AKIE BERMISS: I’ve recently adopted a new coping mechanism for all the terrible news programs out there. I now categorized my news sources in three basic groups. There is the “What Is Happening” category – which is purely informative. No bent, no bias, no no-spin zones. It’s the kind of news you get from an AM news station (ie, this happened, its going to rain today, there’s a traffic jam north of you, the President ate pasta). I include those NPR top-of-the-hour updates in this category even though they tend to go a bit more in-depth. On the opposite side of the spectrum you have what should still be called “Journalism.” This is the information from the first category paired up with coherent analysis, some editorializing and context, and all of it carefully found, crafted, and fact-checked. Mostly, I think of this being emulated by many very good newspapers, many NPR-affliate stations that have news/information broadcasting most of the day, and by programs like PBS’ NewsHour. If you want to a) know what is happening and b) understand what is happening – you consult these sources .
Finally, there is what I call “The News.” This is most of what is available to us day in and day out. It’s the local tabloids that print sensational headlines and send their “crack” reporters in to get more dirt on things like the Cruise-Holmes divorce. And it’s the plethora of online newsblogs that spend the lionshare of their energy and resources not doing their own journalism but aggregating the work of others – which of course leads to blatantly biased aggregation styles or sloppy due-diligence in the headlong rush to be first. And this also includes the 24-hour cable news networks. Like FoxNews, MSNBC, and –- yes – CNN.
And odd as it feels to say, I think CNN is the least quality of those big three networks. It feels odd to say because for my entire life CNN has been the home of hard-hitting news. When I was a kid in the 80s and 90s we tuned in to CNN when we wanted extra-special coverage of things like the Presidential election or some on-going crisis somewhere or even just to get a comprehensive explanation of current events on any given day. But in recent years (with the rise of the aforementioned blogs and rival 24-hour news networks), CNN has really fallen off. At first it was just a lack of gravitas (ie, Wolf Blitzer in the “situation room”? please.) or some gimmicky programming but eventually it became the forfeit of real news for entertainment news. I used to put CNN in a category with PBS or NPR, but no longer.
By now its become an unfixable problem and in a recent article it looks as if CNN is trying to boost its sagging popularity by actually abandoning the 24-hour model wholesale and trying some non-news programming. I’m not sure what the thinking behind this is really, except that maybe when your back is against the wall you do whatever you can to stay in the game. It seems just too poetical to have the original Cable News Network trying to make a late-night version of “The View.” I mean, maybe if they changed the name to something like The Cable News & Entertainment Network it’d be a smoother transition. As it stands, it just seems like CNN has give up on the news.
In a fantastical world, I could see CNN coming back from this by simply swiping the slate clean. If you want to be a great news network, then go back to the news. Drop all the twitter coverage and the holograms of pop-stars and the skype interviews. Go back to getting diplomats and heads-of-state on the program. Do long feature stories that require months of research and journalism and air those in prime time. Get rid of the 1,000 political pundits and talking heads you keep around and select a core of real pros that can discuss things without leaning purely on party-approved talking points. There’s no way that CNN can beat MSNBC and FOXNews for satisfying the itch folks appear to have for treating politics like college sports. If Americans only tune in to root for their team, then it’s the audience that is at fault. Trying to court that audience undermines any true journalistic integrity that a company my try to have.
No, instead, revamp and try to court the people who actually may want to be informed. They may not be the zealots who will watch every night, come live tapings, and fight each other in the streets. But they will probably be a loyal and intelligent base that will pass their loyal intelligence on to their children. That’s why I watch PBS NewsHour. My parents watched it, they wanted reasoned, in-depth coverage of current events. When I want that – I got to PBS New Hour.
CNN could be that. They still have enough visibility to start over the right way. But, as I’ve written here before, the mind of television executive is a wild and unkempt thing. It does not comprehend boldness or invention. It is more likely CNN will be overrun with exploitative reality shows and talk-programming. So, for the huge swath of Americans that love that stuff – rejoice, there will be yet another way to get your jollies.
HOWARD MEGDAL: Is there any reason that a 24-hour news network couldn’t be extremely good? CNN’s budget dwarfs that of PBS. How about 24 hours of Newshour-style reporting? What exactly would they lose? What they could gain is a national reputation for in-depth reporting and getting it right.
You start at the beginning. You clean house. You bring in real newspeople to report. Lord knows there are enough of them floating around, thanks to the economy. And you don’t get people to tune in thanks to something flashy and new. You get it right today, then tomorrow, then the next day. Eventually, something huge will happen-a war, a flood, a massacre-and you’ll be far more informative as Americans want to know about it.
Walter Cronkite didn’t become Walter Cronkite in 30 days. He did it because he was Cronkite, day after day, year after year. He broke with the president on Vietnam. But that was a legacy moment not because he was brave, but because he was right.