Thirty Years CNN: On The Downfall Of Hard News

CNN, the nation’s oldest all-news cable program, marks it’s thirty year anniversary on June 1st. For the hard of counting, that means the station, then under the leadership of Ted Turner, started broadcasting in 1981(…or 80. What year is this?) Back then I remember thinking two things…first, that a TV station that would only broadcast straight news twenty four hours a day was a pretty cool thing, and second, that a station that broadcast only straight news twenty four hours a day could never last. I was right on both counts, although it took a lot longer than I figured for the second prediction to come true.

Back in the Twentieth Century, that quaint time of Walter Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow and Chet Huntley…you know, when you could actually trust what a newscaster was telling you to be accurate and unbiased, CNN did it’s job beautifully. When the Challenger exploded, we all turned on CNN and watched it twenty four hours a day. When the stock market crashed in 1987, Bush Sr. attacked Iraq in the First Gulf War or Bill Clinton got hauled up before Congress, it was CNN we watched, crowding in front of our TV’s, looking for all the world like those old photos you see of families gathered around their radios listening to FDR announce Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. CNN were the go to guys for news; they didn’t tell you what it meant, they just told you what it was.

But that was a different time in the “news” business, a time when most Americans depended on newscasters to be ‘fair and balanced’ instead of, as Fox sounds if you listen for more than two minutes, ‘fairly unbalanced’.

Twenty-First Century news is all about viewpoint and demographics, not reporting. Today, we have to identify the political leanings of our news reporters and their stations…a Rupert Murdoch station or paper like Fox or the New York Post is Right Wing, sensationalist and homophobic- reporting for the redneck in all of us. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal are (ahem) Conservative and thus more ‘dignified’ in their approach…they appeal to the well-heeled bigot and Capitalist. The LA Times or Washington Post are a little more middle of the road, which now only means you can’t figure out which way they’re leaning. MSNBC is the Leftist Fox; even I won’t watch them, and for the same reasons I ignore Fox. I want to make up my own fucking mind, thank you very much. But most people don’t any longer. It’s too much work, all that thinking and parsing.

I personally mostly still trust NPR, Reuters, and BBC, but that may just be because I want to trust something. Or maybe it’s because I’m a Liberal Democrat, a political leaning that NPR is regularly accused of being as well. But, given that viewpoint, I find that at least half the time I get pissed off at….not the way they present a story…but at the questions they leave unasked in their interviews and from the letters they read from Conservatives the Right feels the same way, so I guess that’s good. And increasingly I find myself reading stories from the venerable Atlantic Magazine.

But CNN gave up any pretense of unbiased reporting early in this century, right after 9/11…most stations and outlets did. Sensational video of the Towers and Shock and Awe were irresistible and the only way to film the Bombing Of Baghdad was to embed with the Army and the only way to get information from the Cheney Cohort ( and I think this applied to George Bush Jr. as well) was to report the Party Line; if you questioned it or disputed it, you were just plain cut off. Fox did it enthusiastically, CNN did it just to survive.

But somewhere in those early days of Cheney/Bush someone at CNN must have taken a look around and realized that a) Bush’s poll numbers were at an all time high and b) people were loving Fox’s Red State rhetoric, so let’s go that way. Enter Nancy Grace and what’s his name…you know, the crazy guy that moved to Fox.

MSNBC began carving out a little niche as the anti-Fox and suddenly everyone was picking sides based on what their audiences wanted to hear, which by this time was plainly not the facts, but the validation of their views.

News outlets began adopting a musical format style of reporting…easy listening, pop, oldies, rock and roll, highly dependant on demographics and ratings. CNN has been bouncing around for years trying to pick the right format…’will our ratings go up if we lean Right? Should we switch to Heavy Metal and move Left? The question, “should we just report the fucking news’ never seems to have occurred to them, mostly because that format doesn’t work anymore.

Those days are over. Now you can pick your news because now “news” is no longer the same as “facts”. You no longer have to be faced with that pesky multiple choice test of deciding what a particular event means; someone will do it for you and tell you what to think about it. So much easier and a real time-saver too.

So now we’re in an age when the most trusted name in news is not a news organization at all, but Comedy Central with The Daily Show and the Colbert Report. Why? Because everyone knows that both the Right and the Left are lying to us and Jon Stewart skewers everyone, even though he’s obviously one of them Liberal Jews. Colbert is a practicing Catholic who doesn’t trust the Pope, (which of course makes him a Liberal Jew who just happens to believe in Jesus), but both obviously know when they’re being lied to, so I listen to them. And anyway, when the “news” is a joke, why not at least make it funny?

The fact is, CNN has really become irrelevant. The Right and the Left are sewn up, the Weather Channel’s got, well, the weather and no one wants to hear the Middle. Maybe they can become “news critics” like Stewart and Colbert but seriously, telling us, “Fox News reported this and here’s where they lied”…”MSNBC said this without a shred of evidence.” and “The Car Guys Were Wrong About The Ford Focus Muffler”. Their new tagline could be “Resorting To Reporting”, a sort of televised FactCheck.org . Or they could just show re-runs of the good old days when they were an important part of our lives.