Record Ratings and Record Chaos on Cable News

By Ben Smith

Cable networks are facing threats, and opportunities, in a national crisis. Now, Fox is fighting back and CNBC is looking to the right. CNN is defined by Jeff Zucker, and he may run for mayor.

Tucker Carlson during a broadcast in the Fox newsroom in New York. He has denounced the protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis as “riots.”
Tucker Carlson during a broadcast in the Fox newsroom in New York. He has denounced the protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis as “riots.”Credit...Ryan Jenq for The New York Times

Last week, Fox News’s anchors competed for President Trump’s ear about the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Tucker Carlson denounced the unrest as “riots.” Sean Hannity unexpectedly took a civil rights angle, speaking “as a person that has now been trained in mixed martial arts for seven straight years” to cast doubt on Officer Derek Chauvin’s actions.

In the midnight hour on Friday, a rerun of Mr. Carlson’s show appears to have grabbed hold of the president’s brainstem, as Mr. Carlson intoned that “rioters are continuing to destroy one of this country’s great cities, unimpeded.” A little after 12:50 a.m., the show panned to a Minneapolis in flames, and at 12:53 a.m., Mr. Trump tweeted that he “can’t stand back & watch this happen.” He concluded, echoing an utterance in 1967 from a bigoted Miami police chief, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

If Twitter is the twisted heart of America’s public conversation, cable news is its aorta, carrying fear and anger, as the rapper and activist Killer Mike put it last week, into the body politic. The coronavirus pandemic and the new urban crisis have made it impossible to look away, and journalists have at times become targets for the police. In this extraordinary news moment, the primacy of this supposedly dying medium has never been clearer, its ratings higher than ever.

But behind the scenes, chaos and uncertainty are also reaching record highs. I spent last week speaking to homebound executives, producers and on-air talent at the three cable news networks and found them wrestling in wildly different ways with an exceptional news moment that does not fit into cable’s familiar boxes: the coronavirus story, the economic crisis, and the protests and fires in the streets of American cities.

ImageOmar Jimenez, a CNN correspondent, and his crew were arrested early Friday morning while giving a live television report from Minneapolis on protests over the death of George Floyd.
Omar Jimenez, a CNN correspondent, and his crew were arrested early Friday morning while giving a live television report from Minneapolis on protests over the death of George Floyd.Credit...CNN

The power, and the stress, are clearest at Fox News, by far the most-watched American news channel but one that has been in a rolling corporate crisis since its founder, Roger Ailes, was forced to resign amid sexual harassment allegations almost four years ago. Fox News now occupies a strange position in a shrunken Fox Corporation, whose chairman, Lachlan Murdoch, has sought to pull off an acrobatic feat: collect the abundant profits from the channel while skirting the blame for its missteps in the early days of the pandemic.

Quietly, Mr. Murdoch and his main deputy Viet Dinh, a former Bush administration official, have begun taking a more aggressive approach. Last summer, they hired Raj Shah, a former Trump White House official who led opposition research against Hillary Clinton at the Republican National Committee. And this year, I recently learned, Mr. Shah has begun to build a secret operation, hiring two former reporters for the conservative Washington Free Beacon, Elliott Schwartz and Alex Griswold. (Mr. Schwartz had also run Jeb Bush’s campaign “war room.”) Their job is to defend Fox from criticism from progressive outlets like Media Matters and Sleeping Giants on social media, protect advertising dollars and discredit critics, three people familiar with the work said. (The two former reporters have conspicuously omitted Fox from their Twitter bios.)

The team has also pushed the narrative that the rest of the media played down the threat of coronavirus as egregiously as Fox did, two journalists who have spoken to them said. A Fox spokeswoman, Megan Klein, declined to comment on the new operation. Mr. Griswold said “no comment” and hung up on me before I could ask him a question, and Mr. Schwartz didn’t respond to a request for comment. A spokeswoman for Fox News, Irena Briganti, said the chief executive, Suzanne Scott, wouldn’t be available for an interview.

Fox shifted over the weekend into round-the-clock protest coverage. But Mr. Shah’s new team suggests that the criticism of its coronavirus coverage has stung hosts and alienated advertisers. But it also seems a kind of ineffectual, corporate re-enactment of Mr. Ailes’s once-feared opposition-research tactics, which included private detectives, aggressive hunts for leaks and smear campaigns against reporters. The new Fox executive team shares Mr. Ailes’s ambitions, but doesn’t seem to have the stomach for his tactics.

MSNBC has been scrambling in a different way. The channel thrived from 2017 until earlier this year, lifted by its nonstop coverage of the Trump-Russia story and the story’s denouement in impeachment. It signed up former spies and prosecutors as contributors, and dangled the hope that Robert Mueller would end Mr. Trump’s presidency. But the Russia show came to a disappointing conclusion for its audience with Mr. Trump’s acquittal on Feb. 5, and ratings plummeted.

“We didn’t lose viewers,” MSNBC’s president, Phil Griffin, insisted in an interview. “They may have taken a few days off from watching out of, ‘Oh boy, I’ve got to regroup.’”

MSNBC’s audience numbers did rebound with the coronavirus story, but the network’s DNA is politics, and Covid-19 is not at its heart a political story. Rachel Maddow, the network’s star, saw her audience in the 25-to-54 demographic, the one most prized by advertisers, fall below CNN’s Chris Cuomo for the first time.

“We’re using the same muscles that we use to cover politics covering this pandemic and how the country’s reacting,” Mr. Griffin said.

Cesar Conde, the new chairman of NBCUniversal’s news group, who came from Telemundo.Credit...Jesus Aranguren/Associated Press

Behind the scenes, NBC’s corporate dramas continue to unsettle its scattered staff. The new chairman of NBCUniversal’s news group, Cesar Conde, hasn’t described his vision for news. He made his name with an insufficiently covered television coup, Telemundo’s rise against Univision on the back of sexy “narconovelas.” Now, news executives — Mr. Griffin; the NBC News president, Noah Oppenheim, who was conspicuously passed over for the top job; and the senior vice president, Rashida Jones — are waiting to learn what his plan is, and whom Mr. Conde will elevate to carry it out. While they wait, they sought to impose a 3 percent salary cut on the remaining contracts of NBC’s producers and stars, only to face a revolt from the nation’s restive talent agents. They settled for a voluntary 3 percent reduction that its journalists can reverse at any time.

Mr. Conde’s boss, the new NBCUniversal chief executive, Jeff Shell, has suggested in private conversation that he wants to make a more dramatic change at the company’s other cable news network, CNBC, two NBCUniversal executives said. Mr. Shell, the two executives said, is considering turning the network’s prime-time hours, currently occupied by “Shark Tank” reruns and business-focused reality programming like “The Profit,” over to right-wing talk shows. A similar plan was floated years ago — a development executive even met with the talk-radio flamethrower Mark Levin, a CNBC executive said. But it could allow Comcast to extend an olive branch to Mr. Trump and his avid supporters.

CNN once positioned itself between MSNBC and Fox on the political spectrum. But during Mr. Trump’s tenure, the network concluded that there was no profitable middle ground with a president who seeks confrontation with the media. The channel adopted an increasingly political focus, hosting dozens of Democratic primary town halls and debates. It also competes more directly with MSNBC than ever before for audience, offering Don Lemon and Mr. Cuomo as a more emotional, less cerebral alternative to Chris Hayes and Ms. Maddow.

And as much as MSNBC seemed thrown off by the coronavirus, CNN was ready, flexing its still-supple muscles for covering all-consuming news stories. Now it focuses primarily on the coronavirus, interlaced with impassioned and often viral monologues denouncing President Trump.

CNN remains a network identified with and defined by one man, Jeff Zucker, the chairman for news and sports at WarnerMedia as well as CNN’s president since 2013. He runs the 9 a.m. news calls, and his refrain has been to stay on the coronavirus. His fingerprints are all over the programming, and CNN’s confidence tackling the dangerous, physical scrum of breaking news paid off in its vivid coverage of Mr. Floyd’s death and the aftermath. He has been telling his staff for months that the pandemic is the central story, and he told me he anticipated it to dominate the rest of the year.

“Between now and November, there’s no chance it’s a normal political year,” he said in a telephone interview on Thursday. “That’s just not conceivable between now and the end of the year.” And while the network is now focused intensely on the crisis in America’s cities, coronavirus “is still the principal story of our time,” he said.

Lurking in the background for all the networks, though, is the question: How long can this last? Cable news appeared, like much of linear television, to be in terminal decline before Donald Trump turned it into the greatest, most terrifying show on earth.

CNN, the original cable news network that turns 40 on Monday, is at the heart of that question. Its commitment to on-the-scene reporting produced the riveting coverage, and arrest, of its correspondent Omar Jimenez on Friday morning. Its iconic status drew protesters on Friday night to its Atlanta headquarters, where they vandalized its globally recognized logo and defaced the building, putting CNN where it has often found itself in the Zucker years — right in the center of the story.

“They are telling our stories, and you are disgracing their building,” Atlanta’s mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, told demonstrators. But Killer Mike, whose real name is Michael Render, spoke for a nation exhausted by the endless adrenaline shots of news and conflict when he told the network to “stop feeding fear and anger every day. Stop making people feel so fearful. Give them hope.” A CNN spokeswoman declined to respond to his comments.

Mr. Zucker, the signature television executive of the Trump era, has more than anyone shaped that always-on, always-breaking, hyper-charged way that news — including politics — is covered nowadays. He has always been a hands-on leader. But now it seems Mr. Zucker may want to drive events even more directly.

Four years ago, he told me he was considering a future in politics. On Thursday, I asked him whether he was interested in the most obvious role, which will be open next year in a city aching for leadership: mayor of New York.

He paused, and said he didn’t want his answer to cause a storm of news.

Then, he said, “New York City is going to need a very strong mayor in the aftermath of this, and I always like a challenge.”