By: Twumasi Duah-Mensah
“BREAKING NEWS,” started the TV headline, “TRUMP: IF HOUSE INVESTIGATES ME, WE WON’T COLLABORATE ON DEALS.”
This was supposed to be the important news that CNN was highlighting. Democrats had just been projected to take the House of Representatives, allowing them to formally investigate President Donald Trump.
This was supposed to be the news that President Trump was reacting to on CNN’s live broadcast. And he did. But his message of warning to Democrats that try to investigate him fell upon deaf ears and shut eyes.
Instead, what happened next stole the attention of America.
Jim Acosta, CNN’s Chief White House correspondent, began by challenging Trump on comments he made at the very end of the midterm campaigns. “Here we go,” bemoaned the President, anticipating yet another spat with the reporter.
Acosta believed that Trump was wrong about characterizing the widely-reported migrant caravan as an invasion. He asked why Trump labelled it as such. To neutralize what he perceived as an attack, Trump interrupted and bluntly replied the obvious: “Because I consider it to be an invasion. You and I have a difference of opinion.”
Several back and forths later—beginning with Acosta asking a question and ending with Trump shutting the question down with a quick response—the President brings the hammer down on Acosta. Or so he thought.
“Honestly, I think you should let me run the country, and you run CNN, and if you did it well, your ratings would be better,” Trump brutally jabbed.
Acosta, however, would not be deterred.
Enter a White House intern. During press conferences, she normally is responsible for switching the microphone over to other journalists for further questions. But this is no normal press conference.
This poor young lady gets caught in the crossfire between the two men. She tries to get the mic from Acosta, but to no avail, as the 47-year-old clutches the mic with his two hands. “Pardon me, ma’am,” says Acosta to the intern. He was on a mission.
“That’s enough,” repeats Trump, hoping that his rather moderate and optimistic response on the migrant caravan would make the headlines. It didn’t. Instead, Acosta’s continued attempts to challenge the President would run away with the primetime TV time slots. As for Trump’s answers to Acosta’s questions? We’re out of time, a news anchor would say.
Instead of a conversation on immigration, it was CNN and a discussion on the freedom of the press that would dominate the news cycle, especially after the White House revoked Acosta’s press pass, followed by CNN suing the President and five others.
Now, if you’re somewhat politically inclined, you might be thinking, “Acosta was so rude to not hand the mic over! Disgusting!” Or maybe you side with Acosta in this case. “This is just another attack by Trump on our first amendment rights!” you say. Both of these *hot takes* miss the bigger picture. In reality, Trump benefits, and CNN benefits.
How?! Yeah, I know; when I first saw the video of the two, all I saw was yet more hilarious absurdity, courtesy of modern-day American politics. But then, I thought back to last year when the two men were at it again. Another back-and-forth between the two culminated with Trump pointing to Acosta in a rather biblical fashion and declaring: “You are fake news.”
I then realized that this particular encounter was the same record on repeat.
Let’s start with CNN. The Cable News Network, debuting in 1980, was well-renowned for its live broadcasts and objective analyses. By the late 1990s, however, it had lost its grip on the live television news industry. FOX News swooped in, capitalizing on the amount of conservatives who watched TV. Then came MSNBC, who didn’t have the same reach as FOX, but seized on the liberals who watched CNN but were dissatisfied by its lack of hard-hitting opinions.
By the 2010s, CNN was at a crossroads. In the digital age where media networks succeeded by providing bite-sized, shocking news in multiple forms of media, the once well-respected news network had become too boring. If MSNBC and FOX were the first people to the dinner table, CNN would be the person who napped too long and was left with the few leftovers.
Then came Jeff Zucker.
Zucker was an accomplished CEO in the media industry, having become executive producer of NBC’s “Today” show at just 26 years old. He was brought in as President of CNN in 2013 because of his unique aptitude for marketing and creating great shock value to increase ratings. Zucker was exactly the CEO that CNN needed for the modern age.
At first, though, Zucker’s experiments were not working at all. CNN was criticized for its inability to judge what was news and what wasn’t. For example, according to the New York Times,
“In 2015, Jon Stewart devoted a large part of “The Daily Show” to mocking CNN for broadcasting the White House Correspondents Dinner rather than covering the protests after a black man, Freddie Gray, died in the custody of the Baltimore Police.”
Zucker was very, very limited in the news that he could cover to set CNN apart. All of a sudden, there came some loudmouth Republican candidate who broke the news cycle. His name was Donald J. Trump.
Yes, Trump made people pay attention to all news outlets more, as our collective conscious secretly craved the details of whatever shocking thing Trump had said on the campaign trail. But CNN was able to take that spike and run with it. Instead of merely covering the outlandish comments of the rambunctious presidential candidate, CNN became a main character in the political drama that is the Donald Trump experience.
CNN’s anchors and writers became, depending on how you look at it, the heroes or villains of the country. Don Lemon’s leftist takes became indispensable to the new brand. Anderson Cooper was converted almost overnight from a boring news anchor to the face of a crusade for truth. Chris Cuomo rose from out of nowhere to become the last of the three heads to complete the Cerberus that is CNN Primetime.
On the digital side of things, writers like Chris Cillizza and Andrew Kaczynski have caught some huge scoops, further advancing CNN into the public’s conscious. As a result of CNN constantly generating buzz, it had become the #1 digital news source with 122 million unique visitors in January of 2018, dwarfing Yahoo News and Fox News by 24 million and 30 million visitors, respectively.
Sure, in terms of TV ratings, it’s losing ground to MSNBC and getting killed by Fox News. But it still:
- Had its most profitable year in 2016 .
- Is seriously outperforming media outlets that are almost completely digital at their own game.
- Doing both of these things while sustaining its cable TV branch.
From Jim Acosta’s constant spats to endless coverage of the Russia investigation, CNN has become a crucial part of the conversation on the freedom of the press, Trump’s attacks on the press, and the overall Trump administration chaos. You could say that CNN depends financially on the insanity that Acosta incited during press conferences and HAD to sue the Trump administration.
And that’s where the benefits for Trump begin.
Remember when I said Jeff Zucker had a great aptitude for shock value? Well, he sometimes goes, for better or for worse, very far in this approach. There’s a whole Wikipedia page for CNN’s controversies, and most of them come from the Zucker era (since 2013). CNN has an exhaustive list of retracted stories, as the outlet has sometimes forgotten the journalistic aspect of reporting in the pursuit of generating buzz.
This gives a bunch of fuel to Trump’s campaign to discredit the mainstream media. Discrediting media that doesn’t favor your agenda is important to any political movement, but not many have been as explicit in their attack as Trump. Redirecting credibility to news outlets he favors (such as Fox News, Breitbart, One America News, Infowars, etc.) is the ultimate goal, and CNN’s new approach gives him the ability to do that.
Keep in mind, though, that in return, CNN gets another storyline that fuels their intriguing narrative as the enemies of the President. “TRUMP CALLS CNN FAKE NEWS…AGAIN,” reads a hypothetical headline as Anderson Cooper, Chris Cuomo, or Don Lemon refutes the President’s claims that they are deliberately misinforming the American people.
This is the symbiotic cycle that serves the goals of both sides. CNN gets more buzz and advertising money, and Trump fulfills his political goals by discrediting a major media source that doesn’t align with his agenda.
So the next time you see Trump and Acosta at war for the umpteenth time, remember that, in reality, if they weren’t butting heads all the time, one would have a much less effective political agenda, while the other would be a once-relevant, flailing news organization.