Donald Trump enters the hall for the Republican presidential debate on March 10 in Coral Gables, Fla. (Alan Diaz / AP)

Any list of power brokers from elite tiers of the entertainment and media realms — one that includes George Clooney, Rosario Dawson and Roger Ailes — who are influencing the course of the current presidential contest has to include CNN’s President Jeff Zucker.

The cable news network’s head honcho has attracted attention and criticism in recent months for CNN’s highly attuned, and also highly profitable, focus on a certain 2016 candidate in particular. If you need a hint on this one, just flip to that station for 10 seconds.

Zucker’s close business alliance with Donald Trump harks back to his days as NBC Entertainment’s top executive; in that role, he transformed Trump into a one-man reality TV cottage industry by hiring the real estate mogul to star in “The Apprentice” in 2003. But the pair’s mutually beneficial ties may run even deeper than what’s become apparent from the relentless Trump coverage on CNN and the prevalence of Trump surrogates who have served as repeat commentators on the network during this election cycle. For his part, Trump has made positive remarks about CNN and Zucker in addition to allocating plenty of time from his busy campaign schedule to appear on the cable channel in various capacities.

And then this report from BuzzFeed on Monday kicked the Trump-Zucker conversation up a notch:

The personal ties between Donald Trump and Jeff Zucker, the chief executive of CNN, extend beyond the reality TV hit they created together into a far more personal realm: the expensive Manhattan private school where they have both sent children, and where Zucker’s wife was until recently a member of the board.

Trump’s foundation has contributed more than $150,000 over the past three years to the Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School, a nonprofit school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side also known as Columbia Prep. Caryn Zucker is listed as a board member for the school in tax documents covering July 2012 through June 2014.

Zucker has drawn criticism inside and outside of CNN for the cable channel’s coverage of Trump, including charges that CNN has turned its platform over to a demagogue and hasn’t been sufficiently skeptical of Trump’s routine campaign falsehoods. Zucker has brushed off these charges, saying that it’s only natural for a political frontrunner to receive outsize attention. Neither party has referred publicly to this family connection.

In February 2015, five months before Trump announced his candidacy, he and his wife, Melania, posed for a photograph with Caryn at the Upper West Side school’s annual benefit. In a gallery that was initially posted on the photographer’s website, Caryn Zucker was the only person Trump was pictured with other than Melania. (After an inquiry to Columbia Prep from BuzzFeed News, the photograph was removed from the photographer’s website.) Trump’s foundation donated $50,000 to the school that same day.

The BuzzFeed report added that a CNN representative declined to comment about Zucker and Trump’s ties but did point out that Zucker’s wife no longer serves on Columbia Prep’s board.

In a surprising twist on Tuesday, Fox News stalwart Greta Van Susteren came to GOP juggernaut Trump’s and competitor Zucker’s defense by serving as ambassador from America’s media aristocracy and spelling out how these things are done in Manhattan’s high society (GretaWire via The Huffington Post):

Trump sent his kids to this school so it is not weird that this rich man — Trump — gives money to the school. It was his foundation and it is unclear whether Trump even knows his foundation gave this money.

And as a parent of students at this school, it is not unusual for Zucker’s wife to be actively engaged in the school. Good for her! More parents should be active in schools.

Not only is this headline an unfair smear of Zucker (and thus CNN), it risks discouraging people from giving money (here, Trump) and volunteering (here, Mrs. Zucker). Is that really what we want? I think not.

As we do our jobs in journalism, we need to use good judgment. Not everything should be turned into a gotcha or an implied gotcha.

Regardless of any coincidental factors in play (or not) in the Columbia Prep episode of the Zucker-Trump saga, Van Susteren neglected to address the driving concern behind this kind of investigation. To spell it out here: For the most powerful members of the American media and political classes to get any closer, they’d have to sit on each others’ laps. So what does that mean for the rest of the country?

Don’t look for that story to air anytime soon on “On the Record With Greta Van Susteren,” nor on “Anderson Cooper 360°.” Perhaps Zucker put it best himself when he declared, in a February memo to network staffers, that CNN is “owning the political conversation.” Is it ever.

–Posted by Kasia Anderson

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