I think CNN is a mature, generally even-handed news organization. I don't tend to watch them much, but I do put channel on occasionally. And I'm sorry for their ratings difficulties. They've become sort of caught between a rock and a hard place on how to get out of their hole, but I think it's clear they haven't yet figured out the solution.
I say all this because, being in Chicago at the moment, I always defer to my dad for what channel the TV will be on. And he likes CNN. (He also likes MSNBC, but he doesn't like all their hosts, and on the weekend they don't always, indeed rarely cover news.) So, the point here is that we've had CNN on a lot...and it's driving me crazy.
Early on, as we sat down and I saw the pattern in the coverage, I did try to convince my dad that we should change the channel. As I explained to him, because CNN isn't able to get the ratings by just covering the news as the news, instead what they do is find some story, turn it in A Crisis, and cover it and then cover it and cover it and cover it ONLY -- no other story, just this one story -- and cover it and cover it, and Beat It To Death until it is mulch!!!!!!!!
And this is what they began doing over the weekend with the break in the Gaza cease fire and the Israeli soldier who's been kidnapped.
To be clear, both of these are valid news stories, and important to cover. And even to cover extensively. But -- they are certainly not even close to the only stories in the country, let alone the world.
Mind you, while it is a news story, I don't find the kidnapping to be as much as a "Crisis!!" as CNN is making it. After all, this is a war and over a thousand people have acutally died on both sides, so one would think that tragic as any kidnapping is, it beats being killed. One would think until being told otherwise that at the very least he's still alive. And hopefully will remain so, and be released. I suspect too that most Americans tend to be less concerned about a soldier of another country being kidnapped during that country's war than they would if it was an American involved. (I'm not saying that's a proper attitude to have or a bad one, just an observation of the TV audience... -- which is clearly at the heart of CNN's programming decisions.) Yet, on and on and on and on CNN reports it. And on and on and on.
As I said, I mentioned this to my dad on Friday, when he wanted to watch CNN and I saw where things were headed. But that at least lasted only a short while until it was soon dinner time, and we blessedly got to turn the news off. And later in the evening, the beloved Cubs were on, so we watched that. But it became head-banging numbing on Saturday. "Can we switch to the news, I want to see what's going on," he asked. And since it was weekend prison time on MSNBC (God help us...), I put on CNN. God help us.
For the next hour -- maybe an hour-and-a-half, I couldn't tell, time ceased to exist, and all all the world seemed to be sucked into a CNN Black Hole -- the only thing they talked about (or rather, I should say, still talked about) was again, Gaza and the kidnapped soldier. On and on and on and on and on and on -- and on and on and on. And on and on.
And on and on and on and on and on.
The highlight (and I mean that in a good way) may have been a panel discussion, since at least there we got different voices giving varied opinions, rather than being told over and over and over that there had been a break in the cease fire and an Israeli soldier had been kidnapped. It was almost refreshing to hear a roundtable argument -- "almost" because it was the same arguments we'd just heard when Wolf Blitzer interviewed a Palestinean official and then interviewed an Israeli official. And then interviewed...oh, you get the point. So did every viewer, over and over.
The low-light (and I mean that in a bad way) was an interminable, intrusive interview with the twin brother of the kidnapped Israeli soldier. She kept asking basically the same question over and over -- and over -- and, distraught, he kept saying the exact same answer, how much he loved his brother and wanted him back. It was the same answer when she basically asked him about how he'd feel if this situation was reversed and it had been a Palestinean kidnapped. Most corpuscles in my body congealed. (It's a fine question to ask a political official -- it's a galling, almost inhumane question to ask a grieving twin brother.) And then, of course, she had more trauma to dig when she asked the brother about the kidnapped soldier having a fiance and...
Well, it went on and on and on. The entire coverage went on for an hour at the very least, probably more. Which is when I finally realized that -- this being the ONLY story they were covering -- for the past hour they hadn't actually reported a single piece of news. Not one tidbit morsel of information that was different from the day before, when they told us the same thing. Nothing. Just telling us over and over and over that there had been a break in the cease fire, that both sides blaming the other), and that an Israeli soldier had been kidnapped.
As I said, I understand the rock and hard place CNN is in. If they just report the news as the news, they have few people watching. So, the alternative is to make A Crisis Out of Everything -- and be empty and loud and sad.
I think there's a third alternative. Take a risk -- you're in last place, after all, what do you have to lose. You can't go lower. Try to come up with some creative programming ideas for presenting the news, not the standard model, since you're losing that competition. Years backs, to be different, the local CBS station in Chicago, WBBM, was having trouble with the ratings for its early afternoon news show, so they took the newscast out of the standard anchor desk, and presented the news from the actual newsroom, with staff wandering around and the anchors in shirtsleeves walking up to the desks to talk with the reporters who were working on the stories. It was a gimmick, but it was different, interesting and fascinatingly informative -- and it wasn't turning everything into A Crisis (!), but rather dealt with stories personally. It also worked.
Decades ago, when NBC was last in the ratings, they tried different shows and kept them on the air despite bottom ratings, since they had nothing to lose. One show, I recall, would have been quickly cancelled at another time -- but NBC stuck with it, and Cheers ended up finding an audience and working out pretty well for them. And eventually that led to Must See Thursday, when NBC took over the TV primetime world.
CNN sort of tried to do something a little different a few years ago when they created The Situation Room. It's not earth shattering, but seems to work well enough for them. There are a lot of things they could try -- some won't work, some might. Some might even be wildly inventive that could impact the news industry. But the point is that when you're in last place, that's the time you have to try different things -- and things you might be proud of, instead of turning everything into a droning, head-banging, mind-numbing, empty Crisis.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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