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Forget Spitzer’s errant penis: Think more about CNN’s blunders

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You remember this tableau, don’t you? It’s Monday, March 10, 2008, and the governor of New York state is standing in front of reporters and beside his stoic wife. In a CNN.com story, Elliot Spitzer, the reporter wrote, “confess[ed] to an undisclosed personal indiscretion, saying he had acted ‘in a way that violates my obligations to my family, that violates my or any sense of right and wrong.'”

On that day, a story on CNN.com posed this question: Is scandal enough to sink Spitzer for good?

We learned that, on Feb. 13, 2008, Spitzer spent three hours and $4,300 on a prostitute. She was “Kristen”; he was “Client 9.” On March 12, in a CNN.com story, we learned Spitzer had spent $15,000 on prostitutes. Spitzer announced he would resign, saying, “I am deeply sorry that I did not live up to what was expected of me. I will try once again outside of politics to serve the common good.” [emphasis added]

But now CNN has hired Spitzer, not to “serve the common good” outside of politics but to serve CNN’s desperate need for better ratings in prime time. Out will go Campbell Brown at 8 p.m.; in will go Spitzer and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Kathleen Parker.

Americans love stories of redemption, and Spitzer has a right to make a living. But I won’t be watching the as-yet unnamed program, and it won’t be because Spitzer disappointed me as a man and a politician. I won’t watch because this show represents yet another dumbass decision by CNN’s top brass.

Losing audiences and losing revenue

CNN has had problems finding and holding audiences for nearly a decade. CNN’s most popular hosts have seen their ratings nearly halved over the past year.

CNN’s executives have for years been unable to stem the descent in CNN’s ratings. They have not had a definitive plan for financial and journalistic success, and stuck to it decisively, for a long time. CNN has been reactive instead of proactive to its competition —MSNBC, Fox News, and even its own HLN (formerly Headline News).

Like all news-oriented media, CNN struggles with advertising revenues. That leads to cutting expenses — meaning jobs. CNN’s American Morning, which used to be a good news program, whacked eight staffers in 2008, cuts it said were “driven by editorial changes in the program. … The show has evolved and this staff restructuring will better meet the program’s current editorial needs.” [emphasis added]. Result: a program that’s gone “hip” by CNN definition with a pop “playlist” after commercial breaks, more opinionating by its hosts, the daily dose of Jeanne Moos, and … the Magic Wall. But less news.

Remember, too, that nine years ago, CNN cut 10 percent of its workforce, fundamentally altering how it gathered news. Importantly, a third of those cuts hit the network’s Internet division. The latter was not a prescient move.

Over the years, CNN has lost or canned first-rate journalists. Remember CNNfm? Bad ratings. Gone in 2004. In 2008, it cut its entire science and environment reporting team, including the respected Miles O’Brien. Reason? “We want to integrate environmental, science and technology reporting into the general editorial structure rather than have a stand alone unit,” said a CNN spokeswoman. “Now that the bulk of our environmental coverage is being offered through the Planet in Peril franchise, which is produced by the Anderson Cooper 360 program, there is no need for a separate unit.”

Given the Deepwater Horizon debacle in the Gulf, that team would have been a distinct journalistic asset for CNN.

Seeking other sources for news content

In August 2006, in part thanks to astonishing technological advances in cell phone and camera technology, CNN launched its I-Report program, labeled a public journalism initiative. A cynic would label it content without compensation. (I-Reports have had positive outcomes, I should note.)

As more experienced journalists retired (such as Bruce Morton) or left for other pastures (such as Bill Hemmer to Fox), CNN sought less expensive ways to gather content resembling news. Remember its 2008 plan for “all-platform journalists” in “one-person shops” in 10 cities? Wrote mediabistro’s Dan Cox: “CNN wants to hire journalists on the cheap who will be able to piece together stories on the fly that can possibly used on broadcast, radio, Internet or even mobile programming. Hard to say what stop-gap editing measures might be launched, if any in this blog-o-centric world we inhabit.”

As this past decade progressed, CNN has transformed itself from news to less news, more analysis and more entertainment. Why? Reporting is expensive. CNN’s programming these days costs less to produce. Further, news corporation executives now perceive audiences as increasingly amenable to content based on political conflict and culture wars. CNN is not the only media organization that has shifted from reporting news to allowing agenda-driven talking heads to “analyze” news from those perspectives.

CNN, even during its daylight hours, features talking heads attempting to explain the news rather than report it. CNN stopped selling news long ago. Now, it sells commentary about the news. Yet it still attempts to cast itself as less driven by ideology and more dedicated to news and reporting than its competitors.

The promise: less Crossfire, more storytelling

Remember how raucous Crossfire became? And what Jon Stewart said about Crossfire in his Oct. 15, 2004, appearance?

It’s not honest. What you do is not honest. What you do is partisan hackery.

Three months later, CNN’s new president, Jonathan Klein, canned Crossfire’s Tucker Carlson and canceled Crossfire. Klein said he would end “head-butting debate shows” and reinstitute “roll-up-your-sleeves storytelling.” News purists rejoiced.

But style soon trumped substance (because of low ratings, of course). In 2005, the low-key Aaron Brown, highly regarded for his 9/11 coverage, was bumped out of 10 p.m. for the flashier Anderson Cooper.

Klein failed to rein in Lou Dobbs at 6 p.m. as Dobbs drifted from good reporting to ideologically driven bombast. Klein has allowed CNN’s prime-time programming to become “he said, she said.” Anchors show a video to Guest Commentator A and Guest Commentator B. Liberal A yells, “Left!” Conservative B shouts, “Right!” And viewers learn little.

CNN, like its competitors, has reduced “news” to analysis provided by the same talking heads night after night. It’s not hard to predict who will be explaining the news on CNN tonight. Pick from this cast: Mary Matalin. James Carville. David Gergen. Paul Begala. Gloria Berger. Donna Brazile. William Bennett. And other familiar names and faces. And rabid conservative (egads!) Erick Erickson, whom CNN called “a perfect fit” for John King’s 7 p.m. show. Ah. Ideological balance.

Klein has allowed technological toys and style to dominate common-sense reporting and analysis. And he allowed, after presidential debates, camera shots showing as many as 15 talking heads lined up in a CNN studio, all prepared to tell American voters what the candidates really said.

Bye bye, AP: Hello, Twitter

Just this week, CNN ended its relationship with the Associated Press, the service that provides news to CNN and especially CNN.com. Any editor who’s lost local reporting staff or other resources will tell you this: “I just backfilled with AP.” Now, CNN does not have even that source for news stories. So, it appears, CNN’s “backfill” will be Rick Sanchez and others reading tweets and Facebook status lines.

Jim Walton, president of CNN Worldwide, said dumping AP would allow CNN to

more fully leverage CNN’s global newsgathering investments. We will no longer use AP materials or services. The content we offer will be distinctive, compelling and, I am proud to say, our own. [emphasis added]

CNN’s own story said this move represented “a desire to differentiate CNN from its competitors.” Quoting Walton again:

It will provide consumers with the unique news and information experience they expect from CNN. And it will make us more creative, resourceful and collaborative journalists and news professionals. [emphasis added]

And now? We get Spitzer, a liberal, and Parker, a credentialed conservative, in a program touted by CNN’s Klein as a “roundup of all the best ideas” of the day. Ideas. Not news. This won’t be Klein’s promised “roll-up-your-sleeves storytelling.” I’m not sure what it will be.

All this saddens me.

From first-rate to third-rate

CNN, first ridiculed as the Chicken Noodle Network after its launch 30 years ago this month, became the best, most-respected newsgathering operation on the planet (CBS, because of job cuts, slowly surrendered that title). Even today, if a crisis of sufficient proportions strikes anywhere in the world, CNN is on it. It’s ironic that CNN is trumped in ratings by Fox. CNN sent 19 journalists and their support staff to cover the devastating tsunami caused by an Indian Ocean earthquake in 2004. Fox sent none.

CNN has news in its DNA; Fox does not.

During its first 20 years, CNN merited respect as an organization of journalists. But in the new millenium, seismic shifts in American culture, the Internet, higher expectations of profit, and its executives’ failures to adequately adapt to that changed landscape has eroded CNN’s ability to retain that respect.

It’s 2010. Oil has splattered the Gulf in what some call America’s worst-ever environmental disaster. CNN is there. But six years after Indonesia, does CNN have the journalistic horsepower it once did? Examine CNN’s list of reporters. You’ll recognize names of many experienced, talented reporters. But so few: That lists contains only about 75 names. CNN considers its beat to be worldwide. But only 75 journalists to cover all that? More telling, only 75 journalists to fill 24 hours of airtime, day after day after day?

In my professional lifetime, CNN has brought me so much information about the world that I didn’t know, and I appreciated it. Now it brings me so little. Too often, it appears to be the Cable Nutjob Network. By hiring Spitzer, CNN has added one more.

xpost: Scholars and Rogues

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Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

June 24, 2010 at 5:11 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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