Since becoming the first 24-hour cable news channel 40 years ago this week, CNN has covered natural disasters, wars and political campaigns. But increasingly it’s become the story itself.
Between having one of its reporters arrested while on camera, demonstrators descending on its Atlanta offices, and its anchors clashing with US President Donald Trump — all in the past week — CNN is making headlines like never before.
Jeff Zucker, who oversees the network as WarnerMedia’s chairman for news and sports, added to the tempest by saying he might want to run for mayor of New York. (The comments, made to New York Times columnist Ben Smith, were in jest, according to a person close to Zucker, and he doesn’t actually plan to run.)
Coverage of the pandemic and the nationwide protests that followed the killing of George Floyd has also brought CNN a surge in viewers. Though Fox News remains the top cable news network on a typical night, April was CNN’s most-watched month in 15 years. On Friday and Saturday of last week — when demonstrations intensified around the US — CNN eclipsed Fox News among Americans age 25 to 54, according to Nielsen data supplied by the network.
The question now is whether CNN can maintain viewership once the voracious demand for breaking news subsides — and whether the more combative stance of anchors such as Don Lemon and Chris Cuomo will attract more viewers or turn them off.
“CNN always is the place that America and the world turns for major breaking news,” Jon Klein, the former president of CNN’s US operations, said in an interview. “Despite the relentless attacks by the president and his followers to try to cast doubt on their objectivity, the audience behaviour shows they know who to trust when it really matters.”
Viewers found CNN particularly riveting on Friday. Correspondent Omar Jimenez and his crew were arrested in Minneapolis while covering the protests over Floyd, a black man who died in police custody. Their arrest, which was captured live on air and shared widely on social media, became a flash point for the threats that journalists have faced while covering the unrest. Later that day, protesters smashed windows at CNN’s Atlanta offices and sprayed graffiti on the network’s logo.
The CNN crew was soon released, and Minnesota’s governor apologised. But free-press advocates were quick to condemn their arrest, and journalists pointed out the alarming frequency of being targeted by law enforcement.
The investigative website Bellingcat identified dozens of incidents where journalists were attacked by law enforcement while covering the recent protests, including some who have been shot by rubber bullets, sprayed with tear gas or pepper spray, or arrested.
“In the majority of the cases we have recorded, the journalists are clearly identifiable as press and it is clear they are being deliberately targeted,” the group said.
There’s no evidence that protesters went out of their way to hit CNN’s offices on Friday — the site is a major landmark in Atlanta and may have just been a convenient target. The building was secured overnight, and the CNN sign was repainted Saturday morning.
Meanwhile, some CNN hosts have stepped up their criticism of Trump, who has long tried to dismiss the network as “fake news” and called for Zucker’s firing.
After a Rose Garden speech by the president on Monday where he promised a forceful response to protests, Lemon asked if Trump was declaring war on Americans.
“Open your eyes, America,” he said. “We are teetering on a dictatorship. This is chaos.”
Cuomo — who recovered from coronavirus and chronicled the experience for viewers — has slammed the president for his response to the pandemic.
CNN has tried to find the middle ground between MSNBC on the left and Fox News on the right, and having more outspoken anchors may invite new questions about its objectivity.
“They are allowing a couple more of their prime-time anchors to let loose more than has been done in the past,” Klein said. “That can overshadow the overall efforts of a 24-hour news operation.”
From a business standpoint, it also may be hard for CNN to cash in on its recent ratings surge. The advertising market has softened during the economic slump, and there are few signs a quick rebound is ahead.
And when the relentless news cycles of 2020 finally do wane, viewers may drift away.
“For CNN, the test has always been who tunes in when the news breaks,” Klein said. “They’ve always wanted to win that battle. The problem areas have been the in-between periods.” — Reported by Gerry Smith, (c) 2020 Bloomberg LP