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CNN: A Network in Crisis

CNN has earned a reputation for being the place to go for major breaking news stories. It has consistently been seen as the most credible of the cable news stations, although its credibility ratings, like those of the other cable networks, have declined in recent years. Its network of global resources and positioning as a newsier alternative to its more opinion-based competitors, Fox News and MSNBC, may be responsible for CNN's heightened credibility scores.

Unfortunately, although CNN may be seen as the station to watch for major breaking news stories, it is also seen as the network that cannot hold onto its audience when these news stories subside. This has led to the dubbing of CNN as the "Crisis News Network." But despite its slumping ratings, CNN President Jon Klein has maintained that the network will avoid the "cartoons" that characterize its rivals and keep its news focus.

While CNN's desire to position itself as a strictly news network is understandable, CNN's executives should be concerned about the Atlanta-based network's ratings during the most recent major news story, the massacre at Fort Hood, Texas. According to the ratings of the day the story broke, CNN finished behind Fox News. In fact, Fox News more than doubled CNN's ratings not just in the 25-54 demographic sought by advertisers, but also in the overall audience. CNN did not just lose to Fox News. It lost badly. And it lost badly on a day on which in which it was supposed to dominate.

CNN's problems, which are not limited to this particular story, are obvious.

1. Most people already know the major headlines of the day by the time it's 8 p.m. Brian Williams, Charlie Gibson, Katie Couric and countless Web sites ensure that people already know what's happening in the world by the time Campbell Brown, Anderson Cooper and Lou Dobbs hit the airwaves. By this time, people are looking for expert opinion and analysis, not a recap of what they already know.

2. Even though CNN President Jon Klein and the network's promos state that CNN is a news network, its hosts blur the lines between news and opinion and end up coming across as less compelling in both areas. Viewers know what they are going to get when they turn on Sean Hannity, Charlie Gibson, Keith Olbermann or Bill O'Reilly. But Campbell Brown, for example, is a newswoman who undermines her own news credibility by giving her opinions. In addition to sabotaging her credibility as a newswoman, she is an uncompelling opinion leader because her newswoman role forces her to temper the opinions she expresses. She is part-Jim Lehrer and part-Chris Matthews, which causes her to be unsuccessful in both endeavors. This is the same problem that hampers Lou Dobbs and, to a lesser extent, Anderson Cooper.

3. There is little continuity in its prime-time lineup. The primary culprit here is Larry King's 9 p.m. show. While King may be a talented interviewer who can land major guests, his show kills the momentum Campbell Brown and Lou Dobbs had built up, thus weakening Anderson Cooper's lead-in. Lou Dobbs may talk about illegal immigration and economic policy at 7. Campbell Brown may talk about the day's political events at 8. Then Larry King interviews some actor or philanthropist at 9. This leaves audiences searching for their remotes. When Anderson Cooper is ready to discuss news and politics at 10, it's as if he has to start from scratch with his audience because the people who wanted to watch King's interview with Richard Simmons or Rhianna are not the people who want to listen to David Gergen's insight regarding presidential leadership.

4. CNN needs new talent, particularly on the liberal side. James Carville and Paul Begala, for example, are clearly veteran political strategists. However, their ties to the Clintons make them very predictable. The end result is too much spin and not enough analysis. Roland Martin is also difficult to watch because he seems out of his depth when discussing serious issues. When providing analysis for last week's election coverage, for example, Martin referred to the Democrats' depressed turnout as "Pookie not going to the polls" or something similarly absurd. He also has an annoying tendency to laugh at his counterparts' arguments during interviews, which is childish. CNN's conservative pundits are more interesting to listen to because they sound more serious, more thoughtful and more professional. Their liberal pundits, however, sound more sophomoric and are less watchable as a result.

This is not to say that there is no place for a news alternative to Fox News and MSNBC. However, CNN needs to decide if it wants to be one or the other with its talent rather than marginalizing them by having them dabble in news and opinion and succeeding at neither. Should CNN seek to create a political opinion show similar to the now-defunct "Crossfire," it should ensure that whoever participates in it is both mature and engaging. There is a market for sophisticated analysis on cable television, as opposed to the rants, mockery and reflexive partisanship that can be found on "Countdown" or "Hannity." However, CNN's analysts, especially on the Democratic and liberal sides, are not disciplined and sophisticated enough to fill this niche.

CNN would be wise to stop pursuing its current formula because it is clearly not working, as the Fort Hood story's ratings indicate. Continuing its current approach threatens its very brand image, and that is more important than any ratings victory.

5 comment(s):

S.W. Anderson said...

Some time in the mid- to late 1980's CNN shifted from being a mostly ethical, politically neutral news organization largely managed and staffed by serious journalists to being neocon-Republican-friendly sounding board for Republican pols and the religious right. For years that bias has shown in its choice of mostly conservative Republican guests for its Sunday-morning talk shows. After Saxby Chambliss clawed his way to office by savaging Max Cleland, CNN had Chambliss on almost as much as Wolf Blitzer. Someone at CNN seemed convinced the sun rose and set on Chambliss' worthless butt.

When George W. Bush conned Congress into invading Iraq, CNN was on the scene, with an embedded reporter riding a tank to Baghdad, and CNN talking heads and military experts cheerleading from the home front with all the objectivity of Bush 41 commenting on what the Supremes should do about the 2000 vote recount mess. The atmosphere in Atlanta was unbridled exuberance.

By the 2004 election year, CNN's bias was outrageously obvious.

That year, for example, CNN assigned Candy Crowley to cover John Kerry and his campaign. She exhibited a visceral dislike for the man, and it showed in her reporting and frequent expressions of opinion.

Here's another incident from '04, during one of the conventions. CNN aired one of its panel discussions. On the Republican side were a couple of veterans. I don't remember exactly who, but they were of the type and experience of former GOP chairman Ed Gillespie. On the Democratic side they had a very young, very polite and thoughtful African American woman I'd never seen before and haven't seen since. She was obviously awestruck by being on national TV, and not equipped to hold her own against seasoned pols with plenty of TV appearances behind them. The Republicans weren't rough on the Democrat woman or bad to her. But needless to say, Kerry and the Democrats got the worst of it in the discussion.

This came to mind when you mentioned how CNN's liberal pundits sound more sophomoric and are less watchable. I'm quite sure that's no accident.

The big mystery to me is why this is so. It might be because of CNN's deep-South milieu in Atlanta. It might reflect the political preferences of CNN's top executives. It might grow out of CNN's desire to win away Fox viewers. Whatever it is, it's blatant and, to me, unacceptable. I've mostly avoided wathcing CNN since '04. IMO, the network has ceased to be a serious, reliable news organization.

As for Jon Klein, he came to CNN proclaiming the brilliance of the infotainment approach. Judging by his handiwork, Klein considers the average IQ of the viewing public to be barely above single digits. If you doubt that, look at what Klein did to the once useful Headline News Network. Basically, he turned it into the cable network equivalent of a low-grade trailer park.

Larry King Live is simply an infotainment opus. So is Anderson Cooper 360. Lou Dobbs, who once was a serious and sometimes interesting business-beat reporter has morphed into a crabby, resentful caricature of himself. It's as though Dobbs got bombed on whatever Tom Tancredo was drinking and has never managed to sober up.

Your take on resident newsbabe Campbell Brown makes sense. For whatever reason, I've never found her or her take on anything particularly informative or interesting. I admit my general disgust with CNN probably colors how I feel about her and everyone else on the network.

IMO, the best thing CNN could do is show Klein the door and go back to the future, striving to recapture what made it worth watching in its early days. Oh, and cutting the umbilical cord that connects it to the GOP would be ever so helpful and welcome.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your analysis. But no one reads you. So really, who cares?

Anonymous said...

And I love it how someone like yourself has done NOTHING in your career, but you want to become a political analyst. You assail folks who actually have credentials. My advice to you: get out of school and get a job in the real world.

If it's a journalist or editorial writer, fine. If it's working in politics, fine. But don't sit in your ivory tower trying to dissect political coverage, and then say you want to be an analyst. You've accomplished nothing, so why should anyone hire you?

Anthony Palmer said...


Campbell Brown is an interesting case. I actually like her show and think it's much more substantive than Countdown or The O'Reilly Factor. But this is because I like the lower-decibel nature of her show. Unfortunately, I am in the minority. In terms of ratings, that's not what sells. Jon Klein can argue that they're trying to do news first and foremost, which is fine, but it is clearly killing the network. When Fox News is able to dominate a major news story like the Fort Hood killings, CNN is obviously doing something wrong.

I don't know if geography is the issue, but that's a good point too in terms of Begala and Carville. But they have a DC bureau too. I think CNN's stable of pundits is okay, aside from Roland Martin, but they don't seem to mix well. I personally wonder what happened to Bill Schneider. Have you seen him recently?

I think Bill Bennett and Ed Rollins are the two best pundits they have on the GOP side. I can't think of a Dem pundit I actually LIKE. Gloria Borger is a good pundit, but she seems to be left-leaning.

They need to bring Ted Turner back.

Thanks for the comment, SWA.



Thanks for your analysis. But no one reads you. So really, who cares?

Thank you for reading this blog. And thank you for caring enough to leave a response. Unfortunately, if you only wish to attack me instead of my arguments, there's not much else I can say in response because that's not what this blog is about. Thanks again for reading. Be well, and best wishes.

S.W. Anderson said...

Anthony, I think your politeness will be lost on someone who leaves an insulting comment based on assumptions pulled out of his/her backside — anonymously, of course.

I'm a bit surprised you find Rollins and Bennett so worthwhile, especially the latter. I don't know what happened to Schneider, but the fact he's apparently no longer with CNN is the network's loss. He was more learned and professional than Bennett and Rollins.

For my 2 cents' worth, David Gergen is CNN's all-around best commentator. If CNN wanted to bring on a very personable, experienced, well-informed liberal commentator, it would do well to get in touch with Tom Oliphant.

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