The CNN tour was particularly eerie the day I took it in mid-February. It was midday Saturday and most of the newsroom was empty, save for a few lingering producers at computer terminals. The cable news network was airing the Whitney Houston funeral live, which meant the station was seemingly on autopilot.
The tour guide told us that many of the station's bigger names rarely come to the Atlanta studios. Anderson Cooper, she said, lives and broadcasts from New York. Wolf Blitzer from Washington, D.C. Someone asked, "Why is that?"
"So they can be there when news breaks," she said.
I knew there was a problem with that statement, but it didn't fully come into focus for me until the past month. Reeling from historic low ratings (its lowest since 1991), CNN is now seen within the industry as a lion grown weak and hungry, unable to sustain itself within a herd that contains ratings king Fox News. (Type "Can CNN" into your Google search bar and the first autofill completion is "be saved.") It's why, despite expected profits of about $600 million — would that we all were so weak — Cable News Network's president Jim Walton announced last week he's stepping down at year's end. "CNN needs new thinking," he wrote to staff. "That starts with a new leader who brings a different perspective, different experiences, and a new plan, one who will build on our great foundation and will commit to seeing it through."
That may all be true. But it also suggests a solution that I fear will only make things much, much worse. Because so many people have incorrectly identified what is wrong with the station and therefore set about trying to engineer solutions that don't address its fundamental problem.
Number one, the problem with CNN is not ideological.
Some suggest CNN is losing viewers because Fox News has carved out an ideological identity on the right, and MSNBC on the left. (In prime-time ratings, CNN regularly loses to both now. It does better in daytime ratings.) Those same people usually say CNN is sort of soft-liberal — liberal enough to alienate the Tea Party and suburbanites, but not progressive enough to satisfy left-leaners. It's absurd, and the station should not waste time trying to prove otherwise. People who spend their time reading tea leaves to see signs of its liberalism are viewing CNN as they view the world: as an assault on their political viewpoints.
CNN is not interested in politics as policy. It is, like all big TV networks, interested in politics as theater, story, and celebrity — this is what it believes drives ratings. And that speaks to a larger problem — its star-fucking nature, both in terms of the news it covers (a Whitney Houston funeral, all freaking day long!) and the way it promotes from within.
Because, number two, the station must get rid of its star system, which destroys its brand as a serious news network.
Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper, Christiane Amanpour, etc. — these are people who became stars because they were dogged reporters. Now, though, they are hosts of their own shows, the face of the network. (Amanpour on CNN International.) They've risen to their level of incompetence. What made CNN great during the days when Bernard Shaw was in Atlanta and Peter Arnett and John Holliman were its "stars" was that they were dogged, serious news people. They shaped the brand with their work, not with their celebrity. The person who remakes CNN needs to understand that it can be relevant by committing to a staff of largely anonymous, cheaper, younger, dogged, smarter reporters.
The idea that CNN benefits from having Anderson Cooper or Wolf Blitzer hobnob in the same cities where every other gasbag journalist hobnobs is absurd. Set up bureaus, fine, but make Atlanta the center of your universe again. Show everyone that it's the intelligence and insight you bring to the story, that you're removed from New York and D.C., that matters. (Like Atlanta's own Don Lemon.) Send them back in the field, have able newsreaders in the studios, and tell better stories than the competition. And if they become so popular they demand the cushy studio gigs, let 'em go. Think like ESPN: It tells its talent, "We are more valuable to you than you are to us."
Finally, stop responding to criticism on the right and left. The social media age has made CNN a company that tries to please all critics, all the time. It is reacting to the flood of professional and amateur criticisms by doubling down on celebrity talent. (Like Anthony Bourdain, whom I adore, but who is so wrong for CNN and who will hurt, not help, its brand.) Fox News, for all its insanity, commits to its mission and ignores the critics. It's batshit crazy, but at least it knows what it is.
This is not to suggest I think great reporting cures all, nor that it necessarily makes money. I'm not that naive. But because CNN has the scale it does, it can highlight that reporting in ways competitors cannot. Its brand can become much more like a daily version of "Frontline," or "60 Minutes," or even just an American version of the BBC. These news orgs don't have much of a sense of humor, take themselves very seriously, and are old-fashioned in the best way. In other words, they don't do all-day pop star funerals.
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