Thursday, February 22, 2007

There was a tediously long line at Blockbuster this evening, so while waiting, I pointed my internet-phone toward some news headlines. I've done that before, of course, and I've certainly noticed in the past that the stories are often branded with CNN's logo, but they tend to be AP stories, and I've always figured it was AP doing the headline-prioritizing. So I get to the main page, and the top headline on the list -- the top headline! Above the IAEA report, above the chlorine-at-the-bomb-factory story, above everything -- was this: "Emotional judge announces ruling." And I swear to you, I got a little excited.

I clicked the link right away, but there's a pretty severe transmission lag on the phone, so I had several seconds to think about it before the story came up. "This is preposterously fast," I thought. "How could they possibly? And what the heck verdict would make the judge 'emotional'?" I was intrigued, and a little confused. But this was big news! Scooter Libby was going to jail! And I was going to read about it on my phone! In Blockbuster!... And then the page loaded.

Now, I'll grant you: a careful reader of that headline could have figured out ahead of time that the article wasn't about the Libby trial. The Libby judge, for instance, won't be announcing a "ruling." But I wasn't reading carefully; I was standing in line at Blockbuster, staring at a two-inch screen and trying to ignore the loud-but-otherwise-charming two-year-old in front of me. So you can imagine my dismay - seriously, dismay - when I realized that not only was the Scooter Libby jury not back, but this stupid story was about stupid Anna Nistupidcole Smith and her stupid burial. And branded, it goes without saying, CNN.

I used to be a huge CNN fan. In undergrad, I would watch hours of CNN every day; by default, unless I was doing something specific, the television was on and it was tuned to CNN. In fact, my Distinguished Former Co-Editor and I spent most of our senior year engaged in an unspoken but ferocious war for the remote. If he got back from class before I did (or, in the interest of accuracy: if he got back from class before I woke up), he grabbed the remote and we spent the day with the friendly morons of Fox News; if the opposite, I got the remote and we spent the day on CNN. The late afternoons were great: two hours of Inside Politics, followed by an hour of Crossfire. Now granted, even then, CNN was hardly a paragon of journalism. They had more than their fair share of airheads, no doubt about it. But they were usually pretty good about sprinkling in someone with something to say, and on the whole, they were head-and-shoulders above the competition. It was never the NewsHour, but it was enjoyable and usually informative.

In other words, CNN had me. I was theirs to lose. I consume a copious amount of news, and CNN had me hooked. But within a year or so of the end of undergrad, I'd become actively disillusioned. CNN's management seemed to be going out of their way, more and more and more, to Fox News-ize everything they could get their hands on. Their graphics packages became steadily more garish; their music, steadily more dramatic; their anchors, steadily more dumber.

In the space of about twelve months, I went from watching several hours of CNN every day to watching almost none. Flash forward to the present day, and honestly, if there was a way to generate such a ranking, I'd guess CNN wouldn't even fall into my fifty-most-watched TV channels. (The last time I had it on was on election night, when I spent the wee hours flipping between CNN and MSNBC hoping to pry a Burns/Tester answer out of Brian Schweitzer.)

To put it in starker terms, I don't even have the site bookmarked anymore. (Audience: No!) And, true, it's not as though I'm going to forget the URL. But it was a symbolic gesture, akin to removing someone from my cell phone's address book.*

And stories like this one are magnificently illustrative of my reasons for leaving. Not just the existence of the story itself (though a strong argument could be made that this story owes its entire life [no pun intended, really] to CNN and its 24-hour-news brethren), but the focus on it, the pseudo-importance of it. Pardon my French, but give me a fucking break.

This whole Anna Nicole Smith saga can't even be fairly described as "lowest-common-denominator," because we're well below that. A sad, pathetic woman, who was notable only because she once posed in Playboy and then married a billionaire, died in sad, pathetic circumstances, and the CNNs of the world can't get enough of it. I was in the post office the other day (and this is another reason why I ought to have kept my hopes down when I read that headline), and Headline News - Headline News! - had put the rest of the world on hold in order to show a live broadcast of this particular [legal sham of a] hearing.

Anna Nicole Smith's death was tragic, surely. And the editors of People and US Weekly were surely justified in mobilizing their newsertainment reporters, because the audiences of those magazines will no doubt be fascinated by all of this. And hell, if CNN wanted to give her death a mention, and toss an obit graphic on the screen, go for it. But then move on. This is a thirty-second story, at most (and only worthy of a thirty-second story by virtue of the fact that they, CNN, have made it worthy of a thirty-second story; sans the national news media's fascination with this woman, her death wouldn't even have merited a mention). Any more than that, and you're just embarrassing yourself.

It's probably true, sadly, that a large chunk of the population was at least rudimentarily interested in the outcome of this hearing. And while I personally think that's a bit silly (as you may have gathered), there's certainly nothing inherently wrong with it. But it's not news.

CNN, the Cable News Network, is at least theoretically in the journalism business. So leave the coverage of Anna Nicole Smith to E! or CourtTV (or the Fox News Channel, which has made clear from the start that its commitment to the cause of journalism is tenuous at best). You, CNN, should be a journalist. Cover the news.

Remember that bizarre Crossfire incident a few years ago, when Jon Stewart went on as a guest and told them they were hurting America? I always thought that was a bit tactless (for one, I enjoyed Crossfire; and more importantly, for two, I thought it was glaringly impolite to go to someone else's house and call them out on live television), but now at least I know how he felt.

* - I have about 500 bookmarks, all meticulously organized and categorized (as will surprise no one who knows me); the "News" category by itself has several dozen entries (you can see a bunch of them on the sidebar of this page). But none of them is CNN.

GENERAL NOTE: It's only fair to point out that, at least for a while, the Smith ruling was also the top story on All the same, my complaints stand.

UPDATE: It would appear that Bob Herbert agrees, since he wrote basically the same column - albeit more eloquently and with fewer cursewords - on Thursday:

When we were kids we were taught not to laugh at people who were obviously mentally or emotionally disturbed. With Ms. Smith, who was deeply and unmistakably disturbed, we put her on television and laughed and laughed. Would she say something stupid, or spill out of her dress, or pass out in public from booze or drugs? How hysterically funny!

Then her son died. Then she died, leaving an orphaned infant daughter. Instead of turning away chastened, shamed, we homed in like happy vultures. Whatever entertainment value Ms. Smith had when she was alive increased exponentially when she was kind enough to die for us. Now she’s on the tube around the clock.


Gilad said...

Does this mean that BBC news might be inching its way up your list of news sources?

Mike said...

BBC is great for world news, and I read (and occasionally watch) them for that reason. But their U.S. political coverage is rather understandably lacking, so they're still not in, say, my top ten.