Fox News and CNN are at war.
Anchors and reporters at the cable news giants are directly attacking one another on the air, sniping over Twitter, blanketing the airwaves with coverage of each other’s controversies and counting the hours until their rival personalities are driven to ruin.
At CNN, reporters and anchors have put Fox’s top anchor, Bill O’Reilly, through the ringer, gleefully cataloguing the advertisers that have fled his show over allegations of sexual harassment and opining about how much backlash O’Reilly can absorb before the Murdoch family cuts him loose.
Fox News anchors have been apoplectic over the notion that CNN’s anchors have sought to diminish the Rice story. They focused on CNN’s chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto — a former Obama administration appointee — as a case study in the network’s alleged bias.
The feuding underscores the high stakes the cable news outlets face in the fight for market share in the age of President Trump, who has sparked a once-in-a-generation media frenzy that has been a ratings boon for both networks.
“This is not a totally new phenomenon. The three cable networks have skirmished off and on for years,” said Jeffrey McCall, a professor of media studies at DePauw University. “But the latest incidents are, indeed, taking matters to the next level.”
The insults and innuendo came fast and hard out of both networks this week, beginning after a Sunday New York Times report about Fox paying $13 million to settle harassment complaints against O’Reilly.
The women accused O’Reilly of verbal abuse, unwanted advances, lewd comments and indecent phone calls.
The report provided the perfect ammunition for Fox’s rivals at CNN.
“Is Bill O’Reilly done?” Erin Burnett, the host of CNN’s “Out Front,” asked on Tuesday night.
Don Lemon, the host of “CNN Tonight,” invited one of O’Reilly’s accusers, Wendy Walsh, on to his show. Walsh’s appearance quickly went viral.
“The workplace is not a mating marketplace,” Walsh said. “If you are looking for a date, do like everyone else and go on Tinder."
Dozens of companies have pulled their ads from “The O’Reilly Factor,” O’Reilly’s massively popular prime-time cable program.
O’Reilly has countered that fame has made him a target for frivolous lawsuits, which he says are often easier to settle than litigate.
But CNN media analyst Brian Stelter dismissed O’Reilly’s defense.
“I can't point to anybody else in television news that has this pattern of lawsuits and settlements,” he said on CNN’s “Out Front.”
CNN’s prime-time shows have prominently featured the story throughout the week.
Burnett teased the story throughout her hourlong program on Tuesday night before launching into a segment with Stelter and a criminal defense attorney. The crew counted the number of advertisers abandoning O’Reilly as it crept up from 16 to 18 to 20.
CNN’s Anderson Cooper, the host of “AC 360,” brought Stelter back, this time accompanied by a former Justice Department prosecutor.
“When you hear the sheer volume of lawsuits and behavior that’s going on there, I can’t imagine,” Cooper said. “I can’t believe this went on for so long. It’s stunning.”
Fuming that O’Reilly had attacked him for failing to cover the Rice storyline, Lemon escalated the fight by opening his Tuesday night program by directly addressing O’Reilly.
“Bill, we have covered the Susan Rice story,” Lemon said. “We did it for a long time on this program last night. And tonight, we’re going to cover it again. Another story that we’re going to cover again tonight, later in the show: the sexual harassment allegations against you. So, let's get started.”
Sean Hannity, the host of Fox News’s “Hannity,” fired back on his show, which competes in the same time as Lemon’s.
“Hey, Don, there's no evidence of collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign, and you guys have been harping on that conspiracy for eight months,” Hannity said.
Fox News’s prime-time trio of O’Reilly, Hannity and Tucker Carlson, the host of “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” have launched parallel attacks against CNN, accusing the “Clinton News Network” of trying to bury the Rice story and shame the media outlets that have covered it.
“The alt-left-propaganda-destroy-Donald Trump media, they're doing the best to cover up and distort the news that former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice was unmasking the names of Trump officials who shouldn’t have been surveilled,” Hannity said in his opening remarks on Tuesday night. “On CNN last night, Don Lemon began the show defending Susan Rice. Inexplicable.”
CNN’s coverage of the Rice fiasco has enraged the right.
In a March interview on PBS, Rice said she didn’t know anything about allegations that Trump officials may have been swept up in Obama-era surveillance.
But Fox News and Bloomberg reported this week that Rice was directly responsible for revealing the name of former national security adviser Michael Flynn in intelligence reports that were circulated at the top levels of the Obama administration.
Rice said this week that her actions were legal and that she was not responsible for the illegal leaking of a conversation Flynn had with a foreign official to the press.
CNN’s Chris Cuomo responded by accusing “right-wing media types” of “peddling a fake scandal.” Lemon said he would not “aid and abet the people who are trying to misinform you … by creating a diversion.”
And Sciutto cited “someone close to Rice” to refute the reports before declaring that “this appears to be a story largely ginned up, partly as a distraction from this larger investigation” into alleged ties between Trump officials and Russia.
“The left is not happy about the Susan Rice-Trump surveillance deal,” O’Reilly said on Tuesday night, before cutting to a mashup of Cuomo, Lemon and Sciutto dismissing the story.
“That’s the liberal line,” O’Reilly said.
Sciutto — who was the chief of staff to President Obama’s ambassador to China, Gary Locke — has become a focus for Fox News and other conservative outlets, which have eagerly pointed out that his defense of Rice came from an anonymous official who worked for her.
“Jim Sciutto … told viewers that the Susan Rice story was ginned up by the right wing as a distraction,” Carlson said on Tuesday night. “Of course, until 2013 Sciutto was a political appointee working for the Obama administration. He has every reason to defend his former co-workers.”
A source at CNN sought to diminish the importance of Sciutto’s role within the Obama administration, telling The Hill that he was a policy-focused subordinate who did not have an advisory role.
“The question is why did CNN put him on this beat in the first place?” Carlson said. “Undeterred, CNN rolled out its breaking news banner to — brace yourself — report that a friend of Susan Rice's had denied on background she did anything wrong. That was news.
“Meanwhile, Don Lemon announced he wouldn't insult the intelligence of his viewers by talking about the Rice story at all.”
“It is not news coverage,” he concluded. “It is mass delusion and someday Washington is going to wake up from all of this hungover and ashamed.”