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Trump & CNN: Case History of an Unhealthy Codependency

Sean Rayford/Getty Images
People shouting behind CNN reporter Jim Acosta before a Trump rally, West Columbia, South Carolina, June 25, 2018

At nearly every Trump rally prior to the midterm elections, the chant went up: “CNN sucks.” To journalists, the cry had an ominous ring, amplified as it was by Trump’s repeated references to fake news and his description of journalists as the enemy of the people. The delivery of a pipe bomb in late October to CNN’s headquarters in New York confirmed the sense among journalists that they were under siege.

But is there any truth to the claim of CNN’s failings? Even at a time of such anti-press animus, it’s important to assess the fairness of the network’s coverage. From the moment Trump announced his candidacy in 2015, CNN President Jeff Zucker has made him the centerpiece of the network’s journalism—as well as its business model. On the latter, the strategy has been a grand success; according to a recent article in Vanity Fair (“Inside the Trump Gold Rush at CNN”), the network in 2018 expects to turn a profit of $1.2 billion on $2.5 billion in revenues, making it CNN’s most profitable year ever.

But what about its journalism? Much rides on the answer, for the network has become Exhibit A in the case of Trump supporters that the press is hopelessly biased against them. To assess CNN’s coverage, I regularly tuned into it in the days leading up to the elections. It was not a pretty picture.

Thursday, November 1, was representative of its problems. The day’s big story was Trump’s dark warnings about the migrant caravan making its way through Mexico to the US border. “A new low for Trump,” afternoon anchor Brooke Baldwin said of a new Trump ad that blamed Democrats for allowing an undocumented immigrant who had murdered two police officers to remain in the United States. For commentary, Baldwin turned to Valerie Jarrett, the former adviser to President Obama. Why her, I thought. Wouldn’t she be predictably opposed to Trump? She indeed was, calling the ad “a sad page from an old playbook called fearmongering 101.” Baldwin wondered why Trump’s supporters embraced “his lies.” Jarrett said she could offer no insight on that but did note her belief that it was important for our leaders to be “role models,” because “young people are watching.” What banality.

That evening, on Anderson Cooper’s show, the caravan remained the main focus. Earlier in the day, Trump, in a speech at the White House, had announced new measures aimed at stemming illegal immigration. “As he so often does,” Cooper said, the president “uttered a string of untruths.” For elaboration, he interviewed Ralph Peters, a retired lieutenant colonel. Peters had been an analyst on Fox News for years, routinely denouncing Obama and everyone associated with him. Disgusted by Trump, he left Fox in March 2018 and had since appeared frequently on CNN, directing at the president the same vitriol he had formerly heaped on Obama. The day’s events had been really difficult for him, Peters said, “because I want to take the president of the United States seriously, but he manages to be at once an embarrassing fool and an insidious menace.” He was an “un-American American president” who had made “absolutely repulsive, repugnant attacks on America.” When Cooper asked about Trump’s plan to send troops to the border, Peters dismissed him as a draft-dodger. I was puzzled why CNN was giving this marginal figure so much air time.

Next up was Jorge Ramos. The Univision anchor is a well-known critic of the president—in August 2015, he was ejected from a press conference after engaging in a testy exchange with Trump over his immigration policy, which he called “full of empty promises.” The previous week, Ramos had spent two days reporting on the caravan for CNN. Trump, Cooper said, continued to paint the caravan as an invasion when in fact it was a thousand miles from the border; nonetheless, “the president keeps peddling this lie.” Did Ramos agree? Yes, he said, it was a lie. In his time with the caravan he had seen not terrorists or criminals but young kids fleeing poverty and gangs. For several minutes the interview went on in this vein, with Cooper and Ramos jointly dissecting the president’s claims.

Given how bloated those claims were, it was certainly useful to have them punctured, but the amount of time CNN devoted to them seemed to be serving Trump’s aims by giving him a megaphone, and the zeal with which the network went after him seemed unprofessional. Yet, at 9:00 PM, when Cooper handed the baton to Chris Cuomo, the offensive continued. The president, Cuomo said, “is all in on fear and loathing.” Nothing he had said about the immigrant invasion “has any basis in reality” but was simply “Trumped-up talk.” But would enough people buy into that talk to drive turnout? For an answer, Cuomo spoke with Ohio Governor John Kasich. Kasich is another confirmed antagonist of Trump, having run against him in 2016 for the GOP presidential nomination.

“Do you agree with me on the basic proposition that there is no imminent invasion?” Cuomo asked. Yes, Kasich said, he did agree; it was all about “getting people stirred up.” Were the Republicans becoming “the party of fear and loathing?” Cuomo asked. Kasich hoped not, he said, for he doubted such rhetoric could win elections. As the segment ended, Cuomo thanked the governor “for speaking truth to power on this show as always.” I couldn’t decide which was worse—the cliché or its tendentiousness.

Cuomo was far more combative with his next two guests—former Republican Senator Rick Santorum and Amy Kremer, co-founder of Women for Trump. Both praised the president for keeping his campaign promise to crack down on illegal immigration. Cuomo pressed them on the president’s decision to send troops to the border; they pushed back just as hard. Cuomo deserved credit for giving time to the other side, but the exchange was unedifying; both Santorum and Kremer were professionals with well-rehearsed positions, and their conversation with Cuomo had the feel of a ritualized dance.     

And so it went throughout my time watching CNN. Trump was repeatedly criticized for lying, spreading fear and hate, making racist claims, and being a bigot. Anchors and commentators could not understand why he was making immigration the centerpiece of the campaign when he had a good story to tell about the economy. The interviews with the occasional Trump advocate were far outnumbered by those with people like David Glosser, the uncle of Stephen Miller, the Trump aide who has helped define his immigration policy. Glosser bitterly denounced his nephew, saying that had such a policy been in place a century earlier, his own forebears would not have been allowed into America when fleeing anti-Jewish pogroms in Europe. Given all the talk about Trump’s base and whether his race-baiting demagoguery resonated with it, I wanted to hear more from the base itself, but few of its members appeared.

More generally, the network’s coverage seemed uninformative, repetitive, and nakedly partisan. Apart from a some perfunctory I’m-here-in-red-state-America-to-speak-with-the-locals dispatches, it featured few in-depth reports on developments on the ground. Instead, it offered talking heads reciting familiar talking points. With immigration and related questions of national identity having become so salient both in America and throughout the world, I was surprised at how little genuine interest CNN showed in it.

What’s more, while routinely decrying the polarization afoot in the land, CNN hosts and pundits seemed to feed it with their bickering panels and partisan slugfests. On this, MSNBC and Fox News are equally guilty. Alexandra Pelosi, a documentarian whose latest production, Outside the Bubble (airing on HBO), chronicles her travels across the country to talk with ordinary Americans, recently told The New York Times that she blames cable news for the nation’s partisan divide: “There’s too much profit being made right now on the divide. How many people in those cable news studios ever really go spend the night in America, not just in the Four Seasons or wherever Trump is at the moment, but I mean really go to somebody’s house, have dinner and talk to them?”

Pelosi (the daughter of Nancy, the House minority leader) no doubt goes too far in holding the cable networks solely responsible for the nation’s divisions, but her indictment of them for not getting out of their studios more often and engaging with citizens at the grassroots seems not only accurate but applicable to the press as a whole.

To be fair, the nation’s top news organizations—the TimesThe Washington PostThe Wall Street Journal, NPR, Politico—do regularly get out into the field. For months before the midterms, their reporters toured the country, filing fact-filled reports on the battle for control of the House and the Senate. Yet even these followed a well-worn template, focusing overwhelmingly on the candidates and their consultants, polls and fundraising, who’s ahead and who behind, with perhaps two or three fleeting quotes from actual voters. Rare were the dispatches that sought to get beneath the surface and report in depth on communities and their residents—the challenges they face, the struggles they undergo, their aspirations, and their setbacks.

For the most part, the national press approaches the electorate much as the Democratic Party does, as an amalgam of distinct demographic groups, some rising, others declining. Michelle Goldberg captured this mindset last fall in a column for the Times: “America is now two countries, eyeing each other across a chasm of distrust and contempt. One is urban, diverse and outward-looking. This is the America that’s growing. The other is white, provincial, and culturally revanchist. This is the America that’s in charge.”

The type of casual condescension toward a large swath of America suggested by this statement is common in big-city newsrooms. The prevailing line is that white people, having long been accustomed to being in the majority, are panicked at the prospect of becoming a minority and so are drawn to Donald Trump and his campaign to Make America Great Again, which is code for keeping America white. Paul Krugman and many other liberal columnists have confidently concluded (on the basis of spotty data from 2016 exit polls and subsequent surveys) that Trump’s appeal to white workers is due exclusively to racism. Racism is surely a factor, but no doubt the travails of many communities in rural and rustbelt America are, too.

In a recent article in Politico magazine, Michael Kruse quoted the Republican consultant and pollster Frank Luntz on the twofold phenomenon of the Trump voter: “Half the people felt forgotten. And half of the people felt fucked.” This “F-squared” portion of the population, Luntz said, was the key to Trump’s victory. They help explain his sway over members of Congress and will help determine his fortunes over the next two years. Trump, Luntz observed, “is seeking to elevate those who feel oppressed by and taken advantage of by the elites, and he seems to raise them up and say, ‘Hey, guys, you’re now in charge.’”

Journalists—heavily concentrated in cities and mixing mostly with other affluent, highly educated urbanites—face a natural barrier in getting to know the F-squared part of America. Since Trump’s victory in 2016, they have spent more time in it, but it remains mostly a foreign land. With the divisions in the country seeming to harden in the wake of the midterms, journalists need to do a better job of overcoming them. This is especially true at CNN and the other cable networks. As Alexandra Pelosi suggests, I’d like to see Anderson Cooper, Chris Cuomo, and Wolf Blitzer get out of the studio more and really spend a night in America, visiting people in their homes and having dinner with them.

Sadly, Jim Acosta’s confrontation with President Trump at the post-election press conference seemed certain to heighten the divisions. For CNN, the encounter added to their star reporter’s visibility and the network’s image as a fighter for press freedom. To Trump and his supporters, Acosta’s grandstanding provided further evidence of the news media’s implacable hostility to them. Each side, in short, seemed to get from the encounter exactly what it wanted.