Now that Super Tuesday has finally arrived we’re going to get the answers to some questions. One of the big ones on the GOP side of things is whether Donald Trump’s momentum will hold up for a big, sweeping win or if the recent burst of attacks against him will blunt his path to the nomination. Either way, another lingering question will be just how effective the new and old media have been in fully investigating and reporting on The Donald’s positions, history and controversial statements. Part of that story will no doubt focus on cable news and if they’ve really been as tough on Trump as they might have been.
Over the past few weeks, that question has shown up in a media spat involving CNN and MSNBC, with particular attention being paid to the latter’s flagship offering, Morning Joe. I’ve been following this particular dust-up with quite a bit of amusement, being familiar with some of the hosts on each network. It started a few weeks ago when accusations began flying, accusing Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski of being too “cozy” with the Manhattan real estate mogul during his numerous appearances on and calls to their show, implying they weren’t pressing him as hard as their competitors on other networks like CNN. Chief among the accusers seemed to be CNN themselves.
In background discussions, NBC News and MSNBC journalists, reporters and staffers said there was widespread discomfort at the network over Scarborough’s friendship with Trump and his increasingly favorable coverage of the candidate.
“People don’t like that Joe is promoting Trump,” one MSNBC insider said. Others described Scarborough’s admiration for Trump as “over the top” and “unseemly.”
That was a couple of weeks ago, but the theme was repeated from the same network over and over. At one point they decided to release some hot mic comments picked up during a commercial break where the hosts had the nerve to speak politely to the guest. Pretty soon the theme was picked up in other places including the Washington Post. The gossipy nature of the story went so far as to generate claims that MSNBC honcho Phil Griffin was giving Scarborough the side eye.
So how “easy” has Morning Joe gone on Trump in reality? For a real world example we could look at two televised events from each network. CNN’s Anderson Cooper held a town hall event with The Donald the night after Scarborough and Brzezinski did the same on their network. Here’s a fun little video providing some examples of the grilling Trump received from each. It’s not long, so give it a look.
Anderson Cooper’s questions are certainly hard hitting, aren’t they? What kind of music do you like? The best fast food options at McDonald’s? Do you get enough sleep? However did poor Donald hold up under that sort of assault? I realize those are some comical excerpts, but read the full transcript of the CNN town hall. It never gets much tougher than that. (You can read the transcript of the MoJo town hall with Trump and compare for yourself.)
Since I actually watch Morning Joe, I’d found these charges rather dimwitted from the beginning. Keep in mind that Morning Joe was the show that actually told Trump to shut up and cut to commercial in the middle of one of his diatribes when he stuck to his talking points and refused to answer the questions being put to him. Further, Scarborough himself was the guy who took to the pages of the WaPo and penned an article describing Trump’s non-disavowal of David Duke as disqualifying for the presidency. He also said the same thing in the exact same words on his show the morning after Trump’s interview with Jake Tapper.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, Phil Griffin came out later and said that there was never any concern over Morning Joe’s relationship with or handling of Trump. It was all drama concocted to pass the time until the next primary rolled around. After the last round of accusations, even Chris Cillizza seemed to see the irony in it.
— Chris Cillizza (@ChrisCillizza) February 29, 2016
So what exactly got a bee in CNN’s bonnet to begin with? Well, I’m still not fully certified as a mind reader, but it might have something to do with the ratings. Fortunately, Nielsen keeps track of such things and the numbers for February tell a story which has been going on for a while now.
Particularly when you look at the total audience (P2+) numbers, CNN probably has some motivation to see MSNBC’s morning show take a few hits. Morning Joe averaged 43% more viewers in February than CNN’s New Day with Chris Cuomo and company. Fox and Friends may still be at the top of the roost, but as all the news networks have seen a bump in this election year, MSNBC’s was larger than the rest of them.
MSNBC’s pivot to more news reporting, especially campaign coverage, has lately resulted in improved ratings. So far this year, its weekday ratings among all viewers have grown 57 percent over the same period in 2015, compared with a 38 percent gain for CNN and 20 percent for Fox News, the cable-news leader, according to MSNBC. Among viewers aged 25 to 54, a key bloc for advertisers, MSNBC is up 76 percent, compared with 25 percent for CNN and 19 percent for Fox.
MoJo’s P2+ 613/24 share kept them ahead of CNN (and everyone else but Fox) for the 12th straight month, delivering their second best month ever. It also represented a nearly 90% increase over the same period last year. Now, I’m not saying that CNN is trying to knock down the competition here… naw. I’m sure it must be a coincidence.