(Be advised: this might legitimately be considered a rant.)
I have seen a LOT of the domestic variety of CNN. Except when reading or writing I like to have a television buzz of some interest in the background, but henceforth that buzz will be supplied by the NFL channel. The deficiencies and accommodations of the Cable News Network can no longer be abided.
Where’s the News?
I recognize the sorry reality that a commercial news operation must attend to the bottom line, which means providing what the public wants. During the initial stages of the war against Iraq, for example, the ratings of Fox News left those of other networks in the dust because of its smothering overlay of unabashed patriotism and lack of even the slightest hint of critical analysis. CNN is hardly in the same league as Fox, whose “news” is so distorted that it must call itself Fox News and Entertainment, but the pressure is nevertheless there.
One would have to surmise that the viewers of CNN have virtually no interest in events outside the US, unless there is a spectacular disaster or somehow Americans are involved. And then engaging video and a chatty correspondent easily trump any but the briefest analysis of the situation, the video clip being endlessly repeated if there is not enough to cover the entire story. Even in stories originating in the US action and emotion are preferred, and weeping victims abound. This is not news. Neither are the antics of Paris Hilton, but celebrity buzz is a regular feature. Not even the need to produce 24 hours of programming can break the grip of vulgar appeal.
What’s Israel Doing?
A particular instance of catering to the audience rather than what is newsworthy is the treatment of Israel, which has in general received special treatment in American media of all kinds. Major events such as Operation Cast Lead in Gaza must be covered, but only in terms so neutral as to distort the presentation of facts. Excesses so blatant that they cannot be ignored will be mentioned but never with the sort of in depth examination and implied indignation associated with the activities of, say, the Palestinians or Iranians. To be fair, this bias is a facet of most commercial media in America and appears now to be breaking down in the face of increasingly provocative behavior by the current Israeli government, but it is a fact of CNN life.
Further limitation of the news presented results from the inclination to devote incredible amounts of air time to a story deemed important, regardless of whether there is actually anything more to be said concerning the issue. This is most obvious, as is presently the case, when dealing with American elections, during which process an army of correspondents will say essentially the same thing over and over, almost to the exclusion of reporting on anything else. An exceptional example of this came in 1999 when a plane piloted by John Kennedy went into the drink. Although there was virtually no information to report, for hours CNN repeated that non-information, all the while showing a live view of the sea where the plane was thought to have crashed. One can only conclude that because this event involved a high profile figure – a prominent Kennedy – CNN felt justified in presenting hours of what was in effect dead air time rather than turning to other news until there was more information to present.
Interviewing Cardboard Cutouts
What is the point of interviewing party hacks and government and business spokesmen? CNN (and other networks) do this constantly, despite the fact that they – and any informed viewer – know exactly what these people will say, resulting in a complete waste of time for everyone except the guests rattling off their generally meaningless bullets. Interviewing actual office holders or CEOs is something of a step up, but here also all one will generally get is uninformative canned answers and PR points. Anchors appear usually unwilling to press an unresponsive guest, especially a politician, presumably because they will never get another interview, and even though nothing is learned by the viewer, featuring a prominent politician is seemingly good for the ratings and they are consequently not to be offended. The irony of course is that most of these people come away looking precisely as if they have something to hide and are self-serving. Suffering fools gladly only reinforces the behavior of the fools. (It should be added that Fareed Zakaria is the grand exception at CNN.)
Cult of Personality
The real heroes of journalism are the foreign correspondents, serving in the trenches of newsgathering and frequently risking life and limb in the process. Yet it is the anchors in their studios who are lionized and advertised. Wolf Blitzer is not
Edward R. Morrow or Walter Cronkite; apart from his name he is a completely unremarkable newsman who throws only the softest of balls in his interviews and appears extremely uncomfortable when dealing with the plain-speaking and blatantly honest Jack Cafferty. And excepting the odd satirical poke, why should we care what these people do in their free time? Precious hours of air time were expended on stories about Nancy Grace’s stint on Dancing with the Stars, leaving me wondering why this was more newsworthy than, say, sectarian warfare in Nigeria. And of course no catastrophe can be adequately covered until the arrival of Anderson Cooper and Sanjay Gupta.
One additional note: there is apparently a Nacht und Nebel policy when one of these stars falls from grace. In the past couple years two very prominent CNN hosts, Lou Dobbs and Rick Sanchez, simply disappeared, so far as I know, without any explanation from the network.
I Am Not a Child
How many pre-schoolers watch CNN? Then why am I being protected from words most adults have been using since grammar school? This sort of censorship is especially silly in an age when there are vast numbers of unrestricted cable and satellite channels and even the stuffy FCC is considering relaxing the standards for broadcast television. This naughty word censorship has always struck me as bizarre inasmuch as anyone hearing “(bleep) you” or a reference to the “F-bomb” will automatically mentally fill in the word “fuck,” just as hearing the term “N-word” leads to the translation “nigger” in every functioning brain. A word is a symbol, and what is being symbolized hardly goes away simply because another symbol is substituted: is it somehow less offensive if I say to a black man “Hey, N-word!” Perhaps some sort of mythic thing is going on here; you can’t work evil magic on the sorcerer unless you use his real name.
Further, while I have no particular desire to see huge amounts of gore on the news, dead bodies are a fact of life, and perhaps if we could all see the stunning images of exactly what a Hellfire missile does to a human, especially a child, we might not be so enthusiastic about their use. Such censorship can only contribute to the notion already suggested to the young mind by movies and video games that there is no serious consequence to the use of violence. War is not a game, and collateral damage is slaughtered innocents.
Finally, pixilation is getting out of control, and I suspect we will soon see nothing but background landscape in news video, as all the humans are pixilated to avoid any legal problems or offend a single viewer. Especially galling is the pixilation of the hand with the one-finger salute. Not only does everyone know immediately what the gesture is (mythic again; if you can’t see it clearly, it won’t hurt you), but the upraised middle finger is one of the most iconic exports of America, rapidly displacing the corresponding gestures of other cultures. I have indeed seen Israelis and Palestinians flipping each other the bird, but we will certainly not see that on the news, at least not clearly.
Undermining the Serious
Why do anchors need to chat with correspondents? Is it not more serious and appropriate for thinking adults for the correspondent to simply give his report rather than pretending he is having a conversation with a clever and penetrating anchor? And no serious journalist should ever employ the word “exclusive,” the use of which catapults one right into the world of Hollywood and tabloids.
Last, and far from least, is CNN’s prodigious use of teases. It is one thing – and a benefit – to know what stories are coming up, but the tease is exasperating. “Here are numbers 5, 4 and 3 of the top 5 whatever; stay tuned (through the ads) to discover what 2 and 1 are.” I suppose this works with the weak-minded.
And you very likely just wasted your time reading something you already knew.