CNN shrugged off and even scolded critics of the Donald Trump town hall it aired on May 10. But while the network is still obstinately standing by that event, viewers, it turns out, aren’t standing by the network.
The town hall initially gave CNN a rare primetime win, with 3.3 million viewers tuning in, firmly making it number one in ratings among the other cable news networks. But just two days later, primetime viewership cratered, putting CNN in fourth place behind shoestring-budgeted right wing outlet Newsmax.
During Friday’s primetime, CNN brought in a dismal 335,000 viewers total on average, according to Nielsen live plus same-day figures. Newsmax beat that handily with an average of 357,000 total viewers. Both networks were well behind MSNBC’s total primetime viewership of 1.1 million and Fox News Channel’s 1.4 million total viewers.
CNN regained its lead on Newsmax in the key cable news demographic among adults 25-54, however, with CNN bringing in 87,000 viewers in the demo while Newsmax drew in 45,000 viewers in the demo. CNN was just shy of MSNBC’s demo viewership of 98,000 while Fox News swept the cable news channels with 109,000 viewers in the demo on average.
The trend continued through the cable news channel’s hourly programming, with Newsmax scoring higher total viewership for each hour than CNN, though CNN beat Newsmax in the demo for each timeslot. The widest hourly gap was at 9 p.m., when CNN’s “The Whole Story With Anderson Cooper” brought in 293,000 total viewers while Newsmax’s “Chris Plante The Right Squad,” drew in 325,000. Conversely, in the same 9 p.m. timeslot, CNN scored 85,000 viewers in the demo while Newsmax brought in 35,000 viewers in the demo.
Backlash to the townhall began even as it aired, as critics noted how with very few exceptions, moderator (and former Tucker Carlson employee) Kaitlan Collins allowed Trump to lie, repeatedly, speak vile falsehoods about abortion, and even defame E. Jean Carroll literally a day after she successfully sued him for sexual assault and, yes, defamation.
After it ended, several prominent media critics and journalists called on CEO Chris Licht to resign over the debacle, and there were multiple reports that there was backlash among CNN employees too. But CNN responded with what can only be described as escalating smugness and petulance.
Three hours after the town hall ended — long after it was clear that the overwhelming response to it was harsh criticism — CNN released a statement insisting that Collins was “tough, fair and revealing,” and that the event exemplified the network’s “responsibility” to “hold the powerful to account.”
That naturally failed to quell critics, including within CNN; Media reporter, Oliver Darcy published a scathing assessment 15 minutes after the network’s statement was sent out.
The next morning, in a meeting with employees, Licht insisted “I absolutely unequivocally believe America was served very well by what we did last night.”
This also failed to tamp the backlash down, so Thursday night, CNN’s primetime star Anderson Cooper made comments that essentially accused people who objected to the town hall of being narrow minded. This got him labeled a “gaslighting scold,” by critics, along with unsubstantiated speculation that he’d made these remarks on orders of the network’s executives.
It was later reported that Licht also personally reprimanded Darcy for his criticism, going to far as to belittle it as “emotional.”