Over three months in the winter of 1991, the eminently fashionable French Theorist Jean Baudrillard — you can tell he’s eminently fashionable because “Theorist” is capitalized and takes no modifier — wrote a series of articles about the Gulf War. The first, published in January as the average American was familiarizing herself with basic Kuwaiti history, was entitled “The Gulf War Will Not Take Place.” The second came out in February, in the middle of the air campaign, and was called “The Gulf War: Is It Really Taking Place?” The third and last came in March, a month after hostilities had ended, and if you’re quick on the uptake you’ll guess, correctly, that it was called “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place.”
The essays are a mélange of relentlessly provocative half-insights garbled by ponderous jargon and delivered by a narrator who seems to delight in his unreliability. Their upshot is that the Gulf War wasn’t a “war” at all, that it was conducted from a technological remove and won in advance on computer screens. Representative sentence: “Since this war was won in advance, we will never know what it would have been like had it existed.”
One major piece of evidence Baudrillard presents for his thesis is that what the world knew of the conflict was so abstracted and anesthetized that it might as well have been faked, reduced as it was to a handful of green-tinted videos of flak lazing across the Baghdad sky and nondescript bunkers exploding in the crosshairs of laser-guided munitions, all presented on continuous loop by CNN. These days, we’re used to Fox News playing the deus ex machina in the darkest conspiracy theories of the Left. But in 1991 it must have really been something to accuse a cable-news network of a feat so epic as redefining reality.
Yet, as a nostalgic James Earl Jones might intone, that was CNN. Launched on just under 2 million TV sets in June 1980, Ted Turner’s baby was a slow developer, spending its first decade working out the kinks, expanding its reach, buying up competitors, and doggedly investing in a far-flung reporting infrastructure that would let it cover every corner of the globe.
But by 1990 CNN was all grown up, and the war in the Persian Gulf would prove to be its coming-out party. So ubiquitous was CNN during those months that the other networks had to report off of its live feed during the bombing of Baghdad; that thus co-opted it reached 1 billion TV sets worldwide; that both George H. W. Bush and Saddam Hussein tuned in for the latest images from the front lines; that, in one surreal moment that furnished a kernel of truth in Baudrillard’s over-the-top analysis, a CNN camera crew broadcasting live from the Gulf approached a group of print reporters to interview them, only to find them huddled around a television — watching CNN.
In the years after, cable news would make the stern, gravelly voiced men delivering nightly half-hour briefings over your pork chops as obsolete as ticker tape. Political scientists would start analyzing “The CNN Effect,” by which the network’s saturation coverage actually shaped and accelerated the decision-making of world leaders. Even the mighty Tom Brokaw was forced to admit: “CNN used to be called the little network that could. It’s no longer the little network.”
O, but how far CNN has fallen from its days of slaying giants and inventing realities. To wit: Its ratings for the second quarter of 2012 are the worst they’ve been since before the Gulf War, and down 40 percent from a year ago. To be fair, all three major cable-news networks saw year-over-year declines this quarter, but CNN fared far worse than either MSNBC or Fox, and now has fewer than a quarter of Fox’s total viewers and a third of Fox’s weeknight primetime viewers.
What is the network’s official defense for bottoming out? Get this: There hasn’t been much news this quarter. “As a news organization our ratings reflect the news environment much more so than [do those of] the other networks,” the network informed the New York Times’s Bill Carter. “That said, we always want higher ratings but not at the expense of nonpartisan, quality journalism.”
But it has been obvious for some time that CNN’s troubles run much deeper, that it faces the problem that fells so many firms whose corner on a new market leads to early dominance: It is being out-competed and out-innovated.
The pressure is coming from two fronts. On the one side, global competitors and social media are increasingly preempting CNN’s bread-and-butter international reporting. Gone are the days when the network was the first, last, and only word from Mogadishu to Kosovo. Now it has to fight for scoops not only with the likes of Al-Jazeera but with the likes of Sohaib Athar, the Pakistani IT consultant who live-blogged the bin Laden raid from his apartment in Abbottabad just a few blocks away. Both the stillborn Green Revolution in Iran and the stunted Arab Spring were conceived on Facebook, chronicled on Twitter, and memorialized on YouTube. Sure, CNN was still in Tahrir Square and on the streets of Benghazi. But this time it was redundant.
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 CNN.com 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.
There isn’t a single host on CNN who could hack it on MSNBC in its high-Baroque style. Watching Ed Schulz in a lather is like watching the compelling kook in your bowling league cry into his beer. At his best/worst, Olbermann recalled the tempestuous high-school debate partner who could either win you the round with his overwrought rhetorical flourishes or get you bounced out of the tournament for an unhinged tirade at the judges. Rachel Maddow is having so much fun misspending her Oxford education by flattering liberal pieties that it’s actually kind of hard to hate her.
And CNN has whom? Anderson “Phone It In” Cooper? David Gergen, whose motor seems to run on wistfulness? John King, the analyst for people who find vanilla ice cream presumptuous? The network’s most recent “big splash” hire is Anthony Bourdain, a food writer and traveloguer in the wannabe–Hunter Thompson mold. You can tell he’s tough because he sports an earring and T-shirts referencing punk bands that were controversial in the ’70s.
Leadership might be starting to get it. CNN Worldwide president Jim Walton has announced he is resigning at year’s end in favor of a “new leader” who brings “new thinking.” But I’ll believe it when I see it. As it stands, the most assertive thing on CNN is Wolf Blitzer’s beard. It’s as if an entire network gazed upon the morphing media landscape, turned to its audience, and with a straight face said: “The last 20 years did not take place.”
— Daniel Foster is news editor of National Review Online. Adapted from an article that appeared in the July 30, 2012, issue of National Review.