Despite its down-the-middle news brand, the network trails rivals Fox News and MSNBC in viewers and weathers daily attacks from the White House as critics bemoan a “clash model” of staging partisan debates that’s now “outmoded.”
The panel went from tense to overheated. During a debate held by anchor Don Lemon on Feb. 6, CNN contributor and former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli told his colleague, Republican strategist Ana Navarro, that he was “sick and tired of listening to your shrill voice in my ears.” Lemon, looking defeated, pleaded four times to his arguing panelists, “One at a time, please.” The exchange wasn’t the only time that Cuccinelli, representing a pro-Trump perspective, got into hot water for on-air remarks. On Aug. 14, during a panel about clashes in Charlottesville, Va., he told liberal contributor Symone Sanders to “just shut up for a minute.”
These blow-ups, while uncomfortable to watch for some viewers, are increasingly part of the CNN brand. The network has seen its star rise during the first 15 months of Donald Trump’s presidency, but it has largely adhered to the same formula that brought it big ratings, big profits (to the tune of an estimated $1.1 billion in profit last year) and a healthy dose of criticism during the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. That means regularly staging “food fights” (in the words of one veteran television executive) that go viral but don’t necessarily make viewers more informed, people inside and outside the company say.