Where have you gone, CNN?
By David Brandt
CNN is like family to me.
The first-ever 24-hour news network in the industry and I share a few traits. Both of us were born in 1980. Both of us were born and raised in Atlanta. And both of us completely lose it whenever snow falls for more than 20 minutes in and around town.
We also both love journalism … right? I do, though I struggle with its state in the realm of public discourse from time to time. And I’ve been thinking for a while now that CNN has been struggling with it to the point of desperation. It tried to stretch itself so thin to meet the supposed desires of an audience more and more inundated with hyperbolic, personality-driven commentary, incessant social media fandom, and outlandish publicity stunts – largely thanks to the neighborhood kids that eventually hit their growth spurts to become CNN’s bullies: MSNBC and FOX News.
Ratings for the network have been reported to be at their lowest point since before the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s, an event that introduced the era when CNN set new standards for reporting and made 24-hour news coverage essential to the viewing public. Earlier this month, political correspondent turned-anchor John King had to see his show cancelled and replaced by an extended hour of Wolf Blitzer’s “Situation Room,” complete with the beard that’s as monotone as his voice. For several years before then, the network went through a cycle of prime time shows that all ultimately failed until the network settled on pulling the quasi-network brand Anderson Cooper back to the slot.
But it was the June 28 decision by the Supreme Court regarding the Affordable Health Care Act that the deer that is CNN jumped in front of the oncoming truck. For several minutes as the decision was being read, CNN wrongly reported that the law known as “Obamacare” had been overturned. Granted, FOX News also blew it by delivering the wrong outcome of the SCOTUS decision, but they’re regularly doing things like that – to the point that this May 2012 survey shows that viewers who watch FOX News know less about current events than people who don’t watch TV news at all. And yet, FOX News remains No. 1 in cable news ratings.
I hate to say it, but I think CNN – my brother from a media corporation (sorry, “person”) – is about to snap. It’s time for some tough love.
The reality is that technology has advanced and blended well enough into our culture that news and information can be made available in our pockets on command. So, what do we need CNN for now, much less any 24-hour news network? “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart has made the argument that 24-hour cable news is good for one thing only: 9/11. In this day and age, it’s a valid point, one that may be obsolete as early as tomorrow if Apple or Google continue to have it their way.
Frankly, the surging computer tablet market may be the start of the sunset for a 24-hour cable TV news network. Because there are plenty of organizations out there supplying content around the clock. If I can’t sleep and it’s 3 a.m. and I want to read about the latest conditions in Egypt as it forms a new government or I just want to laugh at a video of a cat that can juggle other cats (I don’t have a link, but you better believe that’s coming), I won’t need CNN, FOX News, or MSNBC to provide it for me. Competition is a beast.
But I’ll tell you exactly why we need CNN: The time has come for an arbiter of cable news. The need is there. For too long, as journalists and the audience, we let the slippery slope of audience pandering get even slipperier. FOX pushed the infotainment-masked-as-news business model first. MSNBC followed with a modified version. And I guess CNN just thought it was the future. Well, it wasn’t wrong about the prediction, but they were doubly wrong to follow down the same path.
Aside from allowing Piers Morgan to interview President Obama just so he can ask him “which breed of dog taste best,” things probably can’t get worse for the network. But with renewed cries for fact-based reporting instead of more airtime for opinion, CNN can be that arbiter. Focus more on the reporting rather than the ratings. Drop the personality-based programming and stick every anchor in the middle of a location around the world where the biggest stories are happening (You have, from all evidence, the largest news gathering organization of any network on the planet – use it.). Do what is different from the competition – we need something different, but it has to assure us that this is the way it is.
You’re like family to me CNN, but for your sake, I need you to get your act together. Now.
David Brandt is the Web managing editor for the Institute of Industrial Engineers, where he writes and edits Web content, produces new media projects, and writes for a monthly magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @iamdavidbrandt.
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