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Irony report: Was CNN 'tea-bagged'?

In a year when America’s tea party activists have been surging, cable news networks that slam the grassroots movement have been dying in the ratings. Is it merely coincidence?

As widely reported, 2010’s first quarter ratings for cable news networks were released earlier this month. Compared to the numbers in 2009, Fox News Channel, frequently reported as a favorite of the tea partiers, actually gained 3 percent over last year’s numbers, but MSNBC, whose left-leaning commentary has been far more critical of the movement, has dropped 15 percent of its audience.

Even more startling, however, is the ratings freefall of the former news giant CNN, whose viewing audience has been sliced by 39 percent.

CNN’s top show, “Larry King Live,” has been a microcosm of the ratings fall, losing more than half of its viewers when comparing March of 2009 to March of 2010. Fellow CNN host Anderson Cooper has lost 42 percent over the last year.

By comparison, Fox News Channel has had its best year to date: Greta Van Susteren’s show was up 25 percent from the first quarter of 2009, Bill O’Reilly’s show was up 28 percent and Glenn Beck has added 50 percent since last year at this time. The top 13 highest-rated cable news shows are all on the Fox News Channel, topped by “The O’Reilly Factor,” with 3.644 million viewers.

CNN’s Larry King, however, has slipped to No. 16 in the rankings, drawing only 655,000 viewers, or less than half of what O’Reilly draws for late-night reruns of his news show.

CNN was in the news in 2009, not for the stories it was reporting, but for the stories it was generating in its critical coverage of the tea parties.

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As WND reported, in April of last year, just as the tea parties were swinging into action on Tax Day, CNN reporter Susan Roesgen gave the cable news network a black eye by badgering tea party protesters on air, arguing with them during coverage of the event and labeling the event as “promoted by the right-wing, conservative network Fox.”

Video of the confrontation can be seen below.

Editor’s note: The following video includes an instance of strong profanity.

Two days following the report Roesgen took a vacation from CNN, and, Fox News reports, she now no longer works for the network.

At the same time, CNN’s Anderson Cooper created a firestorm by making a lewd joke on air about the protesters, saying, “It’s hard to talk when you’re tea-bagging.”

The phrase “tea-bagging” is a reference to an oral sex act, giving Cooper’s comment a vulgar double meaning frequently used since by those who sneer at the tea parties.

The network’s image took another blow in July of last year, when one of its most conservative voices, Lou Dobbs, was taken to task for raising the question of Barack Obama’s eligibility to serve as president.

Dobbs said several times he believed Obama was a U.S. citizen, and all he wanted was the president to produce a copy of his birth certificate, but the network clamped down on the host nonetheless.

According to the Los Angeles Times, CNN President Jon Klein wrote an email to staffers of “Lou Dobbs Tonight” insisting that the image of Obama’s purported Certification of Live Birth was enough to prove the sitting president’s eligibility:

“It seems to definitively answer the question,” Klein’s e-mail said, according to the newspaper. “Since the show’s mission is for Lou to be the explainer and enlightener, he should be sure to cite this during your segment tonight. And then it seems this story is dead – because anyone who still is not convinced doesn’t really have a legitimate beef.”

Dobbs and CNN then endured a furious campaign demanding the host be fired. On Nov. 11, 2009, Dobbs announced he was leaving CNN effective immediately, though he later insisted he was not pushed out, but that his departure was “amicable.”

Before the controversy, Dobbs show was drawing over 770,000 viewers, a number that would be good enough to make it the network’s top show now, were it pulling the same viewership today.

Why have CNN’s numbers tanked?

Michael Calderone of Politico asked nearly a dozen prominent media watchers, former industry executives and CNN personalities what went wrong at the network and how to turn the ship around.

Some of the answers included blaming the network’s ratings dive on Klein’s decision to dump the popular debate show “Crossfire,” while others suggested plain news coverage without driving personalities like Fox News Channel’s Glenn Beck or MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann just doesn’t attract viewers.

Michael Wolff, founder of Newser.com and a Vanity Fair contributing editor commented, “The viewing audience is just less and less interested in traditional television, civic-minded news delivered by what are, in effect, news readers.”

“CNN has to figure out how to make the news either more efficient or more entertaining,” Wolff continued. “These are the two keystones of modern news, and the network is deficient on both counts. I suppose I would try formats that gave you what you need to know in minutes instead of blocks and personalities that had stronger voices – not necessarily ideological voices, but more unique and identifiable ones.”

Despite the falling numbers and calls for more charismatic or ideological hosts, Klein has publicly insisted the network will continue to provide politically neutral coverage.

For many tea partiers, however – including those who challenged Roesgen in April or listened to Cooper’s vulgar joke – the impression of left-leaning bias in the network’s coverage may explain why the many Americans now fueling a rightward swing of the political pendulum are turning elsewhere for news.

Author HughS of the new media network blog Wizbang joins the charge:

“There is no ‘down-the-middle’ news strategy at CNN. The fact that Jon Klein asserts this is ludicrous,” he writes. “The fatal flaw afflicting CNN: Only the very few that still watch the network fail to see that it long ago traded it’s journalistic soul for ideology. Everyone else left. Will CNN ever learn that in the news business if you have an ideological slant it’s much better to say so upfront than to pretend not so and assume your listener’s agreement?”

A new article released by CNN producer Shannon Travis earlier this week suggests the network may be feeling the tea party heat. Travis traveled with the Tea Party Express tour, and his report had nothing but glowing praise for the movement.

“Here’s what you often see in the coverage of tea party rallies: offensive posters blasting President Obama and Democratic leaders; racist rhetoric spewed from what seems to be a largely white, male audience; and angry protesters rallying around the Constitution,” he writes. “But here’s what you don’t often see in the coverage of tea party rallies: patriotic signs professing a love for country; mothers and fathers with their children; African-Americans proudly participating; and senior citizens bopping to a hip-hop rapper.”

“Being at a tea party rally is not quite like seeing it on TV, in newspapers or online. That’s the reason CNN is covering this political movement,” he continued. “It’s important that with a newsworthy, growing phenomenon like the tea party movement, viewers and readers fully understand what they see and what they don’t.”