CNN’s harvest of shame

CNN‘s desperate attempts to raise its flagging ratings have led to actions that can be viewed as either sad or comical. CNN spent months devoting the majority of its coverage to the missing Malaysia Airlines flight, MH 370, beyond all reasonable proportion given that there were no new developments for days on end. The result was hours of cringworthy speculation, including the infamous moment where Don Lemon asked:

[W]hat if it was something, fully, that we don’t really understand? A lot of people have been asking me about that, about black holes and on and on and on, and all these conspiracy theories. Let’s look at this, ah, Noah says, ‘what else can you think? Black hole? Bermuda triangle?’ And then Deji says, ‘Huh? Just like in the movie LOST?’ It’s also referencing the Twilight Zone, which is a very similar plot. That’s what people are saying…  is it preposterous…?

Now that even CNN has had to curtail its MH 370 coverage due to lack of any news, CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker recently gave some hints as to his plans for CNN’s direction. What emerged is an audience-driven format that seems to bear little resemblance to actual news coverage.

For instance, Zucker said that CNN would air more “informational based, educational, entertaining programs like ‘Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown,’” which is about the travels of a celebrity chef. When New York Times television reporter Bill Carter asked Zucker if CNN would devote more time to the growing problem of climate change, Zucker replied:

Climate change is one of those stories that deserves more attention, that we all talk about. But we haven’t figured out how to engage the audience in that story in a meaningful way. When we do do those stories, there does tend to be a tremendous amount of lack of interest on the audience’s part.

These statements seem to imply that CNN is going to take directions from its audience, rather than relying on news editors and producers to use their journalistic judgment to decide what to air. This turns the whole idea of news on its head. If “news” simply means what people already are choosing to focus on, let’s look at today’s top Google Trends. They are: “Memorial Day” (holiday), “X Men Days of Future Past” (new movie), “Chad Smith” (drummer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers who had a drum-off with his celebrity look-alike Will Ferrell), “Mark Cuban” (Dallas Mavericks basketball team owner) and “Landon Donovan“(American soccer player). The Google Trends main page also had a chart showing interest in Justin Bieber vs. Miley Cyrus.

Based on these trending topics (and you can find similar ones on Twitter and elsewhere), if CNN is going to determine what to cover primarily by existing demonstrated audience interest, CNN could essentially become an entertainment/sports/celebrity channel similar to E!. Or maybe CNN will adopt a game show format, like that of Family Feud, where popular audience answers pick the stories to be covered.

All of this seems a long way from news coverage like the 1960 CBS News program “Harvest of Shame” (see video above), in which anchor Edward R. Murrow exposed the treatment of migrant workers in America. CBS did not choose an especially popular or pleasant subject, or one that the viewing audience might have picked. But the editors and producers at CBS felt that, like climate change today, it was an important story to tell to America.

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