enabling Mr. Trump's rise. At a forum at Harvard in December, Mr. Zucker was jeered for airing Trump rallies unedited and hiring the candidate's former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, as a commentator.
Both supporters and detractors of Mr. Zucker say he can handle — and even relishes — a harsh spotlight. A wunderkind who ran the "Today" show at 26 and rose to become chief executive of NBC Universal, Mr. Zucker has weathered professional and personal setbacks, landing his job at CNN after being conspicuously ousted from NBC and beating back cancer twice.
"One of the keys to his success," said Andrew Heyward, a former president of CBS News, "is he's got an almost eerie self-confidence, that allows him to float an inch above the pavement at all times."
Mr. Zucker is coming off a record year at CNN, which rode the presidential campaign to its biggest ever audience. But MSNBC, which fell behind CNN last year, is now attracting more viewers in prime time, with stars like Rachel Maddow drawing liberals alarmed by Mr. Trump. (CNN counters that it beats MSNBC among viewers ages 25 to 54, the basis for advertising rates.)
Inside CNN's Manhattan newsroom, journalists say the presidential glare has both rattled and energized them, even as the Trump administration withholds top officials from its airwaves.
Inside the White House, the attitude is that CNN took aim at the president — and missed.
Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law, complained bitterly about the network's coverage during a December round table with New York business leaders, including Gary L. Ginsberg, a top Time Warner executive. Mr. Kushner said Mr. Trump had been inaccurately painted as a xenophobe by panels stacked with liberals, according to two attendees granted anonymity to recount a private session.
According to the attendees, Mr. Kushner said CNN executives had tried to lure Mr. Trump onto their network by pointing to their big audience. Mr. Kushner scoffed, saying interviews with local news channels would better reach voters in swing states.
Some of the president's animus is more personal. Mr. Trump once praised Mr. Zucker, calling him "brilliant" in a 2004 book, and, in a true Trump rarity, has even complimented him on Twitter.
But he has soured.
"Ask Jeff Zucker how he got his job," Mr. Trump told the CNN reporter Jim Acosta during the Feb. 16 news conference.
Mr. Trump was referring to a 2012 dinner at the Plaza Hotel, hosted by the American Turkish Society. Mr. Trump was seated next to Phil Kent, at the time the chief executive of Turner and the man in charge of finding the next head of CNN.
As The New York Times reported in December, Mr. Trump, in a brief exchange, had recommended Mr. Zucker, saying he would be a good fit for the job. Mr. Kent, who was already considering Mr. Zucker, nodded and thought little of it. Since then, Mr. Trump has regularly claimed credit for Mr. Zucker's appointment, a claim that Mr. Kushner has repeated.
Since the election, Mr. Zucker has defended his programming choices and pledged to "hold the new administration's feet to the fire," although he conceded that CNN, like other news organizations, offered Mr. Trump too much exposure. He said he had hired Trump supporters like Mr. Lewandowski to balance coverage, and argued that the criticism from both sides was a sign that CNN must be doing something right.
After the forum at Harvard, where Republican consultants accused him of denying airtime to Mr. Trump's rivals, Mr. Zucker was unfazed. "These people need to look in the mirror," he said.
People who have spoken to Mr. Zucker in recent weeks say he is not cowed by Mr. Trump's attacks, if irked by the level of vitriol from a man with whom he was once close. His friends say he remains intent on producing lively television in his usual, hands-on way.
Back when Mr. Zucker ran NBC, Stephen B. Burke, a top Comcast executive, walked into the 30 Rockefeller Plaza lobby one morning to find him watching a live feed of WNBC, the local New York affiliate. Cellphone to his ear, Mr. Zucker was in a heated conversation about whether to break into the "Today" show with local news about a storm.
It was the kind of decision Mr. Zucker might have handled when running "Today" and maybe even as president of NBC News. But as head of the corporation? Mr. Burke, who succeeded Mr. Zucker as NBC's chief, took note, according to three television executives who recounted the anecdote.
At the lunch with journalists, Mr. Zucker shrugged off the Trump team's attacks. "They have the right to say whatever they want," he said. "That's called the First Amendment. We have the right to do whatever we want, as well."
CNN reporters, he said, "are not being intimidated, they are not backing down."
After all, there's a president tuning in.
"He put out a tweet yesterday morning that said CNN was 'unwatchable,'" Mr. Zucker said, a hint of amusement in his voice. "But the only way he knew that was because he was watching."
(Disclosure: Comcast is parent of NBCUniversal and CNBC.)