In Depth: Five Ways to Fix CNN?
Jay Rosen writes on Esquire.com about five ways to fix CNN. As with a lot of things Rosen writes about some have merit and some need more fleshing out. First of all I really wish Rosen and everyone else who writes about CNN would differentiate about what part of CNN they are talking about: Dayside or Primetime? The rules are different for each and what Rosen writes about fixing CNN is more applicable to one than the other.
1. Drop the chronic impartiality.
CNN is brain dead. They have worked themselves into an intellectual trap of having no particular point of view; they have convinced themselves that they can’t become right-wing like Fox or left-wing like MSNBC. As Jon Stewart demonstrated, CNN airs a dispute in which one side may be insane — the earth is flat — but the anchors fail to explain who is right. They need to cure this problem of “leaving it there,” because it’s killing them — it’s killing their brand, it’s killing trust, it’s lazy, it’s superficial, and it’s an audience loser.
Hang on…isn’t this supposed to the “fair and balanced” credo? We report, you decide? Present both sides and let the viewer make up their mind? Now this is suddenly a brand killer? Furthermore, who gets to decide what constitutes sanity and what doesn’t? If there is no set agreed upon standard then explaining “who is right” from an absolute sense is problematic. It then turns away from “who is right” to “who I say is right”. But that’s not necessarily right. And even O’Reilly lets the “loons” get in the last word even if he trounces them (or thinks he’s trounced them).
I would really like to see Rosen cite specific examples of “CNN airs a dispute in which one side may be insane – the earth is flat – but the anchors fail to explain who is right” That sort of TV spectacle sounds atypical on a day in day out basis for CNN. So if Rosen’s going to make this charge, he really needs to show us exactly what he’s talking about.
2. Take a cue from The Daily Show.
They should figure out how to emulate Stewart, but without the comedy: pointing out the absurdity and hypocrisy of what people say across television broadcasts, calling out demagoguery, the misleading use of facts, and the people trying to confuse us. They need to call BS on our political system. They almost had it with No Bias, No Bull, but they changed the title back to just Campbell Brown. If they had carried through on that idea — especially the “no bull” part — they could have forged a real identity.
If they figured out how to emulate Stewart, the media critics would pick up on it and say they’re emulating Stewart and have no ideas of their own. I disagree completely on No Bias, No Bull. The concept might have been a good one but the host seemed ill at ease with the role so it was the right call to go back. But is cable news primetime viewership, in an age where people want to hear what they expect to hear, willing to put up for long with a host that calls it down the middle and goes after BS on both sides? I’m not convinced they would. But that doesn’t mean CNN shouldn’t give it a shot.
3. Don’t give the audience what (you think) they want.
You can’t know what the audience will accept until you try new things, but they refuse to try anything new. CNN, and many other journalists, cavalierly state that they know what viewers want based on past and current choices, but it’s a narrow range of choices. No one knows what an audience wants ahead of time. (From Rosen’s blog: “But I’ve got some ideas.”)
This is dead on accurate. Cable news is risk adverse and I’ve argued as much elsewhere.
4. Social media is more than a gimmick.
The importance of i-Report is a myth. It’s useful when there’s breaking news and CNN can’t get a cameraman to the location, but I doubt that any producer at CNN considers it a central resource. A better use of citizen journalism would be an army of fact checkers and story spotters. That would be journalistically distinct. CNN wants to be first on the scene, but they don’t want to be distinct. Being on Twitter and Facebook is responding to trends, but hasn’t changed the idea of what they’re doing.
I’m ambivalent on i-Report. But to trust citizen journalists as fact checkers or story spotters is rife with problems from the get go. The chief problem is not all facts are universally agreed upon and not all stories are universally considered germane. This is particularly true for stories that have an ideological angle to them. Without consensus from the spotters, it’s still going to boil down to some producer or manager at the network to make the call as to whether the story meets the necessary standards. The same thing applies for fact checking because facts are also open to interpretation.
The problem isn’t as much that there is no agreed upon consensus for a story or facts but what happens after the story gets on the air and the side that didn’t think it was a story, or wasn’t told the right way, or disagreed with the fact checking starts screaming bias? Networks have it bad enough when their own internal story/fact checking mechanisms result in outside screams of bias. It would be much worse if the networks relied on groups of people to tell them what’s a story and what’s a fact because they could be seen as being swayed by outside entities. And we have enough of that already.
5. A news channel should break news.
If CNN were doing kick-ass journalism and bringing new stuff to the national attention, and they were still in third place, that would be a different situation. But what are the big stories they’ve broken over the past few years? Safety first isn’t going to get them there. It’s the product of smug, self-satisfied programmers who think that balance is itself a demonstration of superior journalism. They need a pro-reality bias.
Of all of Rosen’s points this is by far the most undefined, vacuous, and ambigous point of all. It’s so vague it’s almost not worth talking about. What on earth is a “pro-reality bias”? Did Rosen just make that phrase up? If you’re serious about fixing CNN the least you can do is show your readers what the heck you mean rather than throw out terms that aren’t defined.
All the channels break news, it doesn’t matter which one you talk about. The question then falls to what’s the quality of the news being broken and is the story being manufactured or aided and abetted in its germination by the network; the “we’ll keep pounding on it until someone else bothers to pick it up and then it might really turn into a story” approach. The networks can’t be seen as desperately looking for stories to break that they’ll break anything just to break something because that would undermine their credibility. There needs to be some litmus test, some benchmark for what qualifies as a real breaking news story and what doesn’t.’
It’s partly because there is no litmus test that we are subjected to what we are subjected to in cable news; car chases, structure fires, car crashes, balloon boy, dogs on ice flows, dogs in rivers…local stories all…yet all being “broken” on cable news…but none of these are the sorts of news Rosen would probably want to see broken.
If Rosen wants good investigative journalism that breaks news, well, CNN is already doing that. So I really don’t understand what Rosen is either trying to say or wants CNN to do with this particular point 5.