CNN in crisis

CNN in crisis
A man is seen with a laptop depicting the CNN logo with Donald Trump appearing in the background.

A man is seen with a laptop depicting the CNN logo with Donald Trump appearing in the background. Jaap Arriens / NurPhoto via Getty Images

Hemorrhaging viewers post-Trump, CNN is trying to broaden its appeal. Can it get Republicans to tune in? Here’s everything you need to know:

Why is CNN struggling?

The network is suffering an identity crisis, as its owners and newsroom fight over how to cover the GOP and Donald Trump’s incendiary 2024 presidential bid. When Trump was in office, ratings soared as CNN departed from conventional news coverage and permitted impassioned commentary from anchors and correspondents in the style of Fox News and MSNBC — such as when former host Don Lemon opened a show by declaring, “The president of the United States is a racist.” But CNN’s ratings have cratered since Trump left office, recently hitting an eight-year low of fewer than half a million total daily viewers — less than half of the audiences at Fox and MSNBC. In an especially humiliating turn of events, CNN’s average prime-time ratings dipped below those of right-wing upstart Newsmax. Warner Bros. Discovery, which CNN acquired last year, wants to win back independent and conservative viewers by featuring more Republicans and prioritizing down-the-middle reporting, promising a return to CNN founder Ted Turner’s goal to “make news the star.” But internal fighting over that goal led this week to the dismissal of the new CEO, Chris Licht, after he made a series of disastrous decisions.

What went wrong?

Warner Bros. Discovery President David Zaslav hired Licht to shake up the network, saying viewers and advertisers don’t want CNN to be an “advocacy network.” Coverage, Zaslav said, must “show both sides of every issue,” and he praised the network for interviewing 75 Republicans during January’s four-day battle over whether to elect Kevin McCarthy as the GOP House speaker. Licht slashed costs, laid off more than 300 employees, shut down CNN’s new streaming service, and canceled documentary programming such as Stanley Tucci’s popular Italy-based food show. Licht also fired journalists known for criticizing Republicans and Fox — notably Brian Stelter, John Harwood and Jeffrey Toobin — and launched a lighthearted morning show that, thus far, has been a ratings bust. Lemon was ousted in April after clashing with his co-hosts and angering co-workers. CNN’s rising star, Kaitlan Collins, has been named to fill the coveted 9 pm slot, and was chosen to interview Trump at a recent CNN town hall.

How did that go?

It was widely deemed a journalistic disaster. Though Collins asked tough, well-informed questions, Trump repeatedly steamrolled over her, reiterating falsehoods and calling her “a nasty person” as the MAGA-packed audience whooped in approval. Some of CNN’s journalists publicly criticized Licht for giving Trump the platform of a live broadcast. “It’s hard to see how America was served by the spectacle of lies that aired on CNN,” wrote media critic Oliver Darcy in a CNN newsletter that angered Licht. Anchor Christiane Amanpour slammed the event in a Columbia Journalism School commencement address, warning graduates against false equivalency. “Be truthful, but not neutral,” she said. Critics said the town hall’s lackluster ratings — 3.3 million viewers, fewer than the past six Trump town halls on Fox — underscored the utility of CNN trying to appeal to right-wing viewers. The interview also alienated its progressive viewers, with falling overall ratings. With morale at CNN reportedly at rock bottom, Licht further angered the staff by cooperating with an incendiary new profile in The Atlantic that depicted him as a Zaslav puppet on a failing mission.

How are CNN’s competitors doing?

Fox News continues to dominate prime time, averaging about 2.2 million viewers, double MSNBC’s audience and nearly four times CNN’s. All of the top news networks, including CNN, remain extremely profitable, thanks to lucrative licensing fees from cable operators. But the median cable news viewer is in his or her 60s, and the rise of “cord cutting” as Americans opt for streaming over cable has imperiled the network-news business model. When Trump was elected in 2016, more than 70% of US households with a TV had a cable or satellite subscription. That share has fallen to below 40%.

Do viewers trust CNN?

A YouGov/Economist poll found that 40% of Democratic viewers and only 15% of Republicans consider CNN trustworthy. Zaslav said he’s unfazed by the persistence of the partisan split, suggesting that CNN’s rebrand could take several years. But trust in the media in general is dropping amid intense partisan polarization and cultural conflict. A Reuters Institute report found that many people in the US are avoiding news entirely, with 29% of respondents saying “they often feel worn out by the news.” As Trump again seeks the 2024 GOP nomination, media critic Jay Rosen said CNN and other mainstream media outlets face a fundamental dilemma. “The press,” he said, “has to decide how to do journalism in the presence of a threat to the democracy that permits the journalism we do.”

Fox’s own troubles

Fox News’ dominance of conservative media is showing signs of slipping. The network agreed to pay Dominion Voting Systems $787 million in April in order to avoid an embarrassing defamation trial, but the lawsuit had already exposed that Fox knowingly spread falsehoods about the 2020 election, as well as plotted behind the scenes to skew coverage to benefit Republicans . Rupert Murdoch, chairman of Fox’s parent company, messaged Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott to suggest that host Sean Hannity say “something supportive” about Sen. Lindsey Graham (RS.C.) ahead of the 2020 election, explaining, “We cannot lose the Senate if at all possible.” Despite that blatant political bias, some right-wing viewers apparently have determined that Fox isn’t pro-Republican enough. Since popular conservative host Tucker Carlson was fired, reportedly for racist, misogynist and anti-management texts unearthed by the Dominion lawsuit, Fox’s ratings have plummeted, and hundreds of thousands of viewers appeared to be defecting to Newsmax. Fox’s ratings are down 24% compared with last year’s, and in the coveted age 25 to 54 demographic, the network’s ratings haven’t been this low since 2001. Newsmax pundit Andrew Napolitano, ousted by Fox in 2021 over a sexual harassment allegation, taunted Fox for firing its top-rated anchor. It’s “like the 1927 Yankees firing Babe Ruth for his table manners,” he said. “I don’t get it.”

This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazines. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues from the magazine here.

You may also like

How the Bible became a conservative book bans’ unintended target

Apple fixes its ‘ducking’ autocorrect problem

DOJ reportedly informs Trump he’s a target of criminal investigation, suggesting indictment

CNN in crisis
Scroll to top