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PAPER CNN lost its way in struggle to find an audience

Issued: 2018-03-30

CNN got a rare prime-time ratings win recently in the coveted 25- to 54-year-old demographic. Of course, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper had to interview Playboy playmate Karen McDougal for an hour to get the ratings boost, but a win is a win. Cooper’s intense questioning detailed the playmate’s alleged affair with Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpConservative lawmakers keep up calls for second special counsel GOP chairmen: Sessions move to probe alleged FISA abuse 'a step in the right direction' Shulkin: Trump didn't mention I would be fired on phone call MORE from multiple angles. CNN hyped the model’s “first time on TV” interview, pointing out the “bombshell allegations.”

CNN has continued the coverage of Trump’s alleged escapades with saturation coverage of porn actress Stormy Daniels’s weekend interview on CBS. Cooper did that interview, too, as he seeks to corner the market on interviewing shapely women who have been friendly with Trump. Cooper appears to know well how to ask tough questions about sexual affairs. Nobody will ever rate these interviews, however, in the same category as CBS reporter Daniel Schorr’s cold war interview with Soviet strongman, Nikita Khrushchev.

There might well be journalism to be had in the sagas of McDougal and Daniels, but CNN has found little of it. At some point, the sensational must lead to news of substance. A journalistic conclusion that Trump is a cad hardly moves the “this is news” needle on the public barometer.

CNN’s warped obsession with reporting about supposed adultery demonstrates a larger problem at the once-proud and groundbreaking channel. CNN’s focus is not on news, but on distracting itself and the nation’s news consumers with peripheral and sensation gibberish that fails to enhance the national dialogue. In the run-up and aftermath to the recently passed government spending bill, CNN mentioned McDougal and Daniels more than three times as often as the spending bill. The spending bill, of course, isn’t photogenic, but it impacts citizens way more than a playmate model.

Even with the occasional ratings bump created by frenzied coverage of adulterous romps, CNN struggles to find an audience. Cooper normally gathers just over a million viewers per night for his two-hour prime-time show. That’s almost a half-million viewers fewer than disgraced anchor Brian Williams can generate for his 11 p.m. newscast on location from Siberia on MSNBC.

CNN wants to be “the most trusted name in news,” and likes to suggest it is on the objective, high road compared to more partisan competitors at MSNBC and Fox News Channel. News consumers who are political moderates or right-leaning, however, have a hard time buying that promotional line. CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta is working hard to be the Trump administration’s harshest antagonist. CNN provided massive airtime and follow-up analysis to former Trump campaign aide Sam Nunberg in early March. Almost three-fourths of CNN’s time over an eight hour period focused on Nunberg, who has since drifted into insignificance.

CNN President Jeff Zucker blasted Fox News recently at a journalism conference in New York, calling his cable nemesis “a pure propaganda machine.” Fox News’s prime-time programming is no doubt opinion driven and broadly defends the White House, but Zucker’s ratings envy rant overlooks solid journalism being done at Fox by anchor/reporters such as Bret Baier, Shannon Bream, Shepherd Smith and others. Zucker would make better use of his time focusing on the content of his own channel.

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