Last hurrah for the establishment media
Joe Biden’s explicit refusal to answer whether he supports expanding the Supreme Court is the most brazen, contemptuous campaign move in recent memory. As a voter and citizen — whether or not you support expansion — you should be disappointed and outraged.
As for political strategy, however, it is impressive.
Normally candidates dodge by extended obfuscation and slippery language. Biden just told his questioners to buzz off. Team Biden made a cold political calculation: Biden cannot take a side without infuriating his base or losing important swing voters. They figure stonewalling is the best option, as the establishment media so detests Trump they will let Biden get away with practically anything.
In poker parlance, Team Biden raised the stakes and the media folded.
The dismissive attitude of Team Biden is ominous for the establishment media (CNN, major network news, New York Times, and Washington Post). It could be a foretaste of a Democratic administration that gives them the bare minimum of cooperation knowing that they picked a side and now have nowhere to go.
Whether you love or loathe Trump, there is no doubt the establishment media detests him and have conducted a jihad against him. Certainly, any sitting president must be subject to heightened scrutiny. The public purpose of a free press is to be a check on the power of the government — and Trump has provided plenty of reason for robust scrutiny. But this scrutiny has veered into cartoonish territory. Whether it was CNN promoting the now-convicted criminal Michael Avenatti as a serious presidential candidate or turning every crazy tweet into the end of civilization, the establishment media has served up a heaping portion of Trump-hate daily for an eager audience.
And that formula has been profitable.
CNN and MSNBC ratings are up. Stephen Colbert saved his floundering show by pivoting to a nightly skewering of Trump. The online “Resistance” has garnered an avalanche of clicks.
But what happens when there is no one to resist?
Fox News figured out how to hang on to its audience, whether conservatives are in power or out. But even with Trump and his constant stream of content guaranteed to infuriate liberal viewers, only MSNBC has managed to achieve a top 5 cable news show (Rachel Maddow). In spite of record viewership, CNN still lags MSNBC in total day and primetime. Both were crushed by Fox News. Every Fox News primetime show more than doubled its CNN competitor, ranging from 3.3 million (Ingraham) to 4.7 million (Hannity). The only real competition was Maddow with 3.1 million viewers. CNN’s top performer, Chris Cuomo, managed to squeeze out a measly 1.75 million viewers.
But the cable ratings race is a sideshow to the big story: the inexorable erosion in market share and influence of the establishment/legacy media. According to Pew Research in 2018, 43 percent of American adults consumed news from Facebook and 21 percent from YouTube. That works out to nearly 110 million and over 53 million adults, respectively (adjusting for current population). Compared to the internet giants, Fox News is not much more than a blip, while CNN isn’t even a blip.
Internet usage statistics are similarly stark. CNN does better than its competitors with 662 million total visits per month, compared to 363 million for Fox News and a mere 94 million for MSNBC and NBC News combined. However, over 20 percent of CNN visits are from outside the U.S., average time on site is just 3 minutes and 40 seconds and the “bounce rate” (percent of users only viewing one page) is 58 percent. Meanwhile Fox has under 8 percent international visits, seven and a half minutes average viewing time and a bounce rate of under 50 percent.
But Facebook and YouTube swamp all.
Facebook has nearly 5 billion visits per month (U.S. only), nearly 11 minutes average time on site and a bounce rate of just 32 percent. YouTube is even bigger with over 6.5 billion visits, over 21 minutes on site and a 22.6 percent bounce rate. Other new media news sites add to the fragmentation and erosion of the power of the legacy media. Breitbart gets over 70 million visits per month, The Hill nearly 68 million and Politico over 66 million.
For those who built their recent success on opposing Trump (CNN, MSNBC, and Colbert), his departure would be a psychic joy and a business nightmare. The steady erosion to the internet giants and the new media is bad enough, but they will face a serious content problem.
It seems an extremely unlikely prospect that any Republican personality can replace the rage Trump generated. A nightly skewering of (possibly) Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would be pretty thin gruel after the feast of Trump. Alternately, turning on Biden and the Democrats is a non-starter. Nary a conservative is going to drop Fox News no matter what CNN tries.
The erstwhile resistance media will be left with backing the Democratic administration. Not only does cheerleading for those in power make for bad TV, but it might not even get them coveted access and cooperation from Biden. The precedent from the Obama-Biden administration is ominous.
In spite of historically favorable coverage, Obama was contemptuous and even downright hostile to the press. His administration aggressively pursued leakers, investigated journalists, and tried to throw a New York Times reporter into jail. Unlike Trump, who has been markedly promiscuous with the establishment media, Obama ignored them in favor of Ellen DeGeneres, Jay Leno, David Letterman and even comic Zach Galifianakis. In the words of the New York Times’s David Sanger, “This is the most closed, control freak administration I’ve ever covered.”
For the establishment media, a Biden-Harris administration could be a loss-making armageddon. Weak content and no access — combined with the inexorable growth of alternative new media — is a disastrous combination.
To paraphrase Richard Nixon: Just think how much you’re going to be missing. You won’t have Trump to kick around anymore.
Keith Naughton, Ph.D. is co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, a public and regulatory affairs consulting firm. Dr. Naughton is a former Pennsylvania political campaign consultant. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711.
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