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Fact check: Is Michelle Wolf right about Trump and the media?

Wolf at the White House Correspondents' Dinner
Did Michelle Wolf go too far at the White House Correspondents' Dinner? 10:12

Comedian Michelle Wolf took a number of pot shots during her routine at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner on Saturday night, including taking aim at the media itself. 

Wolf claimed that the media is profiting from President Donald Trump because his controversial policies and sometimes erratic behavior "helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV."

Wolf isn't the first to make this claim. Indeed, Mr. Trump himself has asserted that the media is profiting from the public's interest in his presidency. Wolf echoed that, and she criticized the attendees for failing to admit that "Trump has helped all of you."

"He couldn't sell steaks or vodka or water or college or ties or Eric. But he has helped you," she said. "He's helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster, and now you're profiting off of him."

The truth is more complex, yet it's undeniable that many outlets have benefited from a ratings boost since the presidential election. But tempering that is the media industry's long-term audience decline. In some cases, the bump is bringing audiences back to where they were several years ago.

For instance, prime-time cable viewership rose in 2016 to 4.8 million, the highest point since 2008, when viewership reached 4.3 million. In 2015, cable viewership had dropped to 3.1 million viewers, according to the Pew Research Center.

Evening news broadcasts are holding steady, although not witnessing much of a bounce. Viewership overall has declined by 22 percent for the three top evening broadcast news shows during the past two decades, dipping to about 23.8 million viewers in 2016 from 30.4 million viewers in 1998

For some outlets, the Trump boost may not be enough to offset those long-term declines. The publications cited below relied on Nielsen's TV viewing data.


This cable news channel trumpeted what it called "a ratings milestone" in 2017, earning its highest ratings on record with total viewers. In terms of prime-time viewership, the network recorded its second most-watched year since 2008. 

CNN cited strong performances from shows including "New Day with Chris Cuomo and Alisyn Camerota," as well as "unprecedented and record-high prime time viewership during the presidential primaries, caucuses, conventions" and debates. 

Still, viewership is off so far in 2018, which could be due to tough comparisons with last year's rise in viewership. In the first quarter, viewership declined 17 percent, according to The Hill

Fox News

Fox News got a viewship boost after the presidential election. The network was watched by an average of 2.4 million viewers in prime time during 2017, making it the network's most-watched year, according to trade magazine 

Like CNN, Fox News' prime-time ratings have softened in the first quarter, declining by 13 percent, according to a Fox News statement. The year-earlier quarter had enjoyed strong ratings following the presidential election, which provided a difficult comparison in 2018.


MSNBC saw the biggest gains in viewership in 2017 among the cable news networks, with prime-time viewership jumping by more than half. Overall, the network was ranked third in prime time among cable networks, trailing Fox News and ESPN. 

MSNBC said in a statement that it was the only network in 2017 to increase its prime-time weekday audience. It added that its decision to focus on breaking news during the daytime hours also helped ratings.

Unlike CNN and Fox, MSNBC has continued to gain viewers so far this year. Its audience rose 30 percent in the first quarter, helped by programming like "The Rachel Maddow Show" and "The 11th Hour."

The New York Times

Mr. Trump likes to call it the "failing New York Times," but the newspaper said it benefited from its "best revenue growth in many years" in 2017. Subscription revenue topped more than $1 billion last year, thanks to a boost in online subscriptions. 

However, the company's advertising revenue is far from regaining its footing. Ad revenue declined almost 4 percent last year, dipping to $558 million. Two decades ago, the Times consistently booked ad revenue of more than $1 billion annually. 

The Washington Post

The Washington Post stopped reporting its revenue and subscription statistics since it was bought by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos in 2013. Still, the newspaper's publisher said last year it has doubled its digital subscribers to more than 1 million. 


Like cable and newspapers, broadcast networks are also suffering from long-term challenges to viewership, including at their evening news programs. Unlike cable TV networks, most haven't seen a boost in viewers since the presidential election. 

"CBS Evening News" shed 6 percent of its viewers in the 2016-17 season. (CBS is the parent company of CBS MoneyWatch.)


Its "World News Tonight" was the most-watched evening newscast in 2017, reaching 8.9 million viewers on average each night, although it lost 6 percent of its viewers in the key demographic of 25- to 54-year-old viewers. 


Ratings for the peacock network declined 6 percent in 2017, excluding sports because 2016 was an Olympics year, which provides a short-term boost to ratings, NBC said. Prime-time ratings in its current season are up 11 percent in total viewers, however. 

"NBC Nightly News" lost 6 percent of its viewers in the 2016-17 season, according to The Los Angeles Times. Such declines aren't out of the ordinary given the fragmentation of media, including networks themselves streaming their programs digitally, the spokesman noted.


Book publishers have also seen a Trump bump. CNN's Brian Stelter noted that every New York Times hardcover nonfiction best-seller so far in 2018 has been about Trump, including James Comey's book "A Higher Loyalty," which was published in April by Flatiron Books. Other best-sellers this year include Michael Wolff's "Fire and Fury" and "Dear Madam President: An Open Letter to the Women Who Will Run the World," by Jennifer Palmieri. 

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