Once upon a time there was a groundbreaking 24-hour cable news network that came to dominate broadcast journalism. After nearly two decades as the undisputed leader in its market, CNN began to stumble and was eventually overtaken by both Fox News and MSNBC.
There are many factors that contributed to CNN’s decline, including a certain arrogance derived from having the field to itself for so long. When Fox came along and challenged CNN, they were unprepared for a competitor that didn’t really care about news, instead favoring a more entertainment oriented approach that focused on a sexier brand of melodrama and sensationalism. Also, the hardcore, right-wing partisanship of Fox News herded all of the conservative news sheeple into one corral, artificially inflating the ratings picture. From the start, Fox reflected the views of its financier, Rupert Murdoch, and its CEO, former GOP media guru Roger Ailes, who described his own philosophy of journalism this way:
“If you have two guys on a stage and one guy says, ‘I have a solution to the Middle East problem,’ and the other guy falls in the orchestra pit, who do you think is going to be on the evening news?”
And ever since Fox has been throwing Democrats into orchestra pits that were built by Fox engineers and reporting that in place of actual news.
In responding to the competition, CNN did not help itself by embarking on the path to Foxification. Their management made the foolish mistake of concluding that Fox’s success was related to their blatant conservative bias and abandonment of journalistic principles, and rushed to reproduce that model themselves. They installed Ken Jautz, a rabidly right-wing promoter, as it’s chief. Jautz was the man who gave Glenn Beck his first job in television. Then CNN went on a hiring binge that consisted of the most unsavory figures from Wingnutlandia including: Amy Holmes and Will Cain (of Glenn Beck’s The Blaze), Erick Erickson (of the uber-conservative blog RedState), Dana Loesch (of Breitbart News and the Tea Party), and E.D. Hill, a former Fox anchor and Bill O’Reilly guest host, who is most famous for saying that a friendly fist bump between the President and the First Lady was really a “terrorist fist jab.”
CNN was the only cable news network to broadcast live Michele Bachmann’s Tea Party response to Obama’s State of the Union address. Then they co-sponsored a GOP primary debate with the corrupt Tea Party Express. They also co-sponsored a debate with the ultra-right-wing Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. However, they conspicuously failed to program similar events with lefties like MoveOn.org or the Center for American Progress.
Dressing up like Fox was damaging to both CNN’s credibility and their ratings. Even Fox’s business network recognized that copying Fox News was a losing strategy. FBN VP Kevin Magee sent a memo to his staff saying that…
“…the more we make FBN look like FNC the more of a disservice we do to ourselves. I understand the temptation to imitate our sibling network in hopes of imitating its success, but we cannot. If we give the audience a choice between FNC and the almost-FNC, they will choose FNC every time.”
Unfortunately, no one at CNN could grasp that simple truth. Now CNN has a fresh opportunity to restore its former glory. Following the resignation of Jim Walton, CNN has tapped former NBC/Universal chief Jeff Zucker to replace him as the president of CNN Worldwide. Zucker has a mixed record at NBC. During his tenure the entertainment division went from first to fourth. He presided over the catastrophic move of Jay Leno to primetime, then back again to late night, which resulted in the loss of Conan O’Brien. However, NBC News boasts the top rated morning and evening news broadcasts. And MSNBC has rocketed into an unexpectedly competitive position with Fox. In fact, since election day, MSNBC has actually outperformed Fox.
Zucker has an abundance of existing assets with which to remake CNN into the global media powerhouse it used to be. They have more reporters in more parts of the world than their competitors. In fact, CNN has more domestic and foreign bureaus than Fox and MSNBC combined. Fox invests very little in news bureaus or other news gathering operations. The bulk of their expenditures is on their “celebrity” presenters and pseudo-pundits. Fox is an enterprise that is engaged more in news analysis and manipulation than anything resembling journalism. While MSNBC benefits from the substantial resources of NBC News, the cable network has concentrated more on opinion and advocacy in recent years.
All of this creates an opening for CNN to become what its marketing department already pitches the network as: a news channel. CNN’s audience still expects the network to perform at its best when some catastrophic event occurs. They continue to get high tune-in for natural disasters and acts of war. However, there isn’t always a convenient calamity to fill their airtime. So they cram their schedule with pablum and phony attempts at balance, but succeed mostly at boring their viewers with a desperate effort to avoid offending anybody.
The question now is, where will they go from here? The best way to put CNN back in the game is to adopt a hard news profile that dispenses with petty partisan bickering. In one of his first quotes after the announcement of his hiring, Zucker said that “news is more than just politics and war.” That’s true. Viewers have many immediate concerns that would compel them to watch a network that provided them with information about issues that impact their lives. That includes economics, civil liberties, health, crime, education, jobs, the environment, etc. And the job of a news network is more than just reporting what occurred. It is also putting it context, explaining matters that are often complex, and making the whole package entertaining enough to keep the viewer’s attention.
By concentrating on real news, CNN can stake out territory that its competitors are neglecting. They can focus on the fundamentals of journalism that consist of shoe-leather investigations, relevant interviews, and compelling production values. They need to jettison the political hacks who populate their studios and replace them with policy experts and academics. This will turn the predictable, partisan slapfights into informed discussions. And the audience can get something out of the program that is more substantive than a red face and ammunition for their next bout with a contrary uncle at a family dinner.
When the subject turns to politics, who would you rather see debating, for instance, raising the age for Social Security eligibility? A Democrat and a Republican who will spew the same old party line talking points? Or an expert on retirement economics and an apolitical career administrator from Health and Human Services? Obviously the later would be more informative, but it could also be more dry and difficult to sit through. That’s why the art of storytelling needs to be brought back to news reporting.
With actual intellectual content to convey, it would be up to anchors and producers to package it attractively. For that you need professionals who know how to tell a story and engage an audience. The newspaper business used to be full of people with those skills until all the papers started folding up. CNN could snap up some of that talent and put them to work juicing up stories that people are really interested in. In fact, there would nothing wrong with employing dramatists and humorists to write news copy that makes people feel something, so long as they stick to the news. And the presenters should be people with demonstrated abilities to connect with audiences on a personal level. Add some dynamic graphics and music and those experts on retirement economics can become downright scintillating.
Finally, there is a concept that has crept into the production of contemporary news that is not, and should not be, a part of quality journalism. CNN should ban the notion of balance from all of their reporting. Balance is a false objective. The goal of honest journalism should be truth. For example, it does no one any good to interview a doctor about the documented health risks of smoking, and then bringing in a tobacco advocate for “balance.” An opposite opinion is worse than a waste of time, it is counterproductive, if it is not based on reality. A news network should not tolerate science deniers, birthers, and zealots who peddle fables as if they were facts.
If CNN wants to be a player in cable news, they need to avoid accepting the terms of their competition. They need to set the terms themselves. And if they commit to identifying the issues that matter to people, and presenting them honestly and with a bit of showbiz flash, they can draw the kind of engaged and loyal audience that appeals to advertisers which, of course, is critical to success in this business. Plus, they can actually serve a positive purpose by educating viewers and advancing dialogs of substance. Even better, if this approach is successful it will spur other news enterprises to follow a similar path. Then, maybe, one day, we can be proud of the American media and not regard it with the disdain that it currently inspires.