Michael Wolff on Saving CNN…

Michael Wolff pens a typically Wolffian article on CNN and cable news talent…

To an ever and ever greater degree, cable news is about sliver audiences — even Fox News averages only a million viewers a night — targeted to melodramatic or campy political sensibilities. In the case of CNN, which tries to rise above single-bore politics, its specialty is the melodramatic and campy news event— the ever-missing plane —that draws the ever-declining news audience.

This reflects a problem with the cable audience — it’s overly fixated, if not fetishistic.

But it may also reflect a problem with cable news talent.

The very idea of what we used to call a television broadcaster, charismatic and authoritative, has been lost — with, arguably, Barbara Walters, retiring last month at 84, being the last living example in America.

Oh please. First of all, while the theory that the idea of what we used to call a TV broadcaster has been lost is inarguably open to debate still (See: Smith, Shepard, Tapper, Jake, Holt, Lester, Sawyer, Diane, Lauer, Matt, Scott, Jon, etc..etc…), the notion that Barbara Walter resembled the last bastion of it is ludicrous on its face.

The nadir of television gravitas may be Ronan Farrow on MSNBC. He’s a third-rate movie plot: The child anchor, self-serious and mimicking the adults, finding himself, through happenstance and cynical television logic, embarrassingly on the air.

Ok…no argument there.

A corollary to this is that nobody wants to go on television to be interviewed anymore — and television news is an interview medium.

Uh huh…that’s why networks aren’t fighting over scoop interviews any more. Oh wait…they still are! Well at least the interviewees have now embraced their dislike of TV interviews and only interview in print now. Oh wait…they don’t!

Now ambitious television talent wants another job. The savvy want to be Anthony Bourdain. That’s the most frequent pitch in the business: To be the Anthony Bourdain of…heath, technology, art, war…fill in the blank.

Right…that’s why news talent has stopped fighting to get on national TV news shows. Huh? They haven’t?

Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown is news for people who don’t want news. After all, cooking is his subject — arguably, a much more emotionally satisfying lens through which to see the world than the disconnection and anger of politics.

I’ll give Wolff 50% credit here for embracing Jeff Zucker’s vision – a vision that chooses to shift the discussion about what constitutes news rather than investing heavily into fixing what is currently a stagnant, boring, broken model that centers on exploiting political left/right divisions in this country. But in doing so, Wolf inadvertently touches on the real bane of cable news…cable news programming formats…and not a lack of quality talent available to do the job right.

In a sense, Bourdain is a throwback to that once-prevalent form, the magazine news show. Even in the heyday of television news, the talking head became stultifying and needed to be balanced by a larger, more dramatic and cinematic world. Hence, Dateline’s long run.

But the problem with magazine shows, and why they never made it in cable and, indeed, the problem with Bourdain’s show, is that they are expensive, whereas talking heads are not.

The Bourdain show has been a hit on CNN, and respite from the lost plane, but in order for it to make money for CNN, it has to be repeated many times, ideally, endlessly. CNN, in other words, has to become the Discovery Channel — and it is clearly trying to.

Ding, ding, ding…full marks to Wolff here…

As I say, this desire to restore CNN to some aspect of what it really never was and what, anyway, it is not going to be again — an assertive and authentic news source — continues against all logic.

Oh baloney…from 1980 through the mid 90’s CNN indeed was that assertive and authentic news source. CNN International to a great extent still is. CNN US is not. Not for the vast amount of programming it does unless a big story breaks.

But here is my suggestion.

Jeremy Paxman is the most famous broadcaster in Britain, a legendary interviewer and indomitable figure and, after many years, he has just, restlessly, left his job as the host of the BBC show Newsnight after 25 years. Yes, yes, there are the obvious dangers, after Morgan, of another English accent on CNN. A bad fumble, Piers. But Paxman is the real thing. What news needs, what it cannot coherently exist without, is authority. Two generations of cable news have pretty much wiped that out in America. So it probably has to be imported. With Paxman its withering authority. With vast superiority and haughtiness, which, of course, television executives undoubtedly believe will turn off an uncomprehending American audience.

On the other hand, some pitiless intelligence might be a cure. In contrast to Farrow and the gargoyles and the blah and the bland of cable, a figure like Paxman could be electrifying — please, find him on YouTube and send a note to CNN — and television news might seem quick, astute and knowing again.

I have nothing to say either for or against Paxman. But the idea that plugging Paxman into CNN, with its current perverted vision of what makes a good daily newscast and what constitutes news, is not going to do much other than corrupt Paxman and contort him to fit into the current paradigm. Until the paradigm changes, nobody you could name, living or dead, is going to be very successful at accomplishing what needs to be accomplished to make CNN that day in day out standard bearer of news again.

5 Responses to “Michael Wolff on Saving CNN…”

  1. Information sources have been revolutionized since the CNN was a standard bearer of 1980-1990 news coverage. CNN can never regain that position because only the nostalgic few really want them to. Time has a nasty habit of doing such things. Me, I miss the news reels at the movies. Come to think of it, that’s only about twice a year.

  2. If CNN had hired Jeremy Paxman instead of Piers Morgan he would be gone from the network just like Morgan. There are lots of perfectly serviceable American versions of Mike Wallace without looking to England for one.

  3. “(See: Smith, Shepard, Tapper, Jake, Holt, Lester, Sawyer, Diane, Lauer, Matt, Scott, Jon, etc..etc…)”

    Why did you use their last names before their first names?

  4. savefarris Says:

    I like how the author pretends there was ever a time without news bias. It was always there: we just didn’t know it until Drudge/Rush/FNC showed up and showed everyone there was a whole world of news that heretofore had never been covered save a John Stossel report here or there.

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