Film & TV

The Astonishing Silliness of CNN

A television displays a CNN program in a window in Boston, Mass., June 26, 2017. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
The hysterical chyrons, the endless drama, Stormy, Stormy, Stormy . . . Better to watch sports or read a book.

Full disclosure: I do not watch a lot of cable news. When it comes to politics, I prefer the printed word; what I do watch is largely made up of highlight clips sandwiched into online news stories. Behold, I am a beleaguered cable advertising executive’s worst nightmare! Perhaps I am even a dark portent of an increasingly splintered media future to come.

I am not, in summary, a huge consumer of televised political theater. Unless I am stuck in an airport. Then I am forced to watch CNN.

Modern American life is full of mysteries — this week, the hare-brained idea for a television reboot starring well-known unhinged person Roseanne Barr rose chiefly among them. But this Memorial Day weekend, I confronted one of the more vexing puzzles in these United States. It is best phrased in the form of a question, as troubled as it is earnest: Which heartless and devious former CIA torture expert decided that civilians in airports across the country should be force-fed the sometimes-cringeworthy spectacle that is CNN?

I do not exaggerate: Over the course of two airports, CNN was everywhere. Before departure, CNN was rolling in our lunch restaurant. Next door, CNN was burbling in a convenience store. In the second airport, in the waiting area at the gate, CNN was not only surrounding me on several screens, but the sound was also piped in.

Egad! What madness is this? People have books they want to read! People have trashy celebrity magazines they just bought, and they don’t even feel guilty about it, because they’re in an airport! People have smartphones, where they can tune into CNN’s content privately! (Let’s face it: They probably won’t.) Moreover, people are traveling with young children who can read, which makes things rather awkward when CNN decides to run various turgid chyrons about terror and mayhem and the omnipresent Stormy Daniels.

In summary, CNN was everywhere, and unless you had a giant pair of virtual-reality goggles and noise-canceling headphones, there was no escape. In the end, however, there was a quiet upside to all of this: Like it or not, I was helpfully reminded of why CNN’s relative cable news ratings are lower than the cut of a tank top worn by, yes, the omnipresent Stormy Daniels.

CNN often pretends to be middle-of-the-road, but it most certainly is not — and perhaps that’s the bulk of the problem.

I’m old enough to remember when CNN was taken more seriously, back in the day when the booming voice of James Earl Jones grandly announced “THIS . . . IS CNN.” Today, however, when it comes to the ratings, the supposedly middle-of-the-road CNN wildly trails its openly ideological rivals Fox News and MSNBC. It almost brings to mind the advice found in the Book of Revelation: “Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.”

I kid, I kid: I just wanted to quote Revelation. Moreover, CNN often pretends to be middle-of-the-road, but it most certainly is not — and perhaps that’s the bulk of the problem.

Witness the now-legendary CNN chyron — that’s the line of headline text gracing the bottom of the screen during every news story — which has taken to reminding viewers, often in cheeky parentheticals, what exactly one should think. Here’s a doozy from February: “WH: TRUMP HAS BEEN TOUGHER ON RUSSIA IN ONE YEAR THAN OBAMA WAS IN EIGHT (NO, HE HASN’T).” On Thursday, in response to a rather fluffy White House–sponsored “Sports and Fitness Day,” CNN got weirdly ponderous: “TRUMP AND FITNESS: AN EXERCISE IN HYPOCRISY?” During my brief yet torturous airport restaurant foray, the network’s chyron read something like — and please forgive my paraphrasing, but I was desperately trying to ignore the TV blaring over my head — “TRUMP FALSELY SLAMS ‘SPYING’ DURING HIS CAMPAIGN (ISN’T HE CRAZY? IT WAS AN ‘INFORMANT,’ NOT A SPY!).”

The good people at CNN can do what they want, but this blatant chyron-splaining sends a rather clear and unfortunate message: that they think their audience is daft and incapable of figuring things out for themselves.

CNN is frequently breathless when no one should be breathless, which would be kind of exhausting, if anyone cared. Take this headline from the network’s website this week: “The 45 Most Astonishing Lines from Donald Trump’s Nashville Speech.” Brace yourself, for here is just a small sample of those supposedly astonishing lines:

“Do we love Tennessee! We love Tennessee!” (Shocking!)

“I love country music.” (Well, I never!)

“This is a big crowd of people.” (Unbelievable! Donald Trump said that? No. It can’t be.)

“There they are, right back there. Fake. They are fake. Look how many of them. Oh, boy. That’s a lot of people back there. . . . Fake news.” (Dear heavens! I almost just fell out of my chair!)

No matter what you think about Trump, none of this is “astonishing,” at least not if you’ve been paying attention. What is mildly astonishing is that CNN hosted a guest this week who insisted that every person who voted for Trump — that’s right, every single person! — is a racist. That’s . . . an argument, I suppose.

CNN certainly has some bright spots of intellect and talent, and let’s be fair: These days, the media world is a brutal business. The news cycle is no longer even a cycle — it’s an endless blur. The push for constant new content is relentless. Endless drama, faux or not, is the nature of the beast; every news network — including Fox News and MSNBC — is guilty.

But only one network haunts us in the airport. Join with me, America, and demand the channel be changed. Or even better, to turn the TVs completely off, with the exception of major sporting events and occasional soothing nature specials. Call me crazy, but it just might work.

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