The Decline and Fall of CNN

by Daniel Foster

Over on the homepage I have a little essay on the downfall of CNN that ran in the July 30 print issue. Here is the nut of the argument, but of course you’ll want to read the whole thing for the Fosterian rhetorical flourishes:

On the other side, there is broad agreement among the media smart set that CNN suffers mightily for its lack of opinion-driven analysis, and of the compelling personalities needed to deliver it. Contrast with Fox News and, to an adorably smaller extent, MSNBC. What one might call the Op-Ed Turn in cable news reflects both philosophical and practical considerations. Philosophically, it reflects a move away from the mid-20th-century news-media fiction that unacknowledged bias is the same as objectivity and toward a paradigm in which transparency in prejudice is de rigueur. Practically, it reflects the theory that when news is light, ideological sparring helps pass the time.

CNN instead passes the time by punctuating the hard news with the transparently tacky. Michael Massing, in a withering critique for the Columbia Journalism Review, catalogues some of the gems of this genre, from Piers Morgan’s breathless four hours of live coverage of Whitney Houston’s death to Erin Burnett’s intrepid reporting on bath salts and the cannibal threat. (As I write, a headline on is “Clooney, Girlfriend Get Food Poisoning.”)

What little CNN can count as opinion-driven journalism retains the imprint of its cosmopolitan focus. The choice of voices like Fareed Zakaria to deliver its “analysis” seems premised on the idea that Americans are desperate to hear what the rest of the world thinks of American hegemony from within a framework that assumes American hegemony is at its end. This appeals to a certain devoted–reader–of–Thomas Friedman type, but there are precious few of them outside Turtle Bay and Embassy Row. CNN still hasn’t learned from the big domestic narratives that drove the rises of Fox News (e.g., Lewinsky) and MSNBC (e.g., the 2004 election) and that sustain them now that “war fatigue” has fully taken hold. It isn’t that CNN isn’t reporting on, say, the presidential election. It’s that it isn’t adding anything and frequently resorts to gaffe obsession or holding the stopwatch as talking heads from competing campaigns regurgitate talking points.

The Corner

The one and only.