January 23, 2020

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Doing the math on our division

Where are Americans going for their impeachment coverage? The answer is Fox News. Kind of.

Let me explain.

When early Nielsen TV ratings came out for Tuesday’s opening day of the Senate impeachment trial, Fox News was the winner. By a lot.

Early Nielsen research showed that from 12:30-5 p.m. Eastern, Fox News had 2.654 million viewers. That easily outdistanced CBS (1.94 million), MSNBC (1.909 million), ABC (1.6 million), NBC (1.4 million) and CNN (1.4 million).

Fox News also won the much coveted demo of 24- to 54-year-olds — it had 394,000 viewers in that demographic, the next closest being ABC (385,000) and CNN (383,000).

That would suggest that impeachment is actually good for business over at Fox News, right? That’s probably a tad surprising when you consider that Fox News mostly attracts viewers who are more conservative and, generally speaking, supporters of President Donald Trump.

So what gives?

Well, let’s dig a little deeper into the numbers. Yes, more people watched Fox News’ opening-day coverage than any other network. However, another way to look at it is this: while 2.6 million were watching Fox News, another 8.249 million were watching other channels. And that does not include those who might have been watching on PBS or C-SPAN2, which was not measured by Nielsen. It also doesn’t count streaming services or the coverage on websites such as The New York Times, Washington Post or It also doesn’t count Fox News’ streaming coverage.

It’s also interesting to note that NBC and MSNBC, which share many journalists, had a combined audience of 3.3 million — more than watched Fox News.

Here are more numbers to consider. These suggest (as if we didn’t already know) how divided the country is over impeachment and this president.

In primetime, the major networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) went back to regular programming. That meant most viewers interested in impeachment coverage turned to the three big cable news networks — CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. Again, Fox News dominated with 3.5 million viewers during the 8-11 p.m. Eastern slot. That outdistanced MSNBC’s 2.5 million and CNN’s 1.5 million.

But again, if you add up the numbers, 3.5 million were watching Fox News, while 4 million were watching MSNBC and CNN.

Pretty much a split.

This is just one day, the first day of what is expected to be a long process. Viewership will ebb and flow.

But if we can draw anything from these very early first-day numbers, it’s that viewership is not overwhelming. I mean, nearly 15 million watched the recent “Jeopardy’s Greatest of All Time” tournament and somewhere around 100 million are going to watch the Super Bowl on Feb. 2.

The other takeaway is no surprise: As a country, we remain divided.

A 733% change in viewership

As I mentioned, Tuesday’s first day of the impeachment trial of President Trump drew 3.5 million Fox News primetime viewers. Know how many watched the first day of Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial in 1999 on Fox News? A mere 421,000. That’s a 733% difference.

Of course, those were different times for cable news. Fox News and MSNBC were still finding their footing, as both were less than three years old.

By the way, CNN’s primetime coverage of the first day of Clinton’s impeachment trial drew 1.47 million viewers compared to 1.51 million for the Trump impeachment — just a 2% difference.

Networks should analyze their analysts

Former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

CBS News announced a controversial hire Wednesday. Reince Priebus, who was President Trump’s’ first White House chief of staff and the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, was hired as a political analyst. He already has been on the air, appearing Wednesday alongside Norah O’Donnell, Margaret Brennan and John Dickerson on CBS’s impeachment coverage.

This feels like a classic case of both sides-ism — putting someone on the air just so you appear to be objective in your coverage. That’s not good. Networks are so worried about appearing biased that they are willing to hire almost anyone just so they can say, “See? We’re being fair.”

That attitude already has bitten CBS, which had to correct something Priebus said on the air on his very first day. Talking about President Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Priebus said the rough transcript of the call showed that Trump never suggested Zelensky talk to Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

On the air, Priebus said, “No, he didn’t say Giuliani. Read it: He said talk to the attorney general.”

That’s simply not true, as CBS News had to point out and correct in a news story on its website Wednesday. Giuliani, according to the White House’s own summary of the call, was mentioned by name.

Look, there is nothing wrong with having analysts from various political backgrounds. After all, analysts become so-called experts because of the experience they gained working in politics, presumably for one party or the other. The problem is when those biases make their way on the air with analysis that’s neither true nor well-intended.

CBS News is falling into the same hole that many networks do when they hire someone all in the name of fairness and credibility and end up getting someone who is neither fair nor credible. And that leaves an ugly stain on the coverage.

Pro tips for the next time you’re on CNN

Former New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram, left, shown here in 2015. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

Here’s a phrase often heard on the cable news networks: “Let’s turn to our panel of experts.” Then the camera pans over to former politicians, political spokespeople, media veterans and so forth. They’re there to take complex issues and break them down into easily digestible nuggets for the audience to consume.

Anne Milgram is one of those experts. She is a distinguished scholar in residence at the New York University School of Law and the former attorney general of New Jersey. But she’s more recognizable as an occasional commentator on CNN, talking about everything from the U.S. Constitution to the Supreme Court to the recent college admissions scandal.

In an interview with NYU’s Amanda Wicks for the school’s website, Milgram explains how all this punditry works. Milgram, by the way, is one of the responsible ones. She doesn’t yell or scream or say outrageous things just to get a viral soundbite. Before her appearances, she reads a ton and sticks to facts more than opinion.

“I may draw certain conclusions,” Milgram told Wicks, “but I usually try to be really conscious about saying, ‘Here’s what matters,’ and then I want the audience to draw their own conclusions.”

Most refreshing is Milgram knowing what she doesn’t know instead of just blurting out something irresponsible on the air.

“I have a lot of confidence in saying, ‘Well, I don’t know,’ or ‘We can’t really say that yet.’ I watch folks who feel pressured to make the guess, but I have no problem saying, ‘There’s too much we don’t know yet, but here are the pieces we should be looking at.’”

Check out the entire Q&A for good insight on how cable news commentary is done — and supposed to be done.

More changes in Miami

The Miami Herald Media Company is closing its printing plant. The South Florida Sun Sentinel will begin printing the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald starting April 26. Here’s the bad news: 70 employees — 34 full-time and 36 part-time — will lose their jobs.

Aminda Marques Gonzalez — president, publisher and executive editor of the newspapers — told the Miami Herald it was a “very difficult business decision reached after thoughtful analysis and deliberation.” She added that “more readers find their news online” and “demand from print is declining” as reasons why the plant was closing.

The moderation round robin continues

The debate moderators for the Feb. 7 Democratic presidential hopefuls were named Wednesday. ABC is carrying the debate and will have George Stephanopoulos, “World News Tonight” anchor David Muir and correspondent Linsey Davis as moderators. Those three also moderated a debate in September and drew praise for their work. They will be joined by Adam Sexton and Monica Hernandez, who work for WMUR-TV — the ABC affiliate in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Does the NYTimes have Serial’s number?

Big news from the podcasting world. The Wall Street Journal’s Ben Mullin is reporting that Serial Productions, the company best known for producing the blockbuster true-crime podcast “Serial,” is exploring a sale. Among the potential buyers is The New York Times.

“Serial” has had three seasons, with each telling a different true-crime story over many episodes. The first season, about the 1999 murder of an 18-year-old woman in Baltimore, generated more than 300 million downloads.

Pointing back to Poynter

I want to alert you to a couple of worthwhile pieces by my Poynter colleagues. Kristen Hare writes about how rival North Carolina newspapers are combining forces to be watchdogs. Meanwhile, I love podcasts, but don’t always know where to go to find podcasts that I might want to listen to. In his latest Try This! Digital Tools for Journalism newsletter, Ren LaForme tells you where to go to get help with … let’s call it your podcast GPS.

Hot type

“Saturday Night Live”’s Michael Che. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision for Clio Awards/AP Images)

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
Tom Jones

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