CNN Cuts Entire Science, Tech Team

Despite network’s intention to launch wire service, compete with the AP

CNN, the Cable News Network, announced yesterday that it will cut its entire science, technology, and environment news staff, including Miles O’Brien, its chief technology and environment correspondent, as well as six executive producers. Mediabistro’s TVNewser broke the story.

“We want to integrate environmental, science and technology reporting into the general editorial structure rather than have a stand alone unit,” said CNN spokesperson Barbara Levin. “Now that the bulk of our environmental coverage is being offered through the Planet in Peril franchise, which is produced by the Anderson Cooper 360 program, there is no need for a separate unit.”

A source at the network, who asked not to be named, said the move is a strategic and structural business decision to cut staff, unrelated to the current economic downturn. Financially, “CNN is doing very, very well,” the source said, and none of the health and medical news staff has been cut. Yet the big question, of course, is whether or not the reorganization will decrease the overall amount of CNN’s science, technology, and environment coverage. CNN says no, but it’s hard to imagine that it won’t—Anderson Cooper or not, fewer people is fewer people.

What’s more, the decision to eliminate the positions seems particularly misguided at a time when world events would seem to warrant expanding science and environmental staff.

“It’s disheartening,” said Christy George, who is president of the Society of Environmental Journalists and has worked closely there with Peter Dykstra, CNN’s outgoing executive producer for science and technology. “For the last year or two, television has, in general, been making a commitment to beefing up its environmental coverage.” In particular, clean energy has moved to center stage in our global political and economic discourse, and President-elect Barack Obama recently reaffirmed his commitment to tackling climate change. “There is going to be a lot to cover in science, technology, and environment,” George pointed out, “and it’s not going to be enough to just cover the politics of it to keep people informed.”

Indeed, others who know the CNN science staff agree that the network is making a bad decision. “I’m baffled,” said Keith Cowing, who runs and has been a friend of CNN’s Miles O’Brien for years. Cowing has appeared on air with O’Brien a number of times. “Miles is a reporter’s reporter. In terms of the [scientific] research, it’s him. He walks in – and this is why he’s so good – and just knows it. To me, there’s an economy there where you don’t have to have a bunch young researchers running around. You’ve got the guy who can say, ‘Got it,’ and go right on air.” While CNN credited O’Brien as a “terrific reporter,” Cowing added that he is surprised the network doesn’t care to hold on to that expertise.

For his part, O’Brien is putting on a positive face. “In television news, a nearly 17-year stint at one shop is more than just a good run - it is an epoch. I can honestly say I have loved every minute of my time at CNN,” he said in a prepared statement. “It has been my privilege to be surrounded by the most talented, dedicated and creative people in the business. Collaborating with them - sharing many great adventures - is what I will miss the most - but I leave with great memories and great friendships intact. I see a lot of exciting opportunities - and I look forward to exploring what is on the horizon - which, after all, has been my mission at CNN all these years.”

Yet it is exactly “what is on the horizon” at CNN that also makes the decision to eliminate its science staff seem so illogical. On Monday, The New York Times published a long article about the network’s intention to begin competing in the wire service business against outfits like the Associated Press, the world’s largest news organization. But how CNN is going to compete on massive stories like energy and climate with no stand-alone science staff is anybody’s guess. CNN says that its newswire will be cheaper than the A.P.’s, but newspapers should consider such factors when deciding whom to partner with.

CNN is not the only television network that has been slashing science jobs. According to The Washington Post, “NBC Universal made the first of potentially several rounds of staffing cuts at The Weather Channel [last week], axing the entire staff of the “Forecast Earth” environmental program during the middle of NBC’s ‘Green Week,’ as well as several on-camera meteorologists.” Gannett has eliminated roughly 1,800 jobs this week at newspapers around the country, though it’s unclear which beats have been most affected. And Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine recently nixed its bureau in Cape Canaveral, Florida, where NASA launches its rockets and shuttles. Cowing, at NASAWatch, says that he is simply shocked “that at a time when science and technology should be on everybody’s lips, this expertise is suddenly not in demand.”

George, at the Society of Environmental Journalists, noted that she has “seen this before” at CNN and that she hopes it will rebuild. Indeed, when the network cancelled a weekly science program in 2001, an article in the Environment Writer newsletter reported that, “It looks like the end of the road for what was left of CNN’s once-heralded environment unit.”

So is this the end all over again? Perhaps not. The energy and environment beat, in particular, will likely continue to gain importance and relevance as the 21st century unfolds. Yet one can’t help but feel dismayed by CNN’s decision or that this industry, at least for the time being, is sadly deteriorating.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.