By Jonathan Easley - 07-03-17 06:00 AM EDT
Cable news outlets are pulling huge ratings and reporters are becoming overnight celebrities as the attacks between President Trump and the media enter strange new territory.
The White House has agitated for the fight, believing that every day it spends feuding with the media exposes further press bias and energizes the conservative base.
But Trump's claim that MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski was "bleeding badly from a face-lift" unified the media, with anchors from Fox News to CNN expressing outrage at the president's tweets and pointing to them as evidence that the press should not treat Trump like a normal president.
Trump again sent the media into a fury over the weekend when he tweeted a doctored video showing him at a fake wrestling match body-slamming someone with the CNN logo superimposed over their face. Reporters accused Trump of encouraging violence against the press.
The relationship between the White House and the media is in shambles, with the daily press briefings devolving into shouting matches and airing of grievances. Both sides engage in stunts, grandstanding and political theater meant to undermine or embarrass the other.
The White House has long viewed attacking the media, dubbed "the opposition party" by chief strategist Stephen Bannon, as a winning strategy. But the nasty turn has also been a boon to the media and the individual reporters who register acts of protest against the administration.
"Ratings are part of it, but the media's open contempt for this administration is part of it, too," said Tim Graham, the director of media analysis at the conservative Media Research Center. "I imagine it will continue as long as the ratings keep going up."
Left-leaning MSNBC pulled big numbers as the only network in open opposition to the president, even before the spat between Trump and "Morning Joe" hosts Joe Scarborough and Brzezinski engulfed Washington.
According to Nielsen's second-quarter ratings, MSNBC's total viewers are up 73 percent year-over-year, with prime-time viewership up 86 percent, easily making it the fastest-growing cable news outlet.
Anchor Rachel Maddow has become a cultural icon on the left while also attracting a younger audience of viewers. MSNBC's share of the coveted 25- to 54-year-old demographic grew 78 percent in prime time over last year. Its prime-time audience has nearly tripled since second quarter of 2014.
Scarborough said on Twitter that his show had a record month for ratings.
Congrats to the entire Morning Joe team for another record setting ratings month. You are amazing. Your hard work makes the difference!! pic.twitter.com/OFH8inG5td- Joe Scarborough (@JoeNBC) July 2, 2017
CNN, meanwhile, is running third in the cable wars. Journalistically, the network has had a rough stretch, with retraction-related dismissals, sting videos showing producers expressing frustration with the network's editorial decisions and allegations of bias coming from the right.
But CNN has still grown 25 percent in total viewers and 10 percent in prime time year-over-year. The network's deep well of contributors and political pundits ensures that the Trump show is always rolling.
It's a stark departure from the pre-Trump era, when sagging ratings provoked a move away from breaking news and political programming. As recently as 2014, CNN was airing "Dirty Jobs," "America's Most Wanted" or "Our America with Lisa Ling" in the prime-time 9 p.m. hour.
Some media watchers are growing alarmed by the increasingly antagonistic approach some in the press are taking. But most expect it will continue as long as the feuding with Trump attracts new viewers.
"The news world is reaping some short-term benefits from the running battle with Trump, but this is really a short-sighted and ultimately losing strategy," said Jeffrey McCall, a media critic and professor at DePauw University. "Sure, it's sensational and somewhat entertaining, but it makes the media look small and petty. Media credibility is quite low and most news consumers aren't going to sympathize with the news industry, even when Trump makes boorish attacks."
Fox News is still the front-runner in the cable wars, despite shake-ups that roiled both its prime-time line-up and executive suites.
Fox's audience grew 19 percent between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m., as viewers tune in to watch Tucker Carlson or Sean Hannity rail against the news media on a nightly basis.
Feuding with Trump has also become a profitable endeavor for many individual reporters, with viral video clips and tweets opening new doors for previously little-known journalists.
Taking on the White House worked for Brian Karem, an editor for a regional newspaper in the Washington suburbs.
Karem was little-known before Tuesday, when a video of him lecturing White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders over press access went viral.
Less than a week later, he has nearly 80,000 followers on Twitter.
After his exchange, Karem made the cable news rounds to call Sanders a bully. He sat for scores of interviews with print and online outlets, where he claimed the nickname "honey badger" - a supposedly fearless animal - and said members of the press corps had likened him to legendary reporters Sam Donaldson and Helen Thomas.
Left-leaning outlets have held Karem up as a hero, although the episode cemented in the minds of many conservatives that reporters want to use the briefings to make their names by grandstanding against the administration.
That's a point White House press secretary Sean Spicer made in explaining why fewer press briefing would be televised.
Other reporters have had similar experiences.
Veteran reporter April Ryan, who has been covering the White House for 20 years and has long been one of the most respected journalists in the press corps, scored a contributor position on CNN this year after several high-profile dust-ups with Trump and Spicer.
CNN White House reporter Jim Acosta has become the face of the resistance inside the briefing room, railing against the administration on the air and on social media.
Acosta's antagonistic tweets have gone viral amid the furor over the White House's decision to take the briefings off-camera. Frustrated with the lack of camera access, Acosta began to tweet pictures of his socks - the only things in the briefing, he wrote, that he was allowed to show on camera.
But Acosta has drawn scorn from many conservatives, who say he is grandstanding and making himself the story.
"In honor of the Fourth of July, let's save all our fireworks for Tuesday," Sanders said at the start of Friday's press briefing.
The frenzy and eagerness to capitalize on what some in media have dubbed the "Trump Effect" has led to some sloppy journalism.
CNN admitted that it did not follow protocol in pushing out a story alleging that a Trump associate had improper ties with a Russian bank. The network had to retract the story, while the three journalists responsible for it resigned.
That latest CNN embarrassment came after a story authored by some of the network's top talent, including anchor Jake Tapper and political analyst Gloria Borger, was retracted after it was directly contradicted by public testimony from former FBI Director James Comey.
In his testimony, Comey also said that a New York Times bombshell story alleging Trump officials had colluded with Moscow was totally false and that most reports on the matter should not be trusted.
Those incidents have emboldened the White House, with Trump's allies in conservative media saying the mainstream media is nothing but "fake news."
Now, some on the left, such as Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi and Intercept founder Glenn Greenwald, are sounding the alarm. Both argued this week that media outlets are behaving recklessly in covering the Russia investigation, which has driven much of the coverage on CNN and MSNBC.
"Over and over, major U.S. media outlets have published claims about the Russia Threat that turned out to be completely false - always in the direction of exaggerating the threat and/or inventing incriminating links between Moscow and the Trump circle," Greenwald wrote. "In virtually all cases, those stories involved evidence-free assertions from anonymous sources that these media outlets uncritically treated as fact, only for it to be revealed that they were entirely false."