By Rick Lockridge
I’m a former CNN correspondent, and I could answer this question in much greater detail than you’d ever want to read, but I’ll give you the short answer. CNN under Ted Turner (although he wasn’t a journalist, he understood what he wanted CNN to be and what it needed to be) was a place where, when you first walked in the door, you were told, “there are no stars here, only news.” And the staff believed that. For me, after wandering in the wilderness of local TV news for years, it was a great feeling to join a group of folks who (by and large) only really wanted to do the f**ing news.
I covered AOL as part of my beat (technology), and when the “merger” news hit, I knew it was going to be bad news for CNN. AOL, which was acquiring CNN, was all about acquiring customers, refusing to let them leave, and shaking every coin from their pockets. CNN, on the other hand, had a service culture; we really thought we were doing good in the world, even if at times we felt like we were just a bunch of firefighters hanging around the firehouse, bored, waiting for the alarm to ring so we’d have something important to do. It was going to be–a catastrophic–clash of workplace cultures.
And it was. Managers started to try to please their new AOL overlords instead of focusing on the basic blocking-and-tackling of newsgathering. CNN started drifting away from its mission. Some would say that it began to drift to the left as well but that’s another discussion.
At the same time, Fox News was really starting to kick CNN’s butt all over the place. And how were they doing that? Well, some of it was the whole “preaching to the choir” thing, where the audience is really into you because you’re telling it what it wants to hear. However, Fox’s execs understood that making your anchors the stars INSTEAD of the news, finding the most charismatic and (sometimes) polarizing anchors out there and encouraging them to say whatever they felt like saying on TV — that such an approach would make CNN seem boring by comparison.
CNN eventually reacted to this by trying the same strategy–that’s what made possible abominations like the hiring of Rick Sanchez and Nancy Grace. (I’ve said it many times: any network that would employ a person like Nancy Grace doesn’t really want to be taken seriously, and shouldn’t be). And don’t even get me started on Piers Morgan!
There were only a couple of CNN reporters who could get away with playing by their own rules: Christiane Amanpour, because she had more balls than any man at CNN, and Candy Crowley, who inexplicably then (and now) could get away with saying any crazy shit–one hundred percent opinion, zero percent objective fact–and get away with it).
Even the anchors CNN has now who are smart and capable, Don Lemon comes to mind, are allowed to speak their minds during news broadcasts, often end with embarrassing results. If I were to watch CNN today, I would doubtless soon find myself yelling at the TV: “Stop telling me what you think, and start telling me what you KNOW! Anderson Cooper is guilty of this and in fact, some would say that he started that kind of reporting. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been put off by Anderson’s efforts to pre-digest the news and “explain” it to me.
Note to news anchors everywhere: nobody thinks you’re all that smart. We know you’re mostly just reading the words from a TelePrompTer; that were written by someone brighter than you, probably; in between your Tourette’s-like fits of opinionating to make yourself seem interesting to viewers.
You know what would make you interesting? If you were credible.
Not to excuse the exec producers and line producers from any responsibility for the debacle that is today’s CNN but believe me, there is some truly terrible news judgment at play (see Anonymous’s astute Flight 370 comments above) but the main reason CNN doesn’t work is because it can’t remember what it used to be and what it needs to be. I say bring back Ted Turner (who we’d occasionally see in the food court at CNN Center back in the day, wearing a rumpled suit and scuffed brown shoes and was a very approachable and engaging guy).
Let him kick some ass. Remind those that work at CNN that their job is to hang around like a firefighter until the alarm goes off — and then you get going on a big story and cover it like no one else can. Don’t like the idea of being solid but boring? Well, how’s the alternative working out for ya? Not too well, as it turns out.
So I put this question to CNN’s brass: if no one’s going to watch you (and virtually no one is watching you), wouldn’t you rather at least have your integrity intact? Go back to “no stars, just the news” and re-earn the trust you have squandered over the past dozen years. Let the Fox Newses and the Huffington Posts and the MSNBCs of the world fracture the media landscape and pick over the shards.
You don’t have to do that. You could play it down the middle. You could try as hard to be responsible as you’re trying now to be interesting. And you might just succeed at the former, whereas you’re failing miserably at the latter.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
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