The media and demagoguery

April 18, 2021

The ‘Trump bump’ allowed networks to position themselves as champions of truth, with click-bait headlines. Right or Left, the networks could appear both thoughtful and sensationalist, and revel in the rising ratings

As the ‘Trump bump’ has ended and the ratings for most major networks show a significant decline in viewership, US news outlets are seeking ways to maintain their relevance and revenues. The emerging modus operandi is to make the subject of a news cycle into a bad guy that the viewers can band against.

According to a report by Deadline, the viewership of all the news networks was down significantly for March, as compared to the same time last year. Fox News lost 34 percent of its prime-time viewers; CNN lost 37 percent and MSNBC lost 19 percent. It seems that these channels thrive not on the merit of truth, but on the value of enticement. They need a bête noire to bring in the viewers. If one were to identify the turning point – the day CNN started losing its viewers – one wouldn’t have to look back too far, nor think too hard.

While slumps in network ratings are not uncommon, Trump had raised the revenue streams for every major news network with his Twitter fingers. The media are now motivated not by being the so-called fourth branch of government, but by playing the role of an antagonist to the biggest story of the week simply to get views. Its integrity is potentially traded away for clicks, much like a YouTube vlogger.

Adam Chiara, a communications professor at the University of Hartford, has remarked that this trend is “not a new economic reality.” He believes that “we’ve seen this downtrend for years.” In an interview, Chiara said the Trump years gave a “temporary bump” to news organisations like The New York Times, which saw sharp gains in digital subscribers, and the CNN, which had a strong following during Trump’s presidency.

However, long-term projections show audiences moving towards online outlets; the young prefer to receive information from social media platforms as opposed to the traditional means. The stage is set for the decline of news networks, but they are rather tenacious, and intend to fight against a descent into obscurity and relic status.

From November 4, 2020 to January 20, 2021, CNN averaged 2.5 million primetime viewers daily. It had 1.6 million viewers on January 21 – the first day President Joe Biden was in office. CNN, one of the centre-left networks in America’s smorgasbord of information and fake news, certainly profited off the fact that they could lambast the most important man in the country regularly and their viewers would lap it up. Brian Stelter, the host of CNN’s Reliable Sources, was told by long-time broadcaster Ted Koppel, back in 2018, that the network’s ratings would be in the toilet without President Donald Trump. The man who managed to turn the “covfefe” typo into a bulletin item, and made every day into a 24-hours news cycle about his life, was the perfect villain in CNN’s story.

According to Nielsen Media Research, an American firm that measures media audiences and calculates ratings, CNN averaged 2.2 million total viewers per day, from December 28, 2020 to January 20, 2021, and saw a 48 percent decline after Trump left office. Their last bump might have been the Capitol riot. Of course, the viewer-based profit scheme of today’s hyper-partisan politics is not limited to the liberal media. Fox News, the marching band for Trump, has gotten the upper hand now.

In the first quarter of 2021, Fox News topped the primetime ratings with an average of 2.48 million viewers per day, according to Nielsen. Fox News led the primetime ratings in March, followed by MSNBC, with 1.8 million viewers per day, and CNN averaged 1.21 million. In the 25-54 demographic, Fox News had 375,000 viewers, followed by CNN, with 292,000, and MSNBC had 236,000. Every network is down, but that is to be expected. It’s not like the world is at the precipice of a pandemic that promises to only last two weeks if everyone stays inside; that was last year when lockdowns were new, and you could trick yourself into thinking that they felt like a vacation.

Now, there is a new Democrat president and Fox knows that’s good for business. Speaking at the Morgan Stanley TMT Conference in early March, Fox Corp CEO Lachlan Murdoch said, “the main beneficiary of the Trump administration, from a ratings point of view, was MSNBC. That’s because they were the loyal opposition… That’s what our job is now with the Biden administration. You’ll see our ratings improve,” he predicted.

It’s hard to say what’s more shocking to the average news consumer, the fact that these networks have known that they can benefit from opposing the man in charge, or that they are now so blatantly admitting it. There was a point when Fox claimed to be “fair and balanced”. It’s possible that no one but their most devout (and perhaps delusional) followers believed them, but at least they tried to appear honest.

While these networks are looking for new enemies, they not only plan to punch up at politicians, but they are also taking pot-shots at one another. Fox was quick to point out that after CNN lost a fair chunk of its viewership with the noisy death of Trump’s administration, they had to find something new to talk about. In the same conference where Murdoch declared Fox’s brand as anti-Democrat, Warner Media (CNN’s parent company) CEO Jason Kilar said that the pandemic was good for business. “It turns out that pandemic is a pretty big part of the news cycle, and that’s not going away anytime soon,” Fox quoted Kilar as saying, all but pointing out how lucky it was for CNN and Warner Media that they still have a deadly virus to fall back on, now that the political discourse is calmer.

“If you take a look at the ratings and the performance, it’s going well,” Kilar continued. “And I think it’s going well because, A, the team at CNN is doing a fantastic job, and B, it turns out that the pandemic and the way that we can help inform and contextualise the pandemic is really good for ratings.” Fox has said that they look forward to making Biden into the bad guy to enjoy the same ratings-bumps liberal networks had during the Trump administration, while CNN seems to be happy to take advantage of a devastating pandemic in the race for ratings.

These villains are not fixed in place, of course. Though Fox was Trump’s favourite news outlet for most of his term, he started showing his displeasure against the network during the 2020 elections. Although every network was doing well at the time, Fox seemed to be betting on the fact that making Trump the bad guy would boost their viewership, even if it was temporary. Fox News called Arizona for Joe Biden early, as the election results were coming in; competing cable news networks didn’t call the state until days later. It’s hard to say whether Trump pushed them to report against him, or if they actually believed in the accuracy of their call long before other networks did. The move was dicey. Even though it turned out to be correct, it threw a major wrench in Trump’s barely concealed plan to attempt to steal the election by prematurely declaring victory.

When the crows came home to roost, Fox’s ratings tanked in the fallout, and they needed to cater to their Trump-loving base more than they needed to report the facts. As burgeoning far-right networks like Newsmax and OAN were absorbing Fox’s lost viewers, the network redoubled its efforts to hold on to them and seemed willing to give its audience more conspiracy-theory based programming. In late January, the top-rated anchor on Fox News, Tucker Carlson, centred another Trumpist figure, Mike Lindell, and allowed him to push more conspiracies about voting machines. Lindell, whose company (MyPillow) is a major advertiser at Fox, is facing a defamation lawsuit for spreading fake news about the election, from voting-machine maker Dominion. His appearance on Carlson’s show was the start, perhaps, of making Biden Fox’s new villain.

Andrew Tyndall, who has written a newsletter tracking network news since 1987 (The Tyndall Report), said that the past few years of constant breaking news and massive audiences have misled media companies into believing that they could “appeal to everyone”. The ‘Trump bump’ allowed networks to position themselves as champions of truth, with click-bait headlines. Right or Left, the networks could appear both thoughtful and sensationalist, and revel in the rising ratings. There was a method to their madness – or rather, they came up with profitable ways to take advantage of the daily madness of Covid-19, a fraught election year and Trump’s antics. But, the perfect storm is over, and while some might be hopeful and predict a return to reasonable journalism in the future, it seems far more likely that networks will try to manipulate a new Trump-like figure into being, letting fear, uncertainty and hate drive up the ratings.

The writer is the author of a short story anthology, Encounters, and a screenwriter for the film Parchayee

The media and demagoguery