The ground under the 24/7 news channels is shifting like never before
After a surprise-filled mid-term election, CNN is moving to the right and FOX News is moving away from Trump. What’s going on? What about the other channels? Center Director Jeffrey Cole digs into big changes in cable news.
By Jeffrey Cole
What a roller coaster!
Last week began with us expecting, as history shows almost always happens, the party in power to lose a large number of seats in the midterm elections. The only question—in an overused metaphor—was whether it would be a red wave or a red tsunami. Even worse was the fear that democracy would unravel as “don’t confuse me with the facts” election deniers and ignorant candidates won their elections.
The week finished on a different note. Although troubled by inflation and crime, Americans could see past these transitory issues and voted to protect our constitutional democracy. As a nation we might not know much about civics, but we can discern a real threat when it is upon us.
The ground has shifted in our politics as the Republican party debates its future direction. At the same time, the Democrats are mulling over whether to retire their leader: a surprisingly successful President who is also now the oldest man ever to occupy the White House. If re-elected, at the end of his second term Joe Biden would smash the record by eight years.
It is not just the ground under the political parties that has shifted.
An earthquake of change has already begun in the 24/7 cable news channels that add so much oxygen to our partisan national debate. There has not been so much change and turmoil in cable news since Ted Turner created the concept with CNN forty years ago.
Since 1982, CNN has been joined by Fox News, MSNBC, OAN, Newsmax, and (most recently) NewsNation.
All but one of the around-the-clock services are experiencing structural change. Well before the next election (2024), they may bear little resemblance to how they look today. A few of them may not be around at all.
All this is happening at once.
Let’s start by examining those news networks whose foundations are shaking.
The Cable News Network began as a slightly left-of-center news operation reflecting Turner’s internationalist world view. Although ridiculed by the established press at the time as the “Chicken Noodle Network,” viewers liked being able to get hard news whenever they wanted. It quickly grew into a successful challenger to the broadcast networks. Importantly, it demonstrated to Rupert Murdoch there was money to be made in cable news. Gradually, CNN shifted more to the left (although not too far).
In the 1990s, Turner sold his media empire to Time-Warner where it later became part of disastrous mergers with AOL in 2000 and AT&T 18 years later. The giant telco finally learned what we all knew years earlier: telephone companies and media companies don’t mix. AT&T spun Warner off to another new company—Warner Bros. Discovery—that combined Warner Media and Discovery Channels under the latter’s CEO, David Zaslav.
Warner Bros. Discovery is CNN’s fourth owner in 25 years.
Zaslav inherited over $50 billion of debt. He was determined to do something about it. His first action was to kill in the cradle CNN+, the network’s effort to move into streaming by adding a + to its name. Despite bringing in well known and expensive talent like Chris Wallace and Kasie Hunt, CNN+ was dead one month after its launch.
Now, Zaslav is determined to increase CNN’s profitability by moving the news operation toward the middle. Some say John Malone, the conservative cable pioneer who is one of the powers behind the scenes at Warner Bros. Discovery, is pushing CNN past the middle and closer to the right.
One of the first casualties of the shift in orientation was Brian Stelter and his show covering developments in media, Reliable Sources. A frequent target of conservatives and their media, Stelter, had he not lost his job, would have been certain to carefully cover CNN’s rightward shift. Anchorman Don Lemon, another thorn in the side of the right, was moved out of prime time into mornings on CNN. More moves and firings among some of CNN’s best known and liberal reporters are rumored.
What will CNN’s viewers make of this shift? Will they go along with these changes and adapt? Or will they feel disoriented? Will the more conservative viewers make the move to Fox (a narrower gap than ever) while the more liberal move in the other direction to MSNBC?
There is a significant risk for CNN.
An earthquake of change has already begun in the 24/7 cable news channels that add so much oxygen to our partisan national debate. There has not been so much change and turmoil in cable news since Ted Turner created the concept with CNN forty years ago. Since 1982, CNN has been joined by Fox News, MSNBC, OAN, Newsmax, and (most recently) NewsNation. All but one of the around-the-clock services are experiencing structural change. Well before the next election (2024), they may bear little resemblance to how they look today. A few of them may not be around at all. All this is happening at once.
Rupert Murdoch has dedicated his life, all 91 years of it, to news, mostly newspapers. CNN showed Murdoch there was an audience interested in 24 hours news and that such a format offered great economies of scale.
Upon its founding in 1996, FOX News took a swipe at CNN by promising it’s programs would be “fair and balanced.” The truth went downhill from there.
Murdoch and his news architect, Roger Ailes, carved out the conservative side of the political spectrum. This was a smart business move (and consistent with Murdoch’s own leanings). That side of the political spectrum was available: whatever CNN was, it was not conservative.
FOX News became a dependable champion of George W. Bush and an even more reliable opponent of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden.
The emergence of Donald Trump represented a dilemma for FOX News.
Murdoch would have been far more comfortable with Jeb Bush or another establishment Republican. (He recently put former House Speaker, Paul Ryan, on his board). Ailes was an admirer and friend of Trump and pushed him on his boss. Watching Trump’s takeover of the Republican party forced Murdoch to go along. Fox News’ morning shows and its best-known commentators became part of Trump’s cheering squad. Sean Hannity even came to the Trump rallies—not as a reporter but as a supporter. So much for fair and balanced.
In retrospect, it is now clear that Murdoch never liked Trump. Murdoch only supported him because it was good business and brought Trump’s fanatical base to the network.
By the 2020 election, Murdoch was ready to move on. FOX News infuriated Trump by calling Arizona for Biden long before anyone else. Even the intervention of Jared Kushner couldn’t sway FOX News. Four days later they declared Biden the president-elect. FOX News was moving past Trump.
The FOX News audience was confused (this is a warning to CNN about confounding the audience); many left for the more conservative channels. Murdoch was ready to change FOX News based on principal… until it cost him his audience and revenues. Fox News quickly reverted to the defeated president and his baseless election conspiracy theories.
Trump got close to two more years of sycophancy from FOX News, but this took a toll on Murdoch’s psyche.
Leading up to the 2022 midterms, it became clear that Fox and the Murdochs were ready to abandon Trump once and for all. Murdoch was convinced Trump was staining the Republican brand, and he had a new love: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
DeSantis’s 20-point victory for re-election, coupled with his ability to transform Florida from a swing state to a Republican stronghold, was what it took to end the FOX News six-year infatuation with Donald Trump.
Murdoch made the break so clean, reconciliation is no longer possible. His newspapers and FOX News blamed Trump for the massive defeats in the midterms. In chorus, they called Trump, “the big loser.”
Like CNN, FOX’s audience is also finding the political shifts of their owners jarring. Murdoch has bet that the Trump show is over and that he has a new star. Will FOX News keep the Trump base? Or will the MAGA loyalists rebel and move elsewhere.
Warner Bros. Discovery hopes they might move to CNN, which is optimistic.
Both of these 24/7 giants have made momentous changes in a very short period. Will they survive, thrive, or become irrelevant?
And what of the others? Of MSNBC, Newsmax, OAN and News Nation, one will soon be gone, one has to get people to know they are there, one is happy right where it is, and one has a chance to benefit from all the turmoil in the news war, which I’ll dig into next time.
Jeffrey Cole is the founder and director of The Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg.
See all columns from the center.
November 16, 2022