The first cable-news network, CNN, is losing ratings, and the network seems to be in trouble:
CNN continued what has become a precipitous decline in ratings for its prime-time programs in the first quarter of 2010, with its main hosts losing almost half their viewers in a year.
The trend in news ratings for the first three months of this year is all up for one network, the Fox News Channel, which enjoyed its best quarter ever in ratings, and down for both MSNBC and CNN.
CNN had a slightly worse quarter in the fourth quarter of 2009, but the last three months have included compelling news events, like the earthquake in Haiti and the battle over health care, and CNN, which emphasizes its hard news coverage, was apparently unable to benefit.
I have an admission: I prefer Fox News over CNN. Yes, I’m sorry. I had always loved CNN ever since Wolf Blitzer reported under missile fire from a hotel in Bagdad during the first Gulf War, but now I cannot watch the network.
Here in Israel, I have tried watching CNN International, but I cannot. Half of the time, the programming focuses on celebrities and other non-newsworthy news. (I can only imagine what CNN in America shows.) And most of the other half of the time, the anchors are reading Facebook messages and tweets from viewers. Who cares?
No matter how much Fox News focuses on sensationalism, conservative bias, and superficial anchors with blond hair and short skirts, the network at least presents serious subjects. Biased, sensational news is better than neutral reporting on celebrity gossip. If I want to catch up on the headlines of the moment on television, I prefer to watch Fox News over CNN. And that’s a shame.
I wonder whether more people are watching Fox News for the same reason, and that this is the reason for the decline in CNN’s ratings. Still, media pundit Dan Kennedy wonders whether straight, hard-hitting journalism might still be how to help CNN:
Maybe we’re all making a category error. As former CNN host (and Media Nation favorite) Aaron Brown tells Calderone, CNN remains a “highly profitable business.” CNN posits itself as a news alternative to the partisan, opinion-driven talk-show line-ups offered by Fox and MSNBC. In that sense, maybe the three cable news nets aren’t really competitors at all.
The problem, of course, is that CNN’s prime-time line-up also consists mainly of talk shows, though not very good ones. The other night I briefly tuned in the best of the bunch, “Anderson Cooper 360,” and saw Dr. Phil talking about the Phoebe Prince tragedy. I nearly injured myself in my haste to change the channel. (By the way: I like Cooper, but think he’s being misused.)
What I’d like to see is a smart, analytical approach that makes sense out of all the news tidbits we accumulate throughout the day, unafraid to call out lies and misrepresentations but nonpartisan in its overall approach. Something, frankly, like Brown’s old program, “NewsNight,” canceled to make way for “AC360.”
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat also offers an idea that might work, no matter how optimistic it may be:
What might work, instead, is a cable news network devoted to actual debate. For all the red-faced shouting, debate isn’t really what you get on Fox and MSNBC. There’s room, it would seem, for a network where representatives from the right and left can both feel comfortable, and compete on roughly equal terms. Sort of like they did on … “Crossfire.”
But not the “Crossfire” of 2004. CNN overreacted to Jon Stewart’s jeremiad, but he wasn’t entirely wrong. The show was years removed from its Michael Kinsley/Pat Buchanan glory days, and its liberal hosts at the time, Begala and James Carville, really were Democratic Party hacks. (The conservatives, Carlson and Robert Novak, were much more independent-minded, but the constant need to rebut partisan talking points took its toll on them as well.)
What cable news needs, instead, is something more like what Stewart himself has been doing on “The Daily Show.” Instead of bringing in the strategists, consultants and professional outrage artists who predominate on other networks, he ushers conservative commentators into his studio for conversations that are lengthy, respectful and often riveting. Stewart’s series of debates on torture and interrogation policy, in particular — featuring John Yoo and Marc Thiessen, among others — have been more substantive than anything on Fox or MSNBC.
I understand Douthat’s comments, and I’ll empathize them in three contexts: “The West Wing,” “The Daily Show,” and my previous experience as a Boston reporter.
Some years ago, I was once watching a later season of “The West Wing” in which the Democratic and Republican candidates competing to become the next president went off-message during a presidential debate and actually had a real conversation about the issues facing the United States. I wish that something similar would actually occur in today’s political climate of partisan talking-points. But there’s a reason that television shows are fictional.
One of the reasons for the success of the “Daily Show” is that Jon Stewart actually has insightful, in-depth discussions with his guests rather than two-minute segments in which pundits get a check for spouting off the talking-points-of-the-day. (From what I understand, the “Daily Show” segments are edited, and the full interviews are available on the program’s website.)
Another reason for the success of both the “Daily Show” and Fox News is that the two, for lack of a better phrase, have balls. Jon Stewart will call out hypocrisy and BS when he sees it. Fox News will pummel its ideological opponents (frequently unfairly) — though their targets are usually Democrats and liberals. Mainstream media outlets refuse to have journalistic balls because they fear being seen as biased and not neutral.
Here is an example. When I was a reporter for the Boston Courant, the Red Sox decided to let Bruce Springsteen perform a concert at Fenway Park in 2003. Neighborhood residents were upset because they did not want the increased traffic and noise.
In community meetings, Red Sox officials said that the concert would be a one-time event. But, of course, that turned out to be false. Now, as a reporter at the time, I should have been allowed to ask an on-the-record question like, “So, either you [the Red Sox] lied, or you changed your policy. Which was it?” But could I actually do it? Nope. You don’t want to rock the boat. You just quote comments from the Red Sox on the benefits of having the concerts, and you quote neighborhood leaders on why they think it is a bad idea. Write, and print.
Here is another example. At the same job, I frequently covered urban-development projects overseen by the Boston Redevelopment Authority — an essentially-autonomous arm of the state government that could do whatever it wished. I broke the story of how the initial unveiling of Hotel Commonwealth revealed that the developer had violated the design that had been approve by the BRA. When I interviewed representatives from the developer and the BRA, both had blamed the other for the “miscommunication.” I could only get — and then print — their respective quotes — I could not write that one or both were full of BS even though that was plainly the truth.
If I could make recommendations to CNN (or any other broadcast network that wants to improve its ratings), it would be the following points based on the comments I referenced earlier:
- Analyze issues in-depth
- Ignore pundits who merely want to recite talking-points
- Do not be afraid to call out hypocrisy, lies, and BS — as long as you do it to all sides
I never had the chance to cover national politics, but here are a few examples of what I would change and points I would make:
- “You are a “Democratic strategist.” Your job is to make your team look good. Why should I even give your comments credibility?
- To Vice President Dick Cheney: “You are touting your economic growth, but the Iraq War has been entirely off-budget. So are not your numbers lies? Why are you not including the war in the government’s financial figures?”
- To the Tea Party movement: “You say that you are opposed to the vast increase in government spending, but where were you when George W. Bush did the same thing? Is that not hypocritical?”
These are just a few examples. Broadcast journalism, of course, has always been more about entertainment than journalism — it is the nature of the medium — but such honest, provocative tactics would improve both journalism and ratings.
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