If it were not for the torrential rain pounding the northeast the day would be almost entirely lacking in hard news. All three newscasts led from a sodden Rhode Island, where the Pawtuxet River was swollen with hundred-year floods. The weather was the Story of the Day. After that not a single event was newsworthy enough to warrant coverage by a correspondent at each of the three networks.    
click to playstoryanglereporterdateline
video thumbnailABCStorms, high winds, heavy rains in mid-AtlanticRecord floods in New England end soaking monthSam ChampionRhode Island
video thumbnailNBCCollege student loan system credit crisisFederal government takes over, cuts out banksChuck ToddWhite House
video thumbnailNBCFrance-US diplomacy: President Sarkozy visits DCTalks with Obama cover Iran, mideast, financeAndrea MitchellWashington DC
video thumbnailABCIran nuclear weapons program suspectedPhysicist disappears from Mecca, defects to CIABrian RossNew York
video thumbnailCBSRNC leadership criticized for extravagant spendingFundraising expenses include Hollywood sex clubChip ReidWhite House
video thumbnailCBSBoy Scouts of America sued for child sex abuseViolators listed as perverts in internal filesJohn BlackstoneSan Francisco
video thumbnailCBSChristian apocalyptic militia Hutaree arrestedIdeology disavowed by other paramilitary groupsBob OrrWashington DC
video thumbnailCBSPharmaceuticals warehouses targeted for theftLoad tractor trailers to supply black marketManuel GallegusNew York
video thumbnailNBCHaiti earthquake levels Port-au-Prince: Richter 7.0Red Cross promises full accounting for spendingRobert BazellWashington DC
video thumbnailCBSMonarch butterfly migration from Quebec to MexicoDeforestation threatens insects' winter habitatSeth DoaneMexico
RAIN IN RHODE ISLAND If it were not for the torrential rain pounding the northeast the day would be almost entirely lacking in hard news. All three newscasts led from a sodden Rhode Island, where the Pawtuxet River was swollen with hundred-year floods. The weather was the Story of the Day. After that not a single event was newsworthy enough to warrant coverage by a correspondent at each of the three networks.

Sam Champion, anchor Diane Sawyer's longtime meteoro-sidekick at Good Morning America, got ABC's newscast off to a rollicking start by wading thigh deep through the roiling waters of Cranston RI in bright yellow weather gear. Julie Martin of the Weather Channel was less ostentatious on NBC, confining herself to a verbal description: "Like many of the residents here, we ourselves have had to move locations many times to escape the rising waters." On CBS, Whit Johnson promised more of the same: "The rain is still falling. The river is still rising. The worst is still ahead."

OBAMA’S AGENDA Apart from the weather, there was little hard news. The White House correspondents at both ABC and NBC saw Barack Obama sign the final amendments to healthcare legislation. Both followed the President's lead--he held the ceremony at a community college in Virginia--and emphasized a sidebar issue, the revamping of the federal student loan program. NBC's Chuck Todd noted that government-backed loans had been administered by non-governmental lenders for 45 years. Eliminating the middleman represents "a victory over a favorite political target of Washington these days--the banks." ABC's Jake Tapper summarized the benefits in the new law both for debt-ridden students and pill-popping senior citizens.

Only NBC had a correspondent cover the other main business on the President's agenda, his diplomacy with his French counterpart, Nicolas Sarkozy. Andrea Mitchell offered this thumbnail sketch: "Blunt, passionate, short in stature--like Napoleon--with a large ego and married to a beautiful recording star and former model." Mitchell could not resist the pun after Bruni and Sarkozy had lunch at Ben's Chili Bowl: Hot Cuisine.

The two presidents discussed imposing sanctions on Iran to persuade Teheran to abide by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The last time Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy made a joint appearance concerning the Islamic Republic's nuclear technology was at the G20 Summit in Pittsburgh in September. Back then Obama announced that his spies had uncovered a secret uranium facility in the mountains near Qom. Claiming an Exclusive, ABC's Brian Ross now reveals how the CIA obtained its Qom scoop. The source was Shahram Amiri, an award-winning thirtysomething physicist, who went missing during a pilgrimage to Mecca. At the time, Teheran claimed he had been kidnapped; Ross now reports that it was an orchestrated defection.

As for the current state of Iranian nuclear research, Ross told us that the CIA still believes it is non-military: "Iran continues to leave the door open to developing nuclear weapons but has not yet made the decision to do so."

WATCHING THE VOYEURS Unlike his rival White House correspondents at ABC and NBC, Chip Reid at CBS landed a delicious assignment rather than the dry details of a signing ceremony. Reid got to tell us about Club Voyeur and its "performances by topless dancers and women in bondage outfits. In West Hollywood it hardly raises an eyebrow but in Washington it raised a major political ruckus." That is because an expense claim for a $1,946 evening at the Club Voyeur was filed by the Republican National Committee. Eventually the reimbursement was never paid but that does not mean that conservatives are not looking at the GOP and wondering "what the devil is going on," as CBS News political analyst John Dickerson told Reid.

PERVERSION GOES PUBLIC The Roman Catholic Church was off the hook for the day, thanks to the bizarre nomenclature of a piece of evidence in a civil lawsuit in Oregon, where the Boy Scouts of America is the defendant. The complaint is that the BSA maintained a cloak of secrecy around reports about troop leaders who sexually abused its boys. The BSA kept the information in a 20,000 page so-called Perversion File, which it used to enforce expulsions. CBS' John Blackstone and ABC's David Wright told us about the court's decision to make the Perversion File public and to allow the jury to see it.

I wager that if it had been called the Rehiring Prevention File the story would never have attracted national attention.

THE BEST FORM OF HOMELAND SECURITY Bob Orr at CBS covered the alleged assassination plot by the Hutaree Militia more cursorily than ABC's Dan Harris or NBC's Pete Williams on Monday. So now Orr plays catch-up, investigating whether Hutaree's apocalyptic preparations to precipitate an End Days battle with the anti-Christ are typical of the citizens' militia movement in general. The answer is No. Orr quoted the Southeast Michigan Militia, which disavows Hutaree: "A well-armed citizenry is the best form of homeland security." Orr generalized that "most militias do not plot attacks but they do share common traits: often extremely conservative ideology; race is sometimes an issue; and they usually oppose taxes, big government, social reforms--that kind of thing." NBC's Williams added that social networking Websites mean that the once-rural militias now recruit in cities too.

THE GREAT RX ROBBERY Who knew there was such a big black market in pills? Manuel Gallegus kept an Eye on Crime for CBS, reporting on a recent heist at a warehouse in Connecticut where thieves rappelled through a hole they cut in the roof. They loaded a tractor trailer with Eli Lilly's pharmaceuticals and drove away with loot worth $75m. How did they fence their stash? "Stolen drugs often make their way back into the supply chain through crooked wholesalers." So we could be buying hot pills at our neighborhood pharmacy.

NBC’S HAITI WATCH NBC continues to do the most conscientious job in following up on January's earthquake in Haiti. Since the start of February, when the intense crisis coverage had subsided, ABC and CBS have each only filed one story on earthquake relief. Robert Bazell's latest marks NBC's tenth in that time period. Bazell offered an update on the American Red Cross, which raised $396m for earthquake relief and has so far disbursed $106m for food and water, shelter, healthcare, and family services. Bazell extracted a promise that the balance will be spent to help the Haitian people and not for the charity's general operating fund, as happened in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001: "Many will be watching to see if that promise is kept."

BLUE TURNS ORANGE Lucky Seth Doane landed a CBS assignment to the fir forests of Michoacan in the central Mexican highlands. While he was there he worried about habitat depletion and deforestation, illegal logging and excessive use of firewood by local peasants. But mainly he was able to get on his horse and ride the southern end of the migratory route of the monarch butterfly, the groves where 250m of them spend their winter: "Blue skies turn orange."

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.