With collapsing ratings, dwindling credibility and looming questions over its very future, the last twelve months at CNN have provided a case study in unintended consequences. Which fire should the beleaguered news network put out first? Is it even trying to save itself?
Newly added to the long list of CNN President Jeff Zucker’s nightmares is a shocking ethics breach involving primetime anchor Chris Cuomo, brother of embattled Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-NY). After disturbing revelations that the former participated in emergency strategy sessions designed to save the latter’s sinking political career, Zucker declined to punish his line-crossing on-air talent.
In addition to historic mismanagement during the early days of the COVID crisis, where 6,300 patients were inexplicably sent to infect many more vulnerable seniors inside New York nursing homes, more than a half-dozen women have accused Andrew Cuomo of making unwanted advances and broader sexual harassment claims.
Instead of suspending or terminating Chris Cuomo, Zucker allowed the host to simply apologize and then produced a shiny diversion, the abrupt termination of on-air contributor Rick Santorum. A former Republican senator from Pennsylvania, Santorum had served as a token “conservative” and ran afoul of leftist critics over an April speech that seemed to suggest European settlers encountered a nearly-empty landscape upon arrival in seventeenth-century America.
Unlike the ongoing Cuomo catastrophe, where bombshell revelations unravel the family’s carefully-crafted narrative almost daily, the month-old Santorum kerfuffle generated little national attention and had largely been forgotten.
Quoting anonymous insiders, the Daily Beast has found female staffers uneasy with the continued presence of an unscathed Chris Cuomo inside the building. “As a woman who works here, I feel a little let down, to be honest,” one unnamed staffer is said to have told the publication.
CNN’s greatest vulnerability in this fiasco may have been set up by another on-air personality, media critic Brian Stelter. The oddball host of Reliable Sources routinely pounces on other media outlets for perceived conflicts of interest, including calling conservative outlets “state-run media” during the Trump Administration.
Faced with circumstances even remotely similar, Stelter routinely demands repercussions for alleged transgressions and pontificates endlessly about their “threat to journalism”.
When it comes to CNN and Cuomo however, CNN’s own “reliable sources” have reported the glaring ethical conflict as a straight news story. Simply tweeting out apologies and moving on, it has refrained from providing analysis on the internal crisis.
If a media watchdog isn’t holding its own network accountable, then what is the point of his existence? Amid this ethics and public relations debacle, Stelter curiously sees nothing to analyze, no need to demand repercussions for bad actions and believes tweeting out an apology from the offender is good enough to restore trust in CNN.
One fascinating question is whether diminished credibility directly leads to a loss of audience. Do loyal viewers stick with a network they no longer trust?
With Chris occupying a key primetime slot, CNN is in deep trouble, as overall ratings are in the toilet. Critics now gleefully rattle off numbers that sound like sinking sales figures for Sears and Kmart over the past ten years.
Just since January, its overall audience has declined a shocking 65%, while in the key 25-54 demographic, it’s even worse, down 71%. And the bleeding shows no sign of containment, with Nielsen reporting a 14% week-over-week primetime drop for the period ending May 17.
This makes cable news now largely a battle between Fox News Channel and MSNBC, as CNN is reduced to irrelevant background noise. While those rank first and second in primetime among all cable networks, the latter now trails even the Home and Garden Network.
Strangely, much of the reporting staff seems in on this peculiar obsession with the Cuomos. Tuesday evening, for example, the network’s Chris Cillizza took to Twitter to crow over new poll numbers from Sienna College that “continue to look decent”. An accompanying story proclaimed that a supposedly resurgent “Andrew Cuomo just might win again”.
The biggest head-scratcher is why CNN seems willing to stake its entire future on an all-out defense of two brothers who have limited career potential, at best. Partisan loyalty alone doesn’t explain it. Ratings, revenue, credibility and reputation all take a back seat to the ceaseless promotion of Chris and Andrew Cuomo. When the pink slips inevitably land on desks, will it have been worth it?
It seems notable that MSNBC has chosen a different path, remaining steadfastly leftist without sacrificing the majority of its audience.
For the moment, the best CNN suits can hope for is a quiet holiday weekend free of fresh revelations about one very troubled family with which it seems perpetually entangled. We may never know what drives management’s bizarre decision-making.
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