Can Jeff Zucker, the newly named president of CNN’s worldwide operations, arrest the network’s slide to the bottom of the ratings pile? Can Prince Charles grow back his hair? OK, that’s not a fair comparison. But as a news junkie, I can’t imagine how CNN can survive as a news organization if it continues to be a one-trick pony.
CNN has become primarily a White House news network, perhaps because it’s cheaper to cover just the presidency and mix it up with a few feature stories here and there. That may be working for Fox News and MSNBC because those are politically inclined opinion-based networks catering to their ideological and partisan bases. But CNN, which tries, even if clumsily, to be a nonpartisan and objective “news” channel – never mind the “keeping them honest” shtick, which is not the business of a news organization — has not been able to sustain viewer interest with coverage of just the White House and politics surrounding it. There is, after all, only so much real news out there every day.
Ironically, the narrow focus of news is slowly making way for non-American sources of television news around the world. BBC World News and Al Jazeera, with their extensive international coverage, are gaining ground at the expense of CNN. It won’t be long before Al Jazeera overcomes the corporate and political blockade of its channel to gain the attention of even American viewers interested in developments and trends in a globalized world. Parachuting Anderson Cooper into crisis zones for a few photo-ops cannot substitute for sustained news coverage that contributes to viewers’ habit formation. Cooper’s vacuous anchoring might appeal to equally vacuous demographics that make up for ratings, but, in the long run, it is the mature viewers that account for the success of a news organization.
If CNN’s coverage is any indication, one would have to conclude that there’s nothing to report in most of the 50 states, barring some political happenings in swing states – when was the last time you saw a report from Kansas or the Dakotas or Idaho? In fact, there is virtually no coverage of developments and trends in important states like Texas or California. Why can’t CNN, for instance, have an afternoon hour with news from states? A pre-prime time hour covering crime stories from across the country and a late-evening hour covering lifestyle and human interest stories from faraway places, could auger well for its ratings.
And then there is Piers Morgan. His is the most insufferable program on CNN in the prime time lineup. His uninspiring interviews with an assortment of guests of no consequence, makes you wonder about CNN’s personnel policies. Remember how it fired Eliot Spitzer, even though the fault was in the way his show was conceptualized and not in his person? If anything, Spitzer had the intellectual prowess and gravitas of a good political talk show host, not to mention a great voice that any successful anchor needs, which is again something that Morgan lacks. Can you imagine Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw, Brian Williams or Bernard Shaw with a Morgan-like voice?
If CNN really wants to shake up the prime time, it should hire Ann Coulter and let her run amok from 9 to 10 – she’s smart and glamorous but not pretentious, provocative without being offensive and can hold her own on any subject with any pundit or politico. Her slice and dice sense of humor would be a bonus. More importantly, a Coulter show has the best chance of filling in the “opinion gap” where CNN is getting slaughtered by its two rivals.
Talking of hiring and firing, CNN will have to do something about its women. Suzanne Malveaux, Brooke Baldwin and Fredricka Whitfield should stop being warm and fuzzy all the time. News anchors have to demonstrate authority and gravitas, not good cheer. Soledad O’Brien has the opposite problem – she tries to project intellectual depth that she clearly lacks. The less said the better about Candy Crowley, who’s clearly too much for an anchor on high-definition television. I say this without any bias against obese people, but it is an entirely a different matter whether they are suited for the visual medium, irrespective of their journalistic capabilities. As for Erin Burnett, sooner or later CNN is likely to kill her career (like it did with a few other good reporters before) because she has been given a show that does not exploit her strong business reporting background. Instead, she has been saddled with an hour-long slot that seems to have no theme, purpose or presence.
When will CNN realize that good reporters don’t always make good political talk-show hosts or news program anchors? That includes Wolf Blitzer and John King, who are my favorite reporters, but are hardly captivating hosts. NBC’s David Gregory is another classic example of a good reporter destroying a legendary show. Anchors need to have well-honed analytical skills backed by strong academic, political and intellectual credentials. It is not surprising that the best news talk shows are “Morning Joe” and “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”
The two best anchors on CNN are Dr. Sanjay Gupta and Fareed Zakaria, neither of whom has a reporting background. But the fact remains their programs/shows/reports are well-conceptualized, based on solid ideas and presented in a way that is both educational and interesting — not entertaining, which should not be the desired or intended objective of any good news channel. Leave that to “The View” and the “The O’Reilly Factor.”
Last word: please dump Anderson Cooper’s RidicuList. I’m tired of gnashing my teeth every time that segment comes up.