Dumb and dumber

How far can CNN sink?

In April, CNN recorded its lowest monthly ratings in more than 10 years. In May, it recorded its lowest monthly primetime ratings in more than 20 years. It’s now regularly eclipsed not only by Fox News (long the leader in cable news) but also by MSNBC.

Last year, I suggested to an editor at CJR that it do a story titled, “Why Is CNN So Bad?” It never happened, but, prompted by the network’s recent shellacking, I decided to tune in after a long hiatus. It’s even worse than I remembered.

Between 4 p.m., when Wolf Blitzer’s Situation Room begins, and 11 p.m., when Anderson Cooper finishes his second hour (a replay of the first), CNN basically features a succession of babbling anchors interviewing a series of talking heads, with clips from reporters in the field occasionally spliced in. The subjects slavishly follow the national political agenda. One day, the main story was Obama’s “gaffe” that the private sector is doing fine. CNN is really into gaffes, wringing everything from them that it can. It returned to this one over and over, with dueling Democratic and Republican operatives brought on to offer their spin. When members of Congress condemned the administration for national-security leaks, CNN again beat the story into the ground with a similar cast of commentators. The network apparently thinks that having Paul Begala on to trade soundbites with Ari Fleischer makes for riveting TV.

No one outside the political establishment ever seems to make it onto the show. One day, John “Mr. Horserace” King (the anchor at 6 p.m.) had a segment on the Romney campaign’s new effort to corral Latino voters. It’s a worthy subject, and one could imagine a lively discussion among figures drawn from the Latino community. Instead, King had on Carlos Gutierrez, the Romney man in charge of the new project, who was allowed to spew Republican talking points for a seeming eternity.

At 7 p.m., there’s Erin Burnett. In recent days, she’s been hotly pursuing a major story—the supposed explosion in the use of the bath salt Cloud 9 and its link to cannibalistic behavior. Watching her interview a toxicologist over the tag “DEA warns of Cannibal Drug,” I wondered how she ever managed to get a full hour in prime time. As for Anderson Cooper, you’d think that someone with an hour to fill every night would devote himself full time to the job, but since September 2011 he’s been hosting his own syndicated daytime talk show as well. (On a recent show, he surprised the actress Julianna Margulies with her two temptations, chocolate and martinis.) His divided attention shows; Cooper’s ratings have dropped along with everyone else’s.

More than anyone else, Wolf Blitzer is the face of CNN today. On June 7, he made a splash with a long interview with Bill Clinton in which the former president tried to explain away his earlier comments about Romney’s sterling business record and the need to extend the Bush tax cuts. In addition to the standard political questions, Blitzer asked him about his diet, told him he looked great, seconded Clinton’s comment that he hopes to be around for a lot longer, and asked him about his daughter Chelsea. Noting that he had recently seen her at a Kennedy Center event, Blitzer said that, watching her eyes, “I saw the best of Bill Clinton and the best of Hillary Clinton. You’ve probably seen that as well. I wonder if you’d want to talk a little bit about that.” Remarkably, Clinton said he was very proud of his daughter. For the rest of the day and into the next, CNN shamelessly milked the interview, playing snippets over and over accompanied by more commentary.

Seeking a respite, I tuned in to Piers Morgan at 9 p.m., only to find that his first guest was Wolf Blitzer, talking about his interview with Clinton! After a while, Morgan finally moved on, to an “exclusive” interview with author and transgender advocate Chaz Bono in which he asked how much “the fact that you decided to become a man” contributed to his break-up with his girlfriend.

Morgan’s show is truly fatuous. His fawning two-hour special on the Queen Elizabeth’s 60th Jubilee was gleefully mocked by Jon Stewart. For me, Morgan showed what he’s really about when Whitney Houston died. In a column for the Daily Mail, Morgan described the moment he heard the news:

The one sure-fire way you know when a big story breaks in Los Angeles is by the sound of helicopters buzzing around the skies. I was driving through Beverly Hills late in the afternoon when I looked up to see three choppers circling the Beverly Hilton Hotel, venue for Clive Davis’s big party. It was too early for the red carpet to have started, so something big must have happened. Then the first text message arrived: ‘Whitney Houston’s dead.’ Wow. I raced straight to the CNN bureau in West Hollywood, to co-anchor what turned out to be four hours of rolling news coverage of this shocking event.

Those four hours were followed by many more as Morgan returned night after night to this world-altering event, exploring its causes, implications, and significance from every conceivable angle.

Morgan was brought in January 2011 to replace Larry King. The retirement of the celebrity-hound King after 25 years on the air gave CNN a prime opportunity to fill a marquee slot with someone fresh and original. Instead, it essentially selected another King, only younger, smarmier, and more royalist in outlook. And, in an embarrassing rebuke to the CNN brass, his ratings have dipped even lower than King’s.

Overall the words that kept coming to mind while I viewed CNN were: conventional, unimaginative, repetitive, and—most damning of all—boring. CNN executives themselves finally seem to have awakened to this. Recently, they announced a new, unconventional hire: Anthony Bourdain. The host of No Reservations, the culinary road show on the Travel Channel, Bourdain will soon be offering similar fare on CNN. David Carr, writing in The New York Times, was greatly impressed by Bourdain’s hiring. To me, though, it simply suggests that CNN is going to offer more empty calories.

How might the network do things differently? The most commonly discussed alternative for CNN is to go the way of Fox and MSNBC and become more partisan. Fortunately, it’s resisted that approach—we need a real news network, not another polemical one. What’s really striking about CNN, though, is how little actual news—how little reporting—there is on it. Amid all the chatter, talking points, and spinning, there are very few stories from the field. In general, I get more nourishment from the half hour of The CBS Evening News (much improved under Scott Pelley) than from the seven prime-time hours on CNN.

This is dismaying in light of the vast staff CNN maintains. From cnn.com, I calculate it has some 85 domestic and 35 international reporters, 33 anchors and commentators, and 14 executives. They are no doubt backed by hundreds of producers, cameramen, and assistants in bureaus around the globe. Yet their presence is seldom visible on the air. Rather than hire a globe-trotting chef, CNN could begin really covering the globe. With so much air time and so large a staff, it could even try emulating 60 Minutes, whose mix of reporting, investigation, and (alas) personality profiles remains the best news show on commercial TV.

Actually, CNN already does host one 60 Minutes-like show—Fareed Zakaria’s hour-long GPS specials. He recently did one on how to save the US healthcare system. I found it both educational and entertaining—an oasis in the CNN desert. If only the network had the conviction to offer more such shows. It certainly couldn’t do much worse than it already is.

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Michael Massing is a contributing editor to CJR and the author of Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq. Tags: , ,