Trump and CNN: US President and TV network at loggerheads

US President Donald Trump returns to the White House on July 26, 2018.
US President Donald Trump returns to the White House on July 26, 2018.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

NEW YORK (AFP) - US President Donald Trump has been at frequent loggerheads with CNN since taking office, but their feud has become increasingly bitter as the channel's acerbic White House coverage fuels a boom in viewers.

From reportedly raging that CNN was on the first lady's television set, to refusing to take questions from the network, to the White House barring one of its reporters from a press event: the Trump-CNN relationship is toxic.

"Donald Trump is doing what conservative politicians have been doing for a long time but which he is taking to a new level - to use the press as a punching bag, and this plays very well with the conservative base," said Robert Jensen, who is retiring this fall as journalism professor at the University of Texas.

CNN's stated commitment to uncovering the truth, its household-name status and robust coverage of crises in the administration, broadcasting damaging headlines around the clock, have been a huge thorn in the president's side.

Fact-based reporting aside, eyebrows have been raised over the subjective nature of some of the commentary from its anchors, celebrities in their own right with a powerful following and multi-million-dollar contracts.

Earlier this month, Anderson Cooper called Trump's press conference with Vladimir Putin "perhaps one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president".

In January, his colleague Don Lemon called Trump a "racist."

 
 

"I think such comments by news people - as distinguished from commentators - are a mistake," says Paul Janensch, a former newspaper editor who taught journalism at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.

"If I were running CNN, I would tell the news professionals to stick to the facts and avoid making disparaging comments about Trump," he told AFP.

The network has recently promoted to prime-time Chris Cuomo, brother of Democratic New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and the anchor who this week broadcast a taped conversation involving Trump and his former personal lawyer.

"There is that sense that CNN could be being watched by people who may be more undecided, still open to having their opinions and ideas shaped by the reporting," says Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture.

"It's still kind of doing the old- fashioned notion of reporter with some kind of objectivity... and I think that drives the president absolutely crazy," added Thompson, from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.

The Republican leader has long had a contentious relationship with the media, branding mainstream outlets an "enemy of the American People" and dismissing unfavorable coverage as "Fake News".

But while Trump has railed against The New York Times, he has continued to speak to its reporters. He has not granted CNN an interview since he took office.

"CNN is fake news, I don't take questions from CNN," the president snapped during a press conference in Britain earlier this month.

The Times reported that Trump "raged" at staff after his wife Melania's television on board Air Force One was tuned to CNN, not Fox.

On Wednesday, the White House barred a CNN reporter from attending an event with the president, allegedly for asking "inappropriate" questions that officials objected to earlier in the day.

Yet others see no rational explanation for the extent of the president's ire. CNN is only the third-most watched cable news network, lagging behind Trump favourite, Fox News in first place and MSNBC, a bastion of liberal opposition.

CNN president Jeff Zucker was previously at NBC Universal, the man who green-lighted reality show "The Apprentice" that turned Trump into a household name, ultimately paving the way for his successful run as president.

In the summer of 2015, when Trump announced his candidacy for president, CNN was criticised for airing his early rallies in full and unedited, as the New York real-estate tycoon leap-frogged to the front of a crowded Republican field.

Yet CNN, like other US media, has received a shot in the arm by the Trump administration. According to Nielsen data, the channel has just closed out its third-best second quarter since 1996.

"If anything, his CNN obsession is increasing CNN's profile," says Edward Burmila, who teaches political science at Bradley University in Illinois.

"Any media outlet attracting that much anger from the White House is likely to gain something in terms of reputation in the industry." But whether CNN succeeds in treading a middle ground depends on who you ask, he told AFP.

"Liberals tend to think CNN is bland and inoffensive. Conservatives think it's communist propaganda."