By:
February 4, 2021

What a fascinating time in cable news, especially when it comes to the ratings.

Now, I get it: Stories about the TV ratings can be twisted to make networks look good. Networks focus on certain demographics or year-over-year increases to spin favorable narratives. And ratings can flip from one month to the next.

But these are the facts: When the Nielsen ratings for January came out this week, Fox News was third among the cable news bigwigs. This was a big deal. A very big deal. They were behind both CNN and MSNBC and that hasn’t happened since 2001.

Also a fact: CNN finished first — not just among cable news outlets, but all of cable TV.

Will it last? What does it all mean? What will happen next?

Let’s start with this: January was a news month like we’ve rarely seen. There was the horrific event of the Capitol riot on Jan 6. There was the second impeachment of Donald Trump. And there was the inauguration of a new president, Joe Biden.

Events like these certainly are going to have eyes turning to cable news. In this case, CNN benefitted.

Fox News did not.

One Fox News insider told CNN’s Brian Stelter, “We are lost.”

Fox News’ ratings loss could be chalked up to a couple of things. It was not a good news month for President Trump and Trump supporters, who make up a good chunk of Fox News’ audience, might have turned away from the news altogether. Some MAGA supporters have flocked over to Newsmax, which continues to be very pro-Trump.

The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove, Lachlan Cartwright, Diana Falzone and Justin Baragona described Fox News’ ratings as a “nosedive” and referred to it as an “embarrassing third-place showing.”

A former Fox News on-air personality told The Daily Beast, “Fox has seen ratings dips before and has always come back. But there’s no denying this is disastrous for them.”

Referring to Newsmax and One America News, former CNN president Jonathan Klein told The Daily Beast, “(Fox News) was out-crazied on the right.”

The Washington Post’s Sarah Ellison and Jeremy Barr wrote Fox News has “an identity crisis.”

CNN’s big ratings likely will level off. Without Trump in the White House, the news is expected to remain important, especially with COVID-19, but also more “normal.”

But should Fox News be concerned about its situation?

A so-called “network insider” told The Daily Beast, “There is no grand plan for getting out of the toilet and if there is, no one knows about it. (Leadership is) making it up as they go along.”

The problem for Fox News is in the daytime. They averaged about 1.49 million viewers in January compared to CNN’s 2.49 million and MSNBC’s 1.93 million.

But primetime, where Fox News usually dominates in a big way, is also a tad concerning. Its primetime ratings were down 14% from January 2020. (CNN’s were up 125% and MSNBC was up 51%.)

Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show was cable news’ top show in January with 4.2 million viewers — a 48% increase from a year ago. Sean Hannity’s often top-rated cable news show on Fox News averaged 3.9 million viewers, which was a 21% decrease from a year ago. But, in the last week of January, Fox News’ primetime ratings were starting to recover.

Here’s my prediction: Fox News’ ratings could suffer for the next couple of months. Like sports fans avoiding local sports-talk radio following a big loss by their favorite team, Trump supporters might avoid the news (and Fox News) for a while. Look for them to eventually return.

In addition, when Newsmax and OAN’s baseless conspiracy theories about a rigged election run out of steam (and we’re getting close to that point), they won’t have the news chops or resources to keep up with Fox News — and whatever viewers they stole could return to Fox News.

Also, a Fox News insider pointed out to me that Fox News ratings slipped following Barack Obama’s presidential victories before eventually regaining strength.

Still, right now is a precarious time for Fox News. It’s not quite time for them to push the panic button. But locating where it is might not be a bad idea.

Should he stay or should he go?

CNN’s Jeff Zucker (Jason Mendez/Invision/AP, File)

With CNN rocking the ratings, might the network’s president, Jeff Zucker, step away while CNN is on top? The buzz in the industry for a while now is that Zucker is going to leave the network sometime early this year.

Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo reports that Zucker might be close to making a decision. A source told Pompeo “it’ll be very soon.”

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Zucker is moving on. Zucker is well-liked and respected inside CNN. One CNN journalist told Pompeo, “In 40 years of CNN, the place has never been defined by its leader like it is right now. It’s like Roger Ailes without the sexual abuse and hush money.”

Pompeo wrote, “It’s all still a guessing game, but judging by my conversations with multiple CNN journalists and people close to Zucker, insiders are now more inclined to believe that he isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.”

UPDATE: Zucker announced in a call with employees Thursday morning that he would leave the network at the end of 2021.

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised?

Brian Sicknick, the police officer killed while trying to protect the Capitol from insurrectionists on Jan. 6, laid in state in the Capitol Rotunda on Tuesday night. CNN and MSNBC carried the ceremony live. Fox News mostly stuck with original programming.

As Mediaite’s Ken Meyer noted, “While the somber ceremony was unfolding, Fox News prime time hosts Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham were discussing a LeBron James incident, the media, Dr. Anthony Fauci, and their standard helping of media criticism.”

The Daily Beast’s Justin Baragona tweeted, “Fox News continues to ignore the ceremony, because apparently it’s more important to give Scott Atlas airtime to talk (expletive) about Dr. Fauci.”

Sicknick was mentioned between Hannity and Ingraham’s shows. Fox News occasionally dipped in and out of the ceremony, but never for an extended amount of time. And Shannon Bream had respectful words about Sicknick during her 11 p.m. Eastern show. But Fox News didn’t show a true commitment to carrying the ceremony as CNN and MSNBC did.

New York University journalism professor and media observer Jay Rosen tweeted, “If you’re not showing the Capitol ceremony for police officer Brian Sicknick, who died in the January 6 riot, you’re not in the television news business.”

On Wednesday, Fox News did better, showing the departure ceremony for Sicknick from the Capitol.

A super interview

CBS News’ Norah O’Donnell. (Jason Mendez/Invision/AP, File)

Joe Biden’s first one-on-one interview as president will go to … CBS News’ Norah O’Donnell. CBS landed the first interview with President Biden thanks, in part, to the network also hosting this year’s Super Bowl.

Portions of the interview will air during the 4 p.m. Eastern hour of the Super Bowl pregame show. In addition, clips of the interview also will air on Friday’s “CBS Evening News” and Sunday morning’s “Face the Nation.”

The tradition of the president being interviewed for the Super Bowl pregame show dates back to 2004 when CBS’s Jim Nantz, who will call this year’s game, interviewed George W. Bush. That was a light interview that was mostly about the Super Bowl and seemed to be just a one-time thing.

The tradition really started when Barack Obama became president. Obama started doing Super Bowl interviews right away after his inauguration in 2009 and did one every year during his two terms as president. It was during that time that the interviews started including much tougher news questions to go along with a few fun football topics.

During his four years as president, Donald Trump did pregame Super Bowl interviews when Fox had the game in 2017 and 2020. He also did the interview with CBS in 2019. However, he turned down the interview request in 2018 when NBC carried the game.

Inside the Q

Here’s another revealing and disturbing piece about QAnon by CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan. This time, O’Sullivan talks to a South Carolina mother who was sucked in by the lies of QAnon and now regrets how she let her life be controlled by conspiracy theories.

Ashley Vanderbilt, 27, said she got caught up in QAnon through things she saw on TikTok, YouTube and Facebook. She said she was devastated when Biden was sworn in as president. She called her mom at work.

“I just told her it’s like we’re all going to die,” she told O’Sullivan. “We’re going to be owned by China. And I was like, I might have to pull my daughter out of school because they’re going to take her.”

She eventually realized how wrong she was about QAnon and all those conspiracy theories she believed. Vanderbilt also said there was one thing that could have pulled her out of her QAnon hole before it spun out of control: if Donald Trump had denounced it.

“I was the biggest Trump supporter there was,” Vanderbilt said. “If he were to have said something and if he were to just say, ‘Q is illegitimate. Nothing’s real in there,’ I think some people would leave. Maybe not all of the people that are way too far into it. But I think it would help a lot. … I thought the world of (Trump) so if he would have said, ‘It’s not real. I’m not coming back. It is over,’ I would have believed him.”

O’Sullivan’s reports on QAnon are fascinating and like watching a master class in interviewing. He asks tough questions, but he treats those he interviews with respect and dignity. He isn’t judgmental or accusatory. And because of that, because he is merely seeking to understand why these people fall down the rabbit holes of misinformation, he gets his subjects to reveal their innermost thoughts. And that helps all of us to understand the power that QAnon has on many people.

This is elite work by O’Sullivan.

And speaking of QAnon, check out New York Times’ opinion contributor Thomas B. Edsall with “The QAnon Delusion Has Not Loosened Its Grip.”

Petty attack

One can understand the fierce competition between CNN and Fox News, but one CNN employee was out of line and rather petty in an attack on Fox News on Wednesday. CNN communications executive Matt Dornic took an uncalled for shot at Fox News media reporter Brian Flood.

On Twitter, Dornic posted screengrabs from messages Flood sent to CNN employees on LinkedIn. In the messages, Flood identifies himself as a Fox News reporter and, “I would love to chat for a story I’m working on. You can be anonymous, or on background or even of (sic) the record, whatever makes you most comfortable.”

It is not unusual for a reporter to reach out to potential sources on social media. But Dornic posted photos of Flood’s LinkedIn message and tweeted, “After all these years of covering CNN, Brian still has to troll LinkedIn for anonymous quotes (from employees of literally any department) to use in his hit pieces. We’ve been forwarded over a dozen of these in the past 24 hours.”

But instead of Dornic making Flood look bad, the exact opposite happened. Dornic was criticized for his criticism.

Washington Post media writer Erik Wemple tweeted, “I have to disagree with this sentiment. Here, @briansflood is doing what many reporters, myself included, do: Trying to craft an appeal to sources.”

Wemple also tweeted, “Now: I have massive problems with @foxnews, for sure. But I think it’s best *not* to blast a reporter for sending out a 100 percent legit attempt to gather sources. Don’t controversialize reporting.”

New York Times media columnist Ben Smith tweeted, “This is a …totally normal way to report. Possibly not at CNN? But certainly everywhere else. Not a lot of people at Fox who do original reporting, but don’t really get the objection.”

Later, after a few hours of being criticized on Twitter, Dornic tweeted, “It’s not that flood sends these fishing emails indiscriminately to folks with tangential relationships and no info about the stories he’s covering, it’s that his stories are always full of lies and dishonestly framed.”

The latest from NPR

(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

For this item, I turn it over to Poynter media business analyst Rick Edmonds.

NPR announced Wednesday that it is forming a Stations Investigations Team, a small support unit for its local affiliates. It is the latest step in an initiative spanning several years to encourage collaboration among member stations — either geographically, as in Texas or the Midwest, or by subject matter like health policy or education.

The team will be headed by Cheryl W. Thompson and include a producer and a data editor who can help shape projects. Thompson is the current president of Investigative Reporters and Editors. She has been doing investigations of policing and race since joining NPR in 2019 and before that at The Washington Post.

NPR also has a 16-person national investigative unit.

Media tidbits

  • Over the weekend, The New York Times’ Maggie Astor and Danny Hakim had an explosive report that 21 men have accused Lincoln Project co-founder John Weaver of online sexual harassment. Another Lincoln Project co-founder, Rick Wilson, has made his first public comments about Weaver since the Times report. Here is what Wilson said.
  • “Jeopardy” has lined up more guest hosts. So far, Ken Jennings, who won a record 74 consecutive games,” has been filling in for the late Alex Trebek. Upcoming guest hosts will include journalists Savannah Guthrie, Anderson Cooper and Bill Whitaker, as well as actress Mayim Bialik, football star Aaron Rodgers, Dr. Sanjay Gupta and Dr. Mehmet Oz.

Hot type

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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