CNN once positioned itself between MSNBC and Fox on the political spectrum. But during Mr. Trump’s tenure, the network concluded that there was no profitable middle ground with a president who seeks confrontation with the media. The channel adopted an increasingly political focus, hosting dozens of Democratic primary town halls and debates. It also competes more directly with MSNBC than ever before for audience, offering Don Lemon and Mr. Cuomo as a more emotional, less cerebral alternative to Chris Hayes and Ms. Maddow.
And as much as MSNBC seemed thrown off by the coronavirus, CNN was ready, flexing its still-supple muscles for covering all-consuming news stories. Now it focuses primarily on the coronavirus, interlaced with impassioned and often viral monologues denouncing President Trump.
CNN remains a network identified with and defined by one man, Jeff Zucker, the chairman for news and sports at WarnerMedia as well as CNN’s president since 2013. He runs the 9 a.m. news calls, and his refrain has been to stay on the coronavirus. His fingerprints are all over the programming, and CNN’s confidence tackling the dangerous, physical scrum of breaking news paid off in its vivid coverage of Mr. Floyd’s death and the aftermath. He has been telling his staff for months that the pandemic is the central story, and he told me he anticipated it to dominate the rest of the year.
“Between now and November, there’s no chance it’s a normal political year,” he said in a telephone interview on Thursday. “That’s just not conceivable between now and the end of the year.” And while the network is now focused intensely on the crisis in America’s cities, coronavirus “is still the principal story of our time,” he said.
Lurking in the background for all the networks, though, is the question: How long can this last? Cable news appeared, like much of linear television, to be in terminal decline before Donald Trump turned it into the greatest, most terrifying show on earth.
CNN, the original cable news network that turns 40 on Monday, is at the heart of that question. Its commitment to on-the-scene reporting produced the riveting coverage, and arrest, of its correspondent Omar Jimenez on Friday morning. Its iconic status drew protesters on Friday night to its Atlanta headquarters, where they vandalized its globally recognized logo and defaced the building, putting CNN where it has often found itself in the Zucker years — right in the center of the story.
“They are telling our stories, and you are disgracing their building,” Atlanta’s mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, told demonstrators. But Killer Mike, whose real name is Michael Render, spoke for a nation exhausted by the endless adrenaline shots of news and conflict when he told the network to “stop feeding fear and anger every day. Stop making people feel so fearful. Give them hope.” A CNN spokeswoman declined to respond to his comments.