BORDEAUX, France, May 8, 2012 — When Ted Turner launched CNN in 1980, budgets were so tight that his risky enterprise became known as the “Chicken Noodle Network,” recalls Anthony Collings, a former correspondent who suffered through a CNN career in the early years. He described the frustrations in his recent memoir “Capturing the News.”
Today, as Collings would be the first to admit, CNN has grown into something quite different. It draws on 45 bureaus, staffed by full-time reporters and an array of competent stringers. And its jaunty international coverage outperforms the expensive suits from New York, especially on big, running stories such as elections and wars.
But CNN’s international prowess gets truncated on the domestic service to make room for fragmentary news coverage, a barrage of commercials, plus warm and fuzzy features like this lead-in to an item recently announced by anchor Wolf Blitzer: “When we come back, a dog that got caught in a cactus!” Wolf’s dancing eyebrows provided the exclamation point.
Admittedly, Wolf is not all fun and games. Sometimes he tries to hold his viewers by worrying them. I wrote this one down as he finished reading some forgettable item that ended on a positive note. “Don’t go away, though. When we come back, there’s still plenty to worry about.”
The Dumbing Down of the News
He is not alone in his dumbing-down effort. Where Candy Crowley came from, God knows, but she brings precious little to her Sunday morning interview show. Last week, apparently fresh out of questions, she wandered into bizarre territory with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to ferret out something from his private life. It turns out he washes and irons his own shirts because “they gotta be done right.” Candy looked enviously at him, as if to say, “What a husband.”
In the end, Wolfie is a harmless traffic cop and John King is a rapid-fire robot. But the various “CNN babes,” as they call themselves, are as scary as their names – Bash and Yellin’ and now back on this eccentric team is the self-important Christiane Amanpour herself, who has had an extensive makeover now that she’s back at CNN.
None of the loud music or flashy graphics can compensate for the hours of fluff aimed at some imaginary common denominator, the adult with a bad case of ADD.
The decline in quality is taking its toll. Last week The Wall Street Journal reported on CNN’s weak ratings, now at their lowest point in10 years. Fox News and MSNBC are both gaining as CNN falters. Worse, The Huffington Post ran a story last week under the headline “CNN is terrible. Here’s why.” The story called CNN a “God-awful, wall-to-wall, epic mess.”
Nor has the heavy promotion of the two “God-awful” stars in prime time, the men with two last names, Anderson Cooper and Piers Morgan, done anything to help. Both are carbuncles on the media ship that Turner wanted to establish as the New York Times of television.
To be fair, some young talent such as Don Lemon deserve encouragement, but the evenings are dominated by the two giant egos of Morgan and Cooper. One wonders why CNN management allows them to remain in place as the brand takes hit after hit. Morgan once proudly quoted a viewer as writing in, “You are an obnoxious Brit.”
Why Piers Morgan Is Bad for CNN
Morgan is hammered daily for his pomposity and presumptuousness. In fact he has a checkered past. He was rescued by CNN from a disastrous career in London’s famous yellow-journalism tabloid world. By the time CNN heard of him, he was virtually unemployable in London.
He must have felt the hand of God on his shoulder when the call came from Atlanta.
His offensive on-air arrogance puts off many viewers as he conducts a me-me-me festival of puffy B-list interviews.
When he tangled with Touré, a contributor to MSNBC recently, Touré took him to task for his lack of backbone. “What you understand as challenging, maybe that goes in England, but that’s not what we do in America,” he said.
Morgan, exposing his rough streetwise side, stammered an indignant comeback, “Oh, Touré, you’re such a tedious little twerp.”
Morgan is at his worst in celebrity interviews. His message is, “I am at least as important, maybe more, than you.” After each softball question, he has a particularly annoying tic: He points with his chin while looking down his nose and sneering with curled lip at the guest. Last week he hauled in Ted Turner himself. Turner graciously praised Morgan, who bellowed, “Wow! That’s like being blessed by the Pope! Ha ha ha ha.”
Morgan might be easy to overlook if it weren’t for the pairing up with Anderson Cooper every weekend evening. I wonder how many viewers can stay the course till 11 p.m.
Anderson Cooper’s “Ridiulist” Is Ridiculous
Obvioulsy untrained in journalism or any variety of broadcasting, Cooper mumbles and slurs his way through his stories, shifting his act from serious to bland to offbeat to naive. He admits being an amateur. I once heard him tell some talk show host, “I make it up as I go along.”
It has occurred to me that Anderson Cooper might be a hologram, perhaps from the people who brought us the “magic wall” that lights up on election night.
Management may keep him on because he has no real personality. He is shoved in front of the camera to perform as a pundit, a reporter or a funnyman.
To humanize him, someone backstage invented the cringe-making “Ridiculist” to round off his show. Here Cooper turns into an ad-libbing clown, giggling like a schoolgirl at his own material.
One evening last week, he was so pleased with himself, he ran a compilation of his hysterical giggling incidents for our viewing pleasure. I lunged for the remote.
Those of us old enough to remember David Brinkley’s well-crafted, light, ironic pieces at the end of the old NBC Nightly News know how it’s done.
Like all forms of media, television news is in transition,. Maybe CNN domestic cannot be saved. Competition is heating up as CNN flounders for a viable formula. Perhaps management should look first at some of its on-air “talent.”
Michael Johnson is an American journalist and writer based in Bordeaux, France. He also writes for the International Herald Tribune and American Spectator.
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