When I was just out of college, one of my pals from school landed a plum job as a production assistant at ABC News. Sometimes, we would meet his pals from the ABC News room for a drink near their studios in the West 60s in Manhattan. One of them was a terrific guy named Tom Capra, son of filmmaker Frank Capra, and I vividly remember him going into a rant over a beer about Ted Turner's hare-brained new 24-hour news operation which Tom and all his colleagues referred to derisively as the "Chicken Noodle Network."
At the time, CNN's aspirations and shenanigans and low salaries seemed beneath the serious work that was done by the likes of their Peter Jennings and Barbara Walters and Harry Reasoner and the other big stars of evening news. Back then those other stars were people like Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor, a mostly male group who traced their journalistic DNA back to Edward R. Murrow and that CBS operation that was kind of the Olduvai Gorge of broadcast news.
Now most of those stars are dead and oddly, the Chicken Noodle Network which rose up, revolutionized television and in fact, modern society, has in fact recently transformed itself into the Cadaver News Network. Between its non-stop coverage of Michael Jackson's demise (that was a guy who really knew how to make an exit), the 24/7 coverage of the death of Teddy Kennedy that has now (probably temporarily) usurped it and the age of most of its commentators and viewers, CNN is one of those ideas I feel as though I have seen gone through its full life cycle -- from laughing stock to parody of itself.
Candidly, it's hard to imagine the world without CNN and when global crises strike -- as most recently in the case of the Iranian uprisings -- it can roll out its really good journalists and provide the sort of coverage that revolutionized the business. But it has never really figured out in almost three decades of existence what to do the rest of the time. Some of its answers to that question, like Larry King, are both superannuated and intoxicated with sheer trivia (otherwise how do you explain the appearance of Kate Gosselin, a woman who any respectable news organization ought to treat like intellectual ebola virus, something that once in your system pretty much dooms your credibility to bleed out through every orifice?)
Part of its solution to the issue of what to do when there is no news is, of course, a sort of repetition of recycled headlines and clips that I believe will ultimately be revealed to be one of the torture techniques used by the CIA in its interrogation of detainees. But another element of it has been their pioneering of the coverage of world events ... and particularly those in Washington ... as a kind of reality television show.
What they do is put together a cast of people who are certain to fight with one another and then they toss a story in the middle of them and watch them tear at it like hyenas with a tasty piece of wildebeest. In these sessions, the news is no longer central, it is just a catalyst to generate more intense inter-personal drama, the precise equivalent of the latest bit of Tyra Mail or Gordon Ramsay's latest challenge for his chefs on "Hell's Kitchen." It's Real World DC and we're just waiting for Bill Bennett to give it good to Donna Brazile. Of course, when they move into funereal mode the terms of the interactions are more muted but that is more than made up for by the stately soundtrack and dramatic graphics that are the shiny wrappers crying out that this is "new and improved" version of the same old story. Want more filler? Let's see what our viewers are emailing into us about us. Or let's see how the Internet is covering the same damn thing we are.
At the end of the day, it all calls to mind the Saturday Night Live bit that only slightly pre-dated my conversations with Tom Capra, the one in which Chevy Chase would periodically announce "Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead." I don't say this to minimize stories of real importance ... nor do I say it out of some misplaced nostalgia for "the golden age" of news. We live in the golden age of news. The way it is delivered on the web trumps everything every done before in history whether you are looking for ultra-local news on whose cat got caught in whose tree or you want 1000 perspectives on the latest election in Cameroon.
CNN played a big role in triggering the transformation that has brought us to where we are today. But now, they as well as MSNBC and Fox seem to have lost their way. What they do best is cover breaking stories. They should recognize that stately music and somber logos do not dignity make just as fights among their contract commentators are neither newsworthy nor, for the most part, terribly interesting. They should also recognize that repeating things over and over again and having the otherwise excellent Wolf Blitzer say, as he too often does, that something is "historic" does not actually make an event bigger than it is. It only makes their already dragged-out coverage longer. There must be a better way ... more focused on hard news coverage and taut analysis. There has got to be a programming choice other than that between dead air and dead people.
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