COMMENTS: What Should CNN Do?

CNN has been getting plenty of advice about primetime programming so I thought I would take a detour from my permanent interest in the broadcast networks' nightly newscasts to look at the politics-obsessed cable network.

Michael Calderone at Politico assembled a panel of a dozen-or-so experts to offer suggestions to CNN that ranged from resurrecting Crossfire to becoming less bland to hiring new talent to reinventing its line-up completely. Jay Rosen, the New York University journalism professor, elaborated on his programming advice at PressThink. Rosen starts by interrogating the thinking behind CNN's--apparently unpopular--decision to position itself as a straight-down-the-middle, just-the-facts alternative to opinion-mongering rivals FOX News Channel and MSNBC.

Rosen paraphrases the conventional wisdom of media reporters thus: "Audiences seem to like their news delivered with opinion--right wing in the case of FNC, left leaning in the case of MSNBC." In response, Rosen characterizes CNN executives as confronting a false dichotomy: "Whether to continue with the journalistically superior We do not have a view, we are just giving it to you straight coverage, which is sometimes called 'hard news'; or to cave into a ratings-driven trend--ideologically inflected news."

Rosen, correctly, points out that "giving it to you straight" does not represent the absence of a point of view. It, too, is ideologically inflected, although it happens to be neither conservative nor liberal. He calls it "innocent"--the quest for a perch that sits outside the political debate, viewing it with no partisan ax to grind. He calls it the View from Nowhere.

Covering politics with a View from Nowhere leads to the commission of a multitude of journalistic sins, Rosen insists. Chief among them is the surrender of the role of evaluator. CNN-style journalists disqualify themselves from assessing the veracity, relevance or viability of the policies or positions that they cover. Instead they rely on conflicting parties to hash out their disagreements without intervention.

The resulting product is He Said, She Said journalism. It creates false equivalences. It shoehorns every issue into simplistic binary oppositions. It lets vacuous talking points stand unchallenged. It privileges process over substance, savviness over principle. It fixates on the incremental wins and losses of spinmesiters playing the daily news cycle. It offers no helping hand towards enlightenment to the audience.

This, argues Rosen, is why CNN's audience has failed to grow over the years. There is no doubt that the cowardly style of journalism that is the View from Nowhere is not very interesting and it may indeed be an explanation for CNN's failure to expand its primetime audience over the past decade. That long-term stagnation is suddenly newsworthy because the very recent past has been worse than ever. As Calerdone put it in Politico: "The future of CNN, never exactly bright the past couple of years, suddenly looked dire this week when ratings came out showing a 40% decline in prime-time viewers since 2009."

Rosen offers a five-hour slate of nightly programming that would maintain CNN's ideological non-partisanship but would replace hands-off innocent journalism with plenty of axes to grind. The programs would be choc-a-bloc with involved confrontation and independent judgment, invoking a range of points of view from outside-the-Beltway, from liberals, from conservatives, from libertarians, from crowdsources.

Rosen is someone who has thought and written long and hard about the combined crisis facing contemporary journalism--the civic crisis of its role in society, and the economic crisis spawned by the fragmentation of the mass media. So it is curious that his fix-it for CNN should address the former--how to correct the ethos of political journalism--while remaining quite conventional about the latter: what is the future for video newsgathering.

As video journalism, Rosen's five-hour slate offers no innovations in format. It divides primetime into the usual hour-long units. It imagines a succession of anchor-hosts to impart their personalities to each hour. It envisages the current hierarchy of content, mostly interviews with newsmakers and experts, next commentary from the anchor, with a sprinkling of reporting.

Rosen also accepts without question the narrow idea that the appropriate beat for the 24-hour cable news networks is politics. Spud at Inside Cable News in his essay for Mediaite on ...What's Wrong with Cable News makes the convincing argument that there is more to the world than politics: "You can blame cable news for going for the low hanging fruit of the cable news ratings world, the ideological partisans and political junkies. Like talk radio, cable news now looks to feed the political beast out there."

Rosen's complaints about the Church of the Savvy and the View from Nowhere are of such long standing that I suspect the true target of his suggestions was not the executive suite at CNN but that entire so-called Gang of 500. That would be the explanation for the lack of creativity in his line-up about how to make video journalism and his willingness to take for granted the narrow assumption that CNN's programming should be trammeled by that single beat. The Place for Politics as its slogan goes.

Anyway, it is much easier to cut through the Gordian knot at CNN if all one has to think about is improving its primetime ratings. The View from Nowhere does not need to be the first thing to go. The ax, first of all, has to be applied to Larry King. There is no coherent programming flow that leads an audience from John King to Campbell Brown to Anderson Cooper by way of LKL. As commenter Fritz 3 states so succinctly at Inside Cable News: "If they can't put Larry King out to pasture then move him to HLN with the other entertainment/crime shows.

Besides, as Spud also points out in his ...What's Wrong... essay, another problem with cable news is not that its ratings are too low but that its obsession with short-term gains in ratings gets in the way of its journalism. CNN's former anchor Aaron Brown points out in Calderone's article that the problem at his old network is not an economic one. CNN is highly profitable and does not need an immediate boost to its primetime ratings for business reasons. Retooling its primetime line-up in order to attract an audience that is the size of FNC's is not the most urgent concern for CNN management.

Instead, this is the question CNN has to answer. What do we need to do to ensure that is the leading site for video newsgathering ten years from now? How can we make sure that nothing we do in the short term will harm our brand's reputation for global reach, cutting-edge technology, interactive journalism, on-the-spot videography and broad expertise? CNN's sometimes silly fetish about showcasing the bells and whistles of its video technology fits in with the goal of trying to seem futuristic and reliable at the same time.

If the price to pay for that future calculation is current day journalism that is conventional, unpopular, bland and with a View from Nowhere it seems a price that CNN's corporate masters at Time Warner are willing to pay while they are cashing their not insubstantial profits.


I think there's a great discussion lurking concerning the differences/similarities between:

View from Nowhere/The Abyss of Observation Alone
Objectivity as a Stance vs. Process
Centrism as Ideology/Bias
Nonpartisan/Bipartisan as Ideology/Bias

I like thinking about these in terms of journalistic Epistemology/History/Bias

Something Jay once wrote that struck me was Half Baked, Fully Loaded: "I don't like bipartisan as the essential discipline or starting point but I do like 'no party line.'"

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