Friday, May 12, 2023

By seeking to draw right-wing viewers from a struggling Fox News, CNN produced a "balanced" journalistic train wreck that proved to be a ratings hit

Donald Trump and Kaitlin Collins

CNN has been striving for about six months to draw viewers from a hobbled Fox News by featuring guests and events that are likely to attract right-wing viewers. That strategy helped produce Wednesday night's Trump town hall, which the ex-president (we call him the Lyin' King) turned into an episode of "Train-Wreck Televison," drawing a fusillade of criticism from across the Web, both before and after the event. 

CNN's reputation as a news outlet might have taken a hit, but it did receive some positive news: The town hall was a ratings hit, and that's apparently what network executives were after all along. Writes The New Republic Editor Michael Tomasky, under the headline "Shame on CNN for That Naked, Cynical Play for Fox Viewers; Kaitlan Collins and the network’s journalists tried their best. But the execs, from Chris Licht on down, brought total shame on themselves, journalism, and America":

Here’s what Chris Licht said the day he took over at CNN: “Sadly, too many people have lost trust in the news media. I think we can be a beacon in regaining that trust by being an organization that exemplifies the best characteristics in journalism: fearlessly speaking truth to power, challenging the status quo, questioning ‘groupthink’ and educating viewers and readers with straightforward facts and insightful commentary, while always being respectful of differing viewpoints. First and foremost, we should, and we will be advocates for truth.”

Well, I hope today some of his more alert employees are reminding him of those noble words, because the Donald Trump “town hall” was an absolute fiasco for journalism and democracy; quite plainly the worst non-Fox night of cable news in recent memory. This was a grotesque scramble for ratings and cash, a naked bid by CNN to get some of that flagging post-Tucker Fox News audience that’s out there up for grabs. “Newsmax?! OANN?! Who are these pipsqueaks?” Licht obviously sits around his office wondering as he conceives of some way for mighty CNN to get a slice of that juicy pie.

People make mistakes and miscalculations in this world, all the time. But this isn’t one of those times. Licht and CNN knew exactly what they were doing. Cable news critics started to see signs of CNN’s rightward shift last fall—the departures of John Harwood and Brian Stelter serving as a distant early warning. Licht was reportedly behind the canning of Harwood, a terrific journalist with years of experience at The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. Harwood was no liberal polemicist. He was a reality-based journalist. That he couldn’t pass muster with Licht should have been, and was, a tip-off. Licht went on a “listening tour,” promising advertisers that his CNN would hear both sides. And it was well after January 6 that Licht had this brainstorm.

Should we file Licht's high-minded comment from his first day as CNN's top dog in a folder titled "Useless Hokum." It looks that way. Writes Tomasky:

This town hall, then, was no miscalculation. CNN execs did not err by filling that audience with a bunch of MAGA shills who tittered at the idea of the former president committing an act of sexual abuse. [The network honchos] knew exactly what they were doing. As Warner Brothers/Discover CEO David Zaslav, who’s no less responsible for this disaster than Licht, said last week, they want those disaffected Fox viewers who question that network’s total commitment to Trump, the sort who were up in arms when Fox called Arizona (prematurely but correctly) for Joe Biden: “We’re happy he’s coming on there.… This is a new CNN. I’m proud of CNN, we’re on a great journey and this country needs it.”

What a load of excrement. No wonder CNN's brass took criticism from all directions. The network's journalists, the ones who actually built CNN's reputation for producing solid, well-reported news and thoughtful commentary, fared better. Tomasky writes:

Some of CNN’s journalists did the best they could. Kaitlan Collins made a heroic effort to keep up with Trump’s firehose of deceit and treachery. When CNN cut away from the town hall—and to my real-time eye, it looks like CNN ended it 20 minutes early; it was scheduled to last until 9:30 p.m., and CNN instead tossed to the studio talking heads at 9:10—anchors Jake Tapper and Anderson Cooper were quick to note that Trump opened the night by lying about the 2020 election, and they and others like John King and Jamie Gangel and Laura Coates tried to fact-check and rebut Trump.

So, good for them. But it was largely too late. Licht got his licks in. America saw a barrage of lies that rained down like bombs on Dresden. I started out trying to keep track of them, but as is usually the case with Trump, you’ll have a far easier job of it keeping track of the true things he says, because that’s a breeze. (The true statements, after “my name is Donald Trump,” were roughly zero.)

He lied about 2020. He lied about January 6. He lied about E. Jean Carroll. He lied about abortion. He lied about his classified documents. He lied about energy independence—the United States did achieve “energy independence” during his presidency, but as these things are measured, it’s energy independent today—more so under Biden than under him! That’s a comparatively small lie, but it proves the point. He lied about everything. He can’t do anything other than lie. Lying is how he has lived for decades.

Did the American public gain anything from this exercise in deception -- driven both by Trump and CNN execs? Tomasky tries to sort that out:

Were there any redeeming qualities in the exercise? We did get a bit of insight into his planned attack lines. On the classified documents: Joe Biden took 1,800 boxes. I don’t know if this is true off the top of my head, but it’s plausible—vice presidents accumulate a lot of boxes. Then he said—four times!—that Biden took boxes to “Chinatown.” What on earth does this mean? Ex-Vice President Biden stored some boxes in Washington D.C.’s Chinatown neighborhood. Oh my God, Chinatown! A neighborhood crawling with … Chinese … stuff! (Though to be honest, Washington’s present-day Chinatown is a pale version of its heyday.) What a racist buffoon, playing to other racist buffoons.

Trump was awful at this town hall. But CNN was worse. Not its journalists—they tried. Rather, it was the network’s ostensible leadership who failed to demonstrate that they are responsible stewards of the public trust. Though whoever made the decision to pull the plug 20 minutes early on this vomit-inducing broadcast perhaps should be in line for a promotion, if only because they brought this embarrassing night for CNN, journalism, and America to a halt. And yet somewhere, Licht and Zaslav are probably smiling.

CNN's "big dogs" surely found one redeeming quality about the town hall, and that came from the ratings, which were strong. Perhaps that's all the suits really cared about. Here is how Axios sums up the town-hall audience in a newsletter this morning:

The town hall drew 3.3 million total viewers for CNN, compared to 707,000 at the same time the night before.

  • Fox News had 1.45 million during the town hall and MSNBC had 1.398 million, according to a CNN release. (That's a total of 6 million watching cable news on an epic night. For context, ABC's "World News Tonight with David Muir" got 8 million in total viewers during two weeks in April.)
  • Among adults 25-54, CNN's town hall drew 781,000 vs. 458,000 for Fox and 160,000 for MSNBC (a total of 1.4 million).

Wednesday's prime time (8-11 p.m. ET) was CNN's best night in total viewers since 2022 midterm night.

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