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Chasing the Fox

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As CNN winds up its celebration of its 25th anniversary, consider:

For the past three and a half months, CNN has had a crew and reporter at the Michael Jackson trial in Santa Maria, Calif. That’s every day. That doesn’t serve the public interest — on several levels.

Says CNN/US news chief Jon Klein: “We committed to a reporter and crew there every single day. I have not found it to be a very satisfying meal. CNN ought to do stories nobody else has. We did what everybody else did. It was the safe thing to do.”

Why did it take Klein three and a half months to figure that out? Perhaps because he’s trying not to lose ratings points to other cable news channels (meaning, of course, Fox News Channel). Last week’s May ratings numbers brought no comfort to Klein.

According to Nielsen Media Research numbers, more than twice as many viewers were tuning into Fox News Channel as to CNN. On average, in a 24-hour period 1.4 million people tuned into Fox while 610,000 watched CNN.

FNC said it “continued its dominance” over CNN, its chief rival, and said its numbers were up 11 percent compared to May 2004. Meanwhile, CNN lost viewers.

Fox makes less in revenue, but it’s closing ground fast. (For a wonderful discussion of cable news economics, see Journalism.org’s The State of the Media.) From that report:

Consider this: In 2003 Fox’s profits were 40% less than CNN’s. In 2004 it is estimated that the gap narrowed to just 20%, according to Kagan Research. Put into dollars, CNN was projected to earn $337 million in operating or pre-tax profits in 2004. Fox News was projected at $274 million.

So Klein regrets throwing blanket coverage over Jacko’s trial. According to Inky media critic Gail Shister:

In terms of news value, the case “wasn’t even close to being the biggest priority,” Klein says. In the future, “we will be a lot more careful about committing to ongoing coverage.”

That said, the Jackson verdict “is a big story on its own merits,” Klein acknowledges. “We’re prepared to do as much as we need to to convey the story.”

As much as we need to do …

When news of import breaks — and ratings show it — viewers turn to CNN. CBS, prior to the rounds of budget cuts and layoffs in the early ’80s, was once the pre-eminent newsgathering operation in the world. CNN — for now, at least — carries that distinctive reputation.

When an earthquake and accompanying tsunami struck Southeast Asia in December, CNN put 75 staffers into the region, says Salon’s Eric Boehlert (site pass needed). Fox placed none. None. Fox is not a news channel. CNN is. Says Boehlert:

With its competitors dispatching their A-teams to South Asia, Fox’s big guns — O’Reilly, Brit Hume, Tony Snow, Chris Wallace, Greta Van Susteren — all remained safely ensconced inside East Coast studios. That’s because they’re not reporters but Beltway creatures of comfort, who rarely stray beyond the 202 and 212 area codes.

CNN clearly has talented journalists and does not hesitate to send them far afield when breaking news warrants.

But it’s losing market share — and revenue — to Fox. That worries CNN, and it should worry you — because it affects how CNN decides to operate when news isn’t breaking. Add in too many changes in top leadership over too little time, and it’s apparent that CNN has issues of focus.

CNN’s weakness is its inability or reluctance to push its principal strength — covering news. It has become imitative in its many dayparts, such as “American Morning.” It has tried to induce regular viewership through appointment television in prime time. When news of import isn’t breaking, CNN relies on a tiresome formula of reporters opining and spinners a-spinning. It’s far less expensive to offer “analysis” and “opinion” than it is to dig for stories.

Look at what Klein’s doing to his afternoon daypart. According to The Washington Post’s Lisa de Moraes, CNN is tossing “Wolf Blitzer Reports,” “Inside Politics” and “Crossfire” and replacing them with “The Situation Room,” which, according to Klein, “will be modeled in spirit after the White House Situation Room.”

Sheesh. Why would would CNN add that spiritual touch? Especially given that news rarely ever emanates from the White House that hasn’t been spin-dried repeatedly. Why have that nuance as part of the program’s premise? And here’s the lineup of talent, says Moraes:

Jack Cafferty, resident Angry Old White Man, also is leaving “American Morning.” He’s being shipped over to CNN’s new 3 p.m. show, where he will join Happy, Dopey and Grumpy — otherwise known as former “Crossfire” banterers Paul Begala, James Carville and Robert Novak — along with a slew of political analysts, a former terrorism adviser to President George W., a former defense secretary, a former Homeland Security inspector general, an ex-acting director of the CIA and a sprinkling of generals, for a fun-filled three hours anchored by Wolf “Look, the Paint — It’s Drying!” Blitzer.

Not only is this not a recipe for news, it’s a prescription for boredom — unless you’re a Beltway insider junkie.

It’s also evidence that viewers are unlikely to be treated to insightful, energetically sought investigative journalism.

It’s the content, stupid. Develop more news content.

CNN continues to chase Fox by trying to be Fox. Besides filling much of its news cycle with underreported analysis and opinion, CNN’s top leadership pays more attention to the presentation of its content rather than the content itself. That doesn’t serve CNN well in the long run financially — nor does it serve the information needs of an American democracy of nearly 300 million people. (We still have a democracy, don’t we?)

So it takes Klein that quarter of a year to decide full-time Jacko coverage wasn’t a good idea. But whose interests did he consider in figuring that out? The public’s interest, meaning he should have found real news on which to deploy his newsgathering resources? Or CNN’s interest, meaning it was just too expensive given the ratings that Jacko coverage earned?

As CNN continues its slide into style over substance, another subtlety emerges. The Republican powerhouse in Washington loves to throw the “liberal media” label at CNN. That’s laughable, but it serves the GOP rulers well. Identify an enemy. Brand it as anti-us and therefore not to be believed. Chuckle while it chases the Fox instead of the GOP.

CNN’s focus on catching up to Fox means it’s not chasing important political, economic, environmental and social justice stories that would serve all the public’s interest and cause political leaders some consternation.

The next time CNN touts its “Security Watch” (“Watch CNN daily for in-depth reporting on terrorist threats and defending America”), wonder about this:

Why doesn’t CNN also have a “Privacy Watch” that examines the Bush administration’s continued erosion of individuals’ privacy? Or its assault on freedom of information?

Klein might not find that “a very satisfying meal,” but viewers might. He says, “CNN ought to do stories nobody else has.”

So where the hell are those stories nobody else has?

CNN, stop playing safe.

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Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

June 8, 2005 at 3:58 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. I’m not totally sure I need to preceed this with any sort of factual or anecdotal support of my position, but oh yeah, CNN is terrible. But, in CNN’s defense, things can only get better for them – Tucker Carlson is finally gone.

    Anonymous

    June 9, 2005 at 2:59 am


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