Last Rites for CNN

Image by The Young Turks

Image by The Young Turks

CNN died this week.

Boy, did they blow it when on Wednesday they reported the fictitious arrest of a suspect who at that point hadn’t even been identified. But that isn’t even my biggest complaint about the television news media’s performance this week.

I follow very few Twitter accounts: 39 at the moment. My elected representatives. My local paper. A few political commentators I like. A couple of fun things. And a bunch of writers and literary magazines. So on Monday, when I suddenly had 30 new tweets in a few minutes, I figured something was up. And it was: an explosion at the Boston Marathon. A serious explosion.

The first question in this situation is always: Is everyone I know and love safe? I had no friends or family at the event, so I was spared that particular anguish.

I turned on the TV. Here’s what I wanted to know:

What happened?
Who did this?
Are people still in danger?

Instead, on MSNBC I heard a terrorism expert talking about… I don’t even know what he was talking about, but it had nothing to do with what I wanted to know at that moment. On CNN, I heard an on-site reporter, audibly nervous now that she was in the middle of a crisis instead of covering a recreational event, call in to say she was in a locked-down business and couldn’t see anything and had no access to any official. Then Wolf Blitzer used the T-word.

I turned the TV off and went back to Twitter, where the real information was.

I knew that – I lived in Boston for nearly twenty years – but if you’re not from New England, you might not, and it seemed an important detail. Don’t call your sister’s office; she’s not there.

That gave me a good summary of the situation; it was accurate, factual, and included what wasn’t known, inviting me to wait for an update when accurate information was available. And it wasn’t necessary to repeat it over and over and over to fill up hours of live coverage.

But the real difference was in the amount of information that was actually helpful:

This was all useful information, especially for people more closely involved than I, who had totally different needs for information. If CNN had been airing this kind of information, instead of useless reporters saying nothing just to avoid dead air – for that matter, if they’d just shut up for a few minutes and aired video with similar helpful chyrons from local officials – I wouldn’t have turned off my TV in favor of Twitter.

Maybe it’s different on Twitter if you follow hundreds or thousands of people. I’ve never understood how it’s possible to do that; it’s all I can do to keep up with thirty-nine. Or are you not supposed to actually pay attention to individual tweets? I’m a Twitter newbie, maybe I’m doing it wrong. And Twitter isn’t without it’s difficulties: in the middle of a crisis, previously scheduled items – whether an innocuous joke or even a perfectly fine book promotion – are annoying at best. And any idiot can set up a fake account and pretend to be anyone. But on Monday I became convinced of one thing: in a crisis, for breaking news, Twitter is better than CNN or MSNBC. The news people have become irrelevant now that we have direct access to the people with actual information.

For some reason I didn’t watch the networks on Monday; maybe that was different. I found the NBC coverage of the last phase of the Friday Night Standoff to be uninformative (since there was nothing to report until they took the guy into custody), but also unoffensive, whereas on MSNBC, Chris Matthew lost any credibility he may have still had when he asked the former FBI and AFT agents who were his interviewees if the FBI could determine the ethnicity of the suspect from the photograph, to see if he was “from Yemen or something.” Even the MSNBC segments hosted by Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow, two of my favorite people in the world, annoyed me with irrelevance and the need to parade a constant stream of speculating experts.

But Twitter worked for me just fine. From now on, my breaking-crisis-news source is Twitter. It’s the death of CNN. And that’s kind of sad.

Remember how CNN started? Not the date they went on the air, which was way back in the 80s, but when they really came into their own, in January 1991 when Bernard Shaw and Peter Arnett watched the start of the war live, up close, and personal from their hotel room. Today, that doesn’t seem like much. In fact, war correspondents have been covering combat since before WWI, and some of us grew up watching the Vietnam war on the evening news. But this was the first time we’d watched the start of a war, live, on tv.

But they’ve turned into something else, and they’re not really useful for breaking news any more. That doesn’t mean they’re useless, of course. It’s my go-to channel when I have 15 minutes to kill and have idle curiosity about what’s going on in the world. Fareed Zakaria has his moments on GPS. And I never miss Howard Kurtz and Media Matters, though it’s frequently just a way to poke competitors in the eye and call it “media analysis.”

The problem with 24-hour-news is, you have to have 24 hours’ worth of news. Or repeat the same news over and over, every hour. Or turn not-news into news. And when over time you end up with a bunch of competitors, you have to do that flashier, sexier, and above all – first. You end up with Wolf Blitzer holding a pressure cooker because props are good TV. You end up reporting the fictitious arrest of a suspect not yet even identified. Compared to that, the misreporting they did on the Supreme Court decision last June was a trifle.

Maybe it’s all about cutting costs, or about ratings, about replacing actual journalists with on-air talent who test well with focus groups. But it’s how you become something I watch when I have nothing else to do, instead of the place I go when something happens. It’s how you become airport news.

I tend to lag behind the curve. I didn’t get cable TV until 1992 (I saw the Gulf War reporting at a friend’s house). I only got high-speed internet a year and a half ago, for pete’s sake. And I just started using Twitter this year. So maybe I’m the only one who wasn’t aware that cable news, as news (as opposed to issues discussion and political commentary) was dead.

But I know it now.

4 responses to “Last Rites for CNN

  1. Having near the biz for a lot of years, I know people at CNN will lose their jobs over this. CNN has been in a decline for many years because they’ve taken to the strategy of trying to compete with Faux News at their own game: sensationalism. Their reporters are vapid dolts who have little subject matter expertise. An example: when a CNN legal correspondent was asked why the captured Boston bombing suspect would endure 48 hours of questioning under the Public Safety Exemption to the Miranda Warning, the correspondent responded with “it could be that he may pose some kind of danger to. . . public safety.”
    A bright spot is NBC’s News division. They did a very responsible job.

  2. CNN had an extremely bad week. They also mistakenly reported a suspect arrest that didn’t happen and ended up having to back track:

    And you didn’t even mention perhaps their biggest fail of the week. With all of their resources – multiple reporters and film crews on the scene, access to sources high and low – do you know how they learned about the apprehension of Dzhokar Tsarnaev? By reading the Boston PD tweet about it!

    This isn’t just the death knell for CNN, pretty much all of the major media outlets struggled with this story. When you and I can get better, more pertinent information from our living rooms by not turning on the TV then I think we are experiencing a significant shift in media power.

    • If you’ll forgive me for waxing theological, I was thinking it’s like the printing press starting the Protestant Reformation: once people could read the Bible for themselves, they didn’t need the priests to tell them what was right and wrong any more. CNN, the Church of Nationwide News, has become something to bypass in favor of a more direct, more reliable connection to the Source – without the Indulgences.

      I’m still an addict of in-depth analytical discussion, but they’ve left Hunt, Shields, and Novak behind as well in favor of… Anthony Bourdain? Whom I love, don’t get me wrong, and he comes up with some very astute observances once in a while, but come on.

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