POLITICS

CNN, You Are Still Pretty Terrible

06/05/2013 07:29 am ET | Updated Jun 05, 2013
AP

Hey, CNN, If you’re reading this, tie yourself down to whatever chair you're sitting in, because this is going to be a rough ride.

A little over a year ago, we wrote you an earnest missive, telling you guys that you were terrible. We believe we said, specifically, that you guys were a “God-awful, wall-to-wall, epic mess.” At the time, you guys were coming off a 10-year ratings low that you completely deserved. Strangely, you guys said publicly that it was not “much of a problem,” and that all you guys needed was “to come up with a plan to restore momentum.” By which you presumably meant a plan that was somehow unlike all the other plans, that provided momentum of the downward, into-a-hole variety.

Our alternative suggestion was for all of your key decision-makers to do the honorable thing and commit seppuku. But, okay, you guys didn’t go that route.

Instead, you followed a path that led, perhaps inevitably, in the direction of your embarrassing performance in Boston, covering the Marathon bombings and the subsequent manhunt for the suspects. This was the sort of event that CNN is built for -- even at your lowest points over the past few years, critics have had to concede that Brian Stelter was spot-on in his assessment that “people tune in to CNN the same way they hurry to a hospital when they think they are having a heart attack.” And the good news is that your marathon-bombing coverage earned your network a healthy spike in the ratings, as people flocked in droves to watch you report on the goings-on in Boston.

The bad news, of course, is that just means more people saw what happened.

So let’s try this again, then, CNN. You are terrible. We are here to help.

CNN Makes A Zucker’s Bet. A year ago, we imagined that the best possible thing that could happen would be for everyone to come to work at CNN one day only to “find that all of the people who have been making these decisions were no longer there.” In our imagining, that would allow the people at CNN who know the nuts and bolts of newsgathering, and their simple skill sets, free reign to execute the daily work of a cable news channel without having all the so-called “visionaries” sitting around, "ideating" all sorts of nonsense, and drecking it up. The gist: get back to basics, and flourish.

zuckerYou guys haven’t gone that route. Instead, you went out and got another gimmicky visionary to reimagine your entire business -- Jeff Zucker, the guy who turned NBC into a barren hellscape of forgotten dreams and peacock corpses. Salon’s Alex Pareene offered the essential “future predictions based on past performance” assessment:

The best-case scenario is that Zucker’s reign is a glorious and hilarious catastrophe -- as it became at NBC -- presenting us with so many plot lines for Season 4 of “The Newsroom,” (this seems to be what some of the “this is a good hire” arguments secretly boil down to), but everyone should be clear on this point: You don’t hire Jeff Zucker if you want to create a more credible news organization. You hire him for gimmickry and “buzz” and you do so with the understanding that it could all blow up in everyone’s face and essentially destroy your entire organization.

As stated, Zucker’s vision is to “to broaden that definition of what news is, while maintaining the standards of CNN’s journalistic excellence.” At first blush, we worry about this whole “broadening the definition of news” thing. We rather think that what cable news lacks is a depth of coverage of “news” as it is presently defined. Broadening the definition seems to ensure that more “news” will be covered in even more shallow a fashion. But then, who knows what Zucker even means by this? His statement of vision may simply be some focus-group tested line, designed to sound pleasing. It could also mean that a bunch of Zucker-esque stunts are coming.

But look, this doesn’t necessarily mean bad things. In fact, let's take stock of some ways in which CNN has gotten better, because there have been significant improvements that may point the way to further revitalization.

tapperOne of Zucker’s first moves was to sign up Jake Tapper to anchor an hour-long news program, rescuing him from the bowels of ABC News, where he was chronically under-utilized. Tapper’s brief interregnum running ABC’s “This Week” was one of the few times the show was decent television. He experimented with the format, sought out new voices, established a partnership with fact-checking, and generally went at the task with a tinkerer’s glee.

Tapper, a listener and prolific social media sharer, demonstrated that he deserved taking the reins of a news hour. Now, he’s a face on your channel. Maybe even the new face of your channel. But you should let him get under the hood, too. He’s the sort of newsman who can show you that a new pair of fuzzy dice is no substitute for a souped-up, muscle-car engine. He's passionate about making deep connections with viewers and bringing a diversity of voices onto the air. Stay out of his way and let him do this.

And this may surprise you to learn, but we’re rather bullish on “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.” To treat Bourdain as a mere celebrity chef is to give the man short shrift. Bourdain’s 2006 dispatch for Salon, “Watching Beirut Die,” proved that he has real journalistic chops, a keen eye for detail, and real concern for the world around him. Over time, those who have watched Bourdain’s output have come to realize that he has a tremendous affinity for common people. As he wrote, “the world is, in fact, filled with mostly good and decent people who are simply doing the best they can.”

bourdainSo while his show will report “through the prism of food,” it’s clear that Bourdain will likely continue to do what he does best -- bring dignity to the ordinary lives of ordinary people. That’s a really good ethos to turn loose in a news organization.

Another guy with a similar guiding philosophy is Morgan Spurlock, whose work is all about levelling the field between those with power and those without -- and doing so with a puckish, entertaining attitude. We're excited that his CNN show, "Inside Man," is going to examine "rarely-seen sectors of American life that include gun lovers, marijuana growers, migrant farm workers, and end-of-life caregivers." CNN, you guys all should allow yourself to be surprised at how good stories like this can be, and do more of it yourselves.

Zucker would do the world a service if he used these shows as models, telling his charges to stop fetishizing elite thinkers and think more about the lives that bear the brunt of the hardships that come from policymaking. Maybe this is a sign that CNN's DNA is going to change in a number of significant, positive ways. We want to believe that these moves are going to be a part of some reinvigorated thinking about CNN's programming, isolated points that are going to be part of larger trend.

But we have doubts!

Rebirth Of The Worst. See, then we read that Zucker is hard at work, fashioning a remount of “Crossfire,” which deftly manages to twin “We are going all in for gimmicks galore!” with, “We are all out of ideas.”

There was a time, perhaps, when “Crossfire” featured content that was worth respecting, or at the very least, pointing a camera at and using a complicated and expensive broadcast infrastructure to beam it around the world. Its final incarnation -- in which partisan hacks Paul Begala and James Carville and Tucker Carlson and Robert Novak blathered talking points and bromides at each other in a loud, low-stakes panel argument -- was nigh on useless, and rightly called out by Daily Show host Jon Stewart for infecting the world with awfulness.

It’s rather remarkable that CNN is seemingly driving hard in an effort to bring this show back by this month, as it sits at cross-purposes with what should be CNN’s logical branding strategy. If CNN is the network that people turn to in a crisis, looking for news they can trust, it makes no sense to invest so heavily in a show that will only invert the signal-to-noise ratio that viewers are seeking.

gingrichYet, according to reports, this is exactly what your network is doing. Dylan Byers says you guys are “in talks” with political gimmick-monger Newt Gingrich and Obama campaign dark-artist Stephanie Cutter -- two people stupendously ill-suited to provide clarity to the important issues of the day, because their whole objective in life is to slather the discourse in pointless, partisan mystification. (It has recently been reported that Cutter has been hired to help big banks elude government regulations, so it will be great to know that the “liberal” perspective of "Crossfire" will be thoroughly vetted by Bank of America prior to broadcast.)

Bringing back "Crossfire" makes even less sense when you consider that CNN’s avowed goal is to find some sort of sweet-spot between what Fox News and MSNBC are doing. Right now, Fox has a panel show called “The Five” (a bunch of right-wing talkers spend the afternoon pummeling the weak-willed Bob Beckel into submission) and MSNBC has “The Cycle” (three liberal talkers and S.E. Cupp don’t always agree, but they’re still great pals who love to chat!), so the market is well-nigh saturated. And your own viewers keep sending you the same message, again and again: they do not want another dumb panel show.

cutter maddenAccording to recent news, Cutter -- along with former Romney aide-de-camp Kevin Madden -- are being hustled onto CNN's airwaves to serve as contributors. We're already bored, because we already know exactly what these two are going to say. We even realize what you guys apparently don't -- Cutter and Madden speak for establishment political parties, not authentic liberals or conservatives. They are both walking press releases, and a waste of time.

Why rush to imitate the competitors you are trying to separate yourselves from? If you truly want to distinguish yourselves from Fox and MSNBC, then you should be keeping anyone with the words “[NAME OF POLITICAL PARTY] consultant/strategist” or any past-sell-by-date political celebrities as far away from your airwaves as possible -- not give them their own show, to be useless.

And while we’re on the subject ...

morganMorgan’s Organ. Surely we can all sit back and recognize that this Piers Morgan experiment -- it is not working. Viewers have fled the sight of the shallow, callow, thin-skinned British import in droves. Yes, his ratings are up, but they literally had nowhere else to go after a dismal winter in which his show “sank to a 2013 low in the prime 25-54 demographic with just 87,000 viewers,” placing him slightly ahead of most televised stool samples.

Keep telling yourself things are going to get better if you want, but if you’re smart, you’ll check out Zach Beauchamp’s “Why Piers Morgan Is Terrible, In Five Interviews.” It is a journalism master class in why you should not hire Piers Morgan, whose show Beachamp correctly describes as "a perfect storm of substanceless, venal chatter glued together by Morgan’s uncanny ability to make everything about him."

It’s never a good thing when two of your prime time host’s most notable interviews involved the subjects either never showing up (as would-be Missouri Sen. Todd Akin did) or getting up and leaving midway through (as would be 2010 would-be Delaware Sen. Christine O’Donnell -- who should not be getting booked on any news program! -- did), leaving Morgan to interview an empty chair. This is not, as they say, a “sustainable business model.” But the worst thing about these escapades is that, as Beauchamp points out, the ensuing exercise was largely about Morgan broadcasting his grievances about being inconvenienced.

Of the Akin interview, Beauchamp astutely notes:

While it’s admittedly amusing, the rant is a perfect example of how Morgan makes everything about Piers. The host notably does not lecture the chair about either its limited understanding of the human reproductive systems or the misogynist underpinnings of the idea of sorting rapes by their supposed “legitimacy.” Instead, the issue is Akin inconveniencing Morgan; the congressman cancelled at “the last possible minute,” making him a “gutless little twerp.” Even in his follow-up interview with Democratic Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Morgan shies away from the substantive issues raised, asking Schakowskym, Akin "bailed on us. What do you think is going on here?”

This is Morgan’s stock in trade. At the height of the of the post-Sandy Hook tragedy, Morgan brought on Infowars panic-monger Alex Jones, for what was advertised as a “debate.” Jones, a paranoiac of the highest order, traditionally traffics in elaborate and irresponsible “false-flag” conspiracy nonsense. If you’re going to give Jones a national platform, it had better be for a damn good reason. But for Morgan, the animating event wasn’t a horrific mass shooting, it was that Jones had put a “Deport Piers Morgan” petition on the silly, non-binding White House “We The People” website.

All of which is galling enough, but compounding this disaster was that Morgan wasn’t actually prepared to debate Jones in any conventional sense. Most of the back and forth went like this:

MORGAN: How many gun murders were there in America last year? Do you know?

JONES: There were about 11,458, and about 74 percent of those were gang-related, gang-bangers shooting each other. You get three-and-a-half to four thousand --

MORGAN: Okay. That wasn't --

JONES: How many people died from infections in hospitals? 197,000.

MORGAN: So let me just ask you a second question.

JONES: That's right.

MORGAN: How many gun murders were there in Britain last year?

JONES: How many great white sharks --

MORGAN: No, how many --

JONES: kill people every year but they're scared to swim?

MORGAN: Right. How many gun murders were there in Britain?

JONES: A very low amount and I already went over those statistics.

If you think that Alex Jones has never had to contend with gun homicide statistics in the relatively gun-free Great Britain as a data point that opponents have thrown in his face, you’ve not sufficiently familiarized yourself with Alex Jones’ oeuvre. But this is exactly what Morgan thought was worthy “debate” content, and he continued to prattle at Jones using weakly pithy gun trivia, as if he actually thought this was going to trip Jones up.

In another debate that Morgan thought he’d mount against a member of the pro-gun right, the CNN host invited Breitbart contributor Ben Shapiro to have an argument. All you need to know about Morgan’s journalistic chops is contained within this exchange:

BEN SHAPIRO, EDITOR BREITBART.COM: You know, honestly Piers, you have kind of been a bully on this issue, because what you do, and I’ve seen it repeatedly on your show. I watch your show. And I’ve seen it repeatedly. What you tend to do is you tend to demonize people who differ from you politically by standing on the graves of the children of Sandy Hook saying they don't seem to care enough about the dead kids. If they cared more about the dead kids, they would agree with you on policy. I think we can have a rational, political conversation about balancing rights and risks and rewards of all of these different policies, but I don't think that what we need to do is demonize people on the other side as being unfeeling about what happened at Sandy Hook.

MORGAN: How dare you accuse me of standing on the graves of the children that died there. How dare you.

SHAPIRO: I’ve seen you do it repeatedly, Piers.

MORGAN: Like I say, how dare you.

Do we have this right? Piers Morgan invited an outspoken conservative firebrand on his show, pointed cameras at him, invited him to speak his mind, and then responded by saying “How dare you?” when he did just that? Piers! You are the guy who dared Shapiro to say that stuff! You don’t get to act all affronted when the guy invited to speak shows up and takes you up on the offer!

According to the news, Morgan is set to produce a teevee series for Starz about the Fleet Street era of tabloid newspapers (ironically, a breed of journalist that would have bloodied up Morgan on the daily), so maybe this is a good time for you guys to make the choice to cut him loose so he can spend more time producing that show and staring into a hand mirror.

It Comes Down To Choice. CNN, we feel like we have to remind you guys of something. You are a cable teevee news channel. At any given time, the only face you have to show the world is whatever you are pointing your camera at, and filling the frame. All we can know about your education, your intellectual attainment, and your values is expressed by the choices you are making, one moment to the next.

You have to get this stuff right. That means that you can’t turn the story of how a few hundred affluent cruise participants got mildly inconvenienced into a full-tilt national Poop Cruise tragedy. It especially means that you cannot go on the air and say things like, “This is the same sort of thing that many people who went through Katrina in New Orleans.” CNN, if you recall, you were there in New Orleans during Katrina and its aftermath. You should be able to know the difference -- at least well enough to not piss on the memory of the work you did during that national tragedy.

It means that when Beyonce is giving a Super Bowl press conference in front of pre-approved journalists, who have had their questions pre-approved by flacks, and those questions range from “OMG: Beyonce, how are you doing?” to “Are you happy, are you excited and ready to do this Super Bowl?” to “What about the haters?” to “What color is your toothbrush” to “I saw the documentary before that they just played and it was unbelievable,” then you find some actual news that is happening somewhere in the world and you cover that instead.

Stop yourselves before you say, “But the controversy over whether Bey lip-synched at the inauguration needed to be settled.” Just ... stop yourselves.

It means that when you are covering the verdict of a trial in which two Steubenville, Ohio, football players are convicted of raping one of their schoolmates, you don’t go on the air and say things like, “These two young men who had such promising futures -- star football players, very good students -- literally watched as they believed their life fell apart," and ask, “What’s the lasting effect though on two young men being found guilty in juvenile court of rape essentially?” Those two young men threw their bright futures and the right to have a life without the “lasting effect” of a rape conviction the moment they chose to commit a crime. To suggest that anyone besides the survivor of the crime deserves sympathy is to evince a near-sociopathic lack of empathy.

We don’t even know where to begin with this deeply, deeply cracked interview that Chris Cuomo staged with Amanda Knox. My God, Cuomo essentially comes off as some sort of weird sociopath. Let’s just say that it was truly irresponsible and disturbing to watch..

goatsAnd look: we know we’ve banged on and on about the holograms. But you have to understand that nothing reveals your lack of taste in choices as the continuing usage of these idiotic image-projections, which were born into mockery and have not gotten better since. Perhaps you’ve missed this, but no one in the media business considers them to be an innovation. No one is rushing to imitate them. If anything, your competitors are relieved that on the average day, you’ll surround your on-air talent with animated goats, or force them to stand there with a gigantic North Korean missile protruding from his crotch.

missileAs far as “making choices” goes, every time you guys choose to do this nonsense, you are opting to fill the screen with something that represents the null set of utility -- it is just money and manpower set afire in full view of the public. Boiled down to the essence, these “holograms” are nothing more than gigantic data-visualizations, and you guys need to understand that your competitors are doing a lot more with data visualizations these days than creating these substandard animations. Hell, print media are doing more with data than you guys. At some point, maybe the people who are forced to create this substance-free visual slurry should be given the opportunity to do something useful with their lives. In the meanwhile, your bankrupt choices remain fodder for GIF-mockery.

Was that the plan?

All Roads Lead To Boston. Well, at least a bad plan about dumb holograms crudding up the teevee screen is better than no plan at all. Speaking of, have you guys watched whatever it was you thought you were doing in Boston? Here’s a refresher:

Also, here’s Jon Stewart, taking another opportunity to use your news coverage to make his job easy:

Much has been made about John King’s reportorial blundering, which he’s copped to, properly chagrined. We think that at this point, it’s not worth belaboring. There’s obviously a level of risk involved in breaking news reporting, people are going to make mistakes, and King’s going to make very few of them over the long run.

The real issue, if you ask us, isn't that King muffed a story. It’s that you guys created a confusing and senseless environment within which your reporters were forced to operate. Your whole operation in Boston was a oddly unsettling wilderness of unnecessary chaos, where everyone appeared to be scatterbrained and no one seemed to know what they were doing from one moment to the next.

cellphonesLord, here’s a sight you should never see, multiple members of your available on-air talent, on live television, staring into their cellphones, hoping against hope that the answer to what they are looking for will soon appear in the black mirror, to guide their next thought or statement. You guys understand what message this sends, right? Because it reads as, “We are not ready for what’s about to happen next.” No one wants to see this happen on their screen. It communicates a certain unsteadiness. There’s no way to trust what anyone is going to say next, once they’ve looked up from whatever text message they are receiving. The city was already a welter of uncertainty. Your duty is to not add to it.

quadboxSo much of your Boston coverage was like this. There were repeated moments where your reporters in the field, trapped in quad boxes on the screen, have to wave frantically for the attention of producers. There was no reason to subject the viewers to that. Unless of course, you were hoping to send the message that no one had a plan to move seamlessly from spot to spot, in an orderly fashion.

There was a famous moment, actually, where one reporter, having successfully flagged the attention of studio producers, announced that the reason they were working so hard to break into the broadcast was to tell viewers at home that they saw a dog, and that the dog was barking, but there was no discernible cause for the dog to be barking, but hey, significance. You all know that there is more to newsgathering and reporting than blindly documenting the atmospheric stimulus in the vicinity of your reporters, right? Because again, this was a basically bad message you were sending to your viewers: We are incapable of being selective.

As events unfolded in Boston, and then in Texas, and as they continue to unfold at this very moment in both places, CNN has been there for our audience in every possible way -– on television, online and on our mobile platforms. As Wolf would say, that was true for our audiences here in the United States and around the world. For journalists like each of us, these are the times that define what we do and why we do it. All of you, across every division of CNN Worldwide, have done exceptional work. And when we made a mistake, we moved quickly to acknowledge it and correct it.

The appropriate thing for Zucker to have said, of course, was, "I am very disappointed by what happened."

Again, we aren’t going to belabor the point about John King’s mistake (though I think that holding out the correction of a mistake for special praise, when it’s just part and parcel of your overall obligation to viewers, is deeply weird), but it’s really too bad that Zucker was of the mind that this was “exceptional work” that “defined what we do and why we do it.” Hopefully, the work was exceptional only in that it was a set of fundamental newsgathering mistakes that will never be repeated. Hopefully, what happened in Boston will not come to define anything about CNN’s practices.

aaron brownOne can only conclude that Zucker didn’t actually watch what was unfolding on his television. If he was, I strongly recommend he go back through CNN’s storied archives to check out his network’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina. Better yet, his network’s performance on Sept. 11, 2001, in which Aaron Brown, thrown by tragedy onto the air for the first time, conducted coverage with steadiness and certainty, as those behind the scenes made sure that the network’s coverage looked as seamless and as sure as could be managed under the circumstances. That was a display of solid fundamentals, into which you could place an on-air anchor who never imagined he’d be working that day, covering one of the most searingly sad days in American life.

CNN, if you’ve read this far, you’ve probably thought to yourself, “I suppose these two think they could do a better job running this cable news channel.” Calm down. We don’t think that. We’re way past “thinking.” We know these things to be true. And we are really trying to be shepherd here, Ringo.

And we’re obviously not completely disheartened. We think that adding some Tapper/Bourdain/Spurlock to your DNA is a good thing. (Maybe you can find some people who aren't white guys to do the same sort of thing?) We even think that you made a great choice by sticking around in Boston longer than the rest of cable news. Hopefully it reinforced the idea that sticking around for the long haul on a story is a better ethos than frantically trying to be first. And your coverage of the tragedy in Moore, Okla., has been more in keeping with the steadiness viewers traditionally associate with your brand.

CNN Bomb

You need to lose the stuff that’s not working, though. And you should resist the temptation to bring more stuff onto your airwaves that’s already proven to be a failure. You should diminish the roles of pundits and consultants. You should keep away from pointless panels. You should take what you put on the air more seriously: make better choices, learn some empathy, develop a feel for the common man. Ordinary Americans are living through some dire circumstances right now. There’s plenty of news to gather that doesn’t involve the same old fusty elites and their blinkered points of view. (Read all the things that HuffPost's Arthur Delaney has written, or check out Gawker's ongoing "Unemployment Stories" series, and you'll see that there are lots of things you can cover, really well, right this very minute, that will immediately set you apart from your competition.)

But most of all, you should stay away from the false frame of needing to compete in a world where your competitors, whose business models you’ve already rejected, are leaning forward and backward and rightward and leftward. The lesson you’ve extracted from this is that you need to be “the center.” But your strength is simply being centered -- by which we mean, steady and ready and selective.

Also, in light of recent events, we’re really not sure about that Howard Kurtz show, either? But for once we’ll let that slide.

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