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Trump’s White House Can’t Stop Watching CNN

Analysis: CNN turns Trump off, but there are many reasons to keep the network on at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

President Donald Trump may not like CNN, but a lot of officials at the White House certainly seem to be watching the network intently.

The President earlier this month disparaged the AT&T-owned cable-news outlet while holding a joint press conference with British Prime Minister Teresa May. In the aftermath of that event, CNN anchor Jake Tapper revealed the White House canceled an appearance by National Security Adviser John Bolton on his Sunday public-affairs program, “State of The Union.” Just this week, the White House told a CNN reporter, Kaitlan Collins, that she would not be allowed to attend an event after she asked questions of President Trump while serving as a pool reporter for White House press.

In that vein, one could even look at a recent decision to give Jeff Glor of CBS News an interview with Trump as a shot at CNN, which now stands as the only mainstream U.S. TV-news outlet not to have secured an sit-down with him during his term in office.

“In some ways, this is more of the same” treatment the White House has used on CNN since Trump took office, notes Mark Feldstein, chair of broadcast journalism at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. “But it’s also an escalation.”

It’s easy to ascribe recent treatment as the handiwork of Bill Shine, the former Fox News Channel executive who recently ascended to deputy chief of staff at the White House, overseeing communications with the press. Shine’s used to throwing a couple of elbows at CNN and putting issues on the front burner that spark debate among liberals and centrists. And CNN this week has broken a couple of damning stories,  including airing a taped conversation between former Trump attorney Michael Cohen and then-candidate Trump.

But the tactics at work may be less about shutting CNN out than trying to separate the cable-news outlet from its viewers. “CNN is where independent voters go. The administration can leverage criticism against the network to plant doubt in the minds of that group about the information CNN presents,” says Richard Hanley, an associate professor of journalism at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn.  “CNN is the target of the Trump Administration because it represents the journalistic cable middle. MSNBC is too obvious a network for a Republican to attack, and Fox is the home team. CNN stands alone.”

CNN’s audience does draw viewers from across the ideological spectrum, according to research from Nielsen. In the first quarter, 31% of people surveyed identified themselves as conservative CNN viewers; 32% of them identified themselves as liberal CNN viewers; and 34% identified themselves as moderates. One CNN executive suggested the Trump administration recognizes that many CNN viewers aren’t locked into a particular political view, which means the stories they see on CNN have more power to persuade them about how to vote.

Internally, CNN doesn’t see reason to get antagonistic over recent squabbles over coverage. Reporters, producers and editors are not told to act in opposition to the White House, this executive said. “Our mission hasn’t changed, regardless of what the president may say about us,” this person said. “We are focused on what we’ve always been focus on, and our job is to cover this president and any president fairly.”

CNN is one of the media industry’s most recognizeable brands, but it has been under more intense scrutiny since Trump took office. Trump has been quick to dismiss CNN as “fake news,” and post a video on Twitter showing him wrestling an anthropomorphic CNN to the ground. His administration has attacked Jim Acosta, CNN’s chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta; Jeff Zucker, president of CNN Worldwide; and primetime anchor Don Lemon.

There are some signs the treatment is starting to wear thin. Shepard Smith and Bret Baier, two news anchors at CNN rival Fox News Channel, have pushed back against  the White House publicly for its treatment of Collins, as has Jay Wallace, the 21st Century Fox cable-news outlet’s president and executive editor. In a recent broadcast , Fox News’ Smith even called out Shine directly. When Pepsi gets angry over how Coca-Cola is being treated, you’ve got to think someone’s stepped over the line.

President Richard Nixon famously had a frosty relationship with the news media, notes Feldstein, the University of Maryland professor who is the author of “Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture.” It didn’t help Oval Office tenure. Nixon’s stance “built solidarity among the reporters. It had the opposite effect of what Nixon intended,” says Feldstein., “When you have Fox News defending CNN, that should be a warning sign.”

CNN staffers would prefer to focus on other stories, says the network executive. Viewers want to hear about the news of the day, not the struggles of the press to gain access to officials, this person says. CNN will no doubt continue covering White House activity, Despite President Trump’s protests, someone at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue hangs on the network’s every word.

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