In Depth: To stress primetime or to not stress primetime? That is the question.
The Baltimore Sun’s David Zurawik makes a passionate case for CNN staying the course…
Here’s why I am so passionate about this: CNN is our last, best hope for a full-service, worldwide, US-based, TV news operation dedicated first and foremost to offering verified information and facts rather than opinion and commentary. Such information is crucial to democracy. If CNN fails, you tell where else we will find such information in time of crisis on TV. Jim Lehrer’s “NewsHour” aspires to the same goals, but it has a tiny staff and nothing close to the kind of funding it taakes to cover America let alone the world.
And as the networks cut back, CNN has expanded to 36 bureaus worldwide.
Here’s my rebuttal:
While it could be so argued that CNN is the “last best hope for a full-service, worldwide, US-based, TV news operation” the point that CNN is solely “dedicated first and foremost to offering verified information and facts rather than opinion and commentary” is not a totally accurate appraisal. Witness Rick’s List. Witness CNN’s foray into the Twitter-verse and bringing people’s opinions on stories to the air. CNN is not pure as the driven snow on this matter. Not anymore. It may be more pure than MSNBC or FNC but that doesn’t mean that CNN domestic isn’t already tainted.
Zurawik argues “If CNN fails, you tell where else we will find such information in time of crisis on TV.” This is somewhat of a straw man argument because in a time of crisis all the networks tend to buckle down and just report the facts. For proof of this all one has to do is look at history. 9/11, anyone? Katrina? But say for the sake of argument that CNN did go opinion and commentary, someone else would step in to fill the void. There would still be a demand for straight news and therefore a business opportunity to be had. Cable nets might start carrying BBC World News or CNN’s domestic’s more pure sibling CNN International.
Zurawik tries to drive his point home with this statistic: “And as the networks cut back, CNN has expanded to 36 bureaus worldwide” True but this misses a big point. CNN domestic wouldn’t have that many bureaus at its disposal if CNN International didn’t exist. You can’t separate the two. If CNN domestic stood alone, you can bet your last dollar that the number of bureaus it had would be a lot smaller because the cost would be too high to maintain 36 bureaus. CNNI’s world wide reach, along with other CNN networks like CNN en Espanol amortizes that cost and gives CNN domestic one hell of a news bureau subsidy.
Lastly, Zurawik argues to Howard Kurtz that CNN can afford to not make a ton of money in primetime. That’s true. But where Zurawik starts to falter is when he blames FNC and MSNBC PR for their ratings releases talking about how down CNN is. The blame goes all around and that includes CNN PR, which maintains this ridiculous war between itself and its competition by noting when the other guy’s ratings tank or when their programming has a ratings spike. CNN PR has over the years done as much to make primetime the issue it is as the other guys have. Ye reap what ye sew.
Here’s my point, and it’s one I’ve argued before. If CNN is so dissimilar in its approach and focus than either MSNBC and FNC as it and media critics like Zurawik argue, then it needs to stop comparing itself to the other guys. It can’t have it both ways. It can’t keep sending out press notices noting its ratings successes vs. the other guys (when they occur) and expect the other guys to not hit back. If it wants to argue that it’s doing things differently, it needs to reflect that in its PR notices and stop making comparisons, because that 1) draws the other guys to make comparisons in their releases and 2) makes this look like a fight between three networks with similar missions for media writers and critics like Zurawik himself, even if Zurawik doesn’t believe it is.
You can’t say you’re doing things differently with much credibility if your PR is making it like a fight for the same thing the other guys are after. Change the strategy. Stop the comparisons on your end. Then, if the other guys continue with the comparisons then you say, “we aren’t doing the same thing”. And you won’t have a paper trail that contradicts you undermining your case.
The alternative is to keep the paper war flying, complain that “we’re not on the same mission,” and suck it up and take the lumps in the press you’re bound to receive when your ratings don’t pass muster compared to the other guy’s.