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Back on the Job

The morning after a devastating tsunami swept through South Asia, the network morning shows stuck with their usual dose of celebrity banter and lighthearted cooking segments. After they had largely sat out this summer’s political conventions, it was another glaring act of abdication, underscoring why broadcasters are no longer a first stop for many seeking news.

By contrast, CNN, however fleetingly, again looked like the CNN of old: a 24-hour news operation possessing an intricate web of worldwide bureaus able to blanket the story. Yet in this glimpse of the past, it’s still hard to find a compass that points directly toward the channel’s future.

For the last year or more, CNN seemed like a confused Fox News Channel wannabe trying to strut around as awkwardly as a kid in his mom’s high-heel shoes. But if only for the last couple of weeks, the network that Ted Turner built hasn’t looked like the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.

Management turmoil and lack of vision have taken their toll at CNN, which, as the eldest cable news network, has experienced the same kind of growing pains witnessed at major newspapers. Purists can huff and puff, but answers for old-guard journalists are no longer always obvious. Do they pander to younger consumers, as even The New York Times did under former Editor Howell Raines (and occasionally still does)? Or should they settle for a discerning crowd and hope that the young eventually give a damn once they, too, have more to lose?

There are no easy solutions on this front, just as precious little has been simple these last few years at CNN, a place where the term “revolving door” barely does recent history justice.

In a sense, the wake-up call didn’t entirely register until the outbreak of war in Iraq, at a point when Fox’s ascension past the Time Warner-owned channel seemed less sure. Pundits such as myself were convinced that, in time of crisis, CNN’s international presence and breaking-news credentials would supersede Fox’s talking heads. Yet somehow, Fox’s unvarnished patriotism (and more often than not, Bush administration booster-ism), coupled with surprisingly adept field reporting and aggressive packaging, further solidified the network Roger Ailes created.

Since then, CNN has appeared even more at sea and uncertain where its mandate lies. If Fox News represents the TV equivalent of talk radio, brash and opinionated, CNN remains not quite AM news but less than talk as well.

It’s a blurry image not helped by the limited wattage of the network’s so-called stars, which got thinner still when bow-tied conservative shouter Tucker Carlson was jettisoned last week.

Mercifully, world events of the tsunami’s magnitude come along rarely, but CNN has rightfully planted its flag in this story, refusing to look away. At times it seems as if the U.S. public’s willingness to see beyond nationality and appreciate the scope of the tragedy has compelled slow-to-react TV interests to step up their coverage. CNN was best prepared. It already had four existing bureaus in the region.

The question is, what to do next? CNN’s problem has been that people use the channel as a headline service and don’t watch long enough for it to generate significant ratings—a point officials have tried to impress upon numbers-challenged TV-beat writers, without much headway.

Jonathan Klein, the recently installed president of CNN News Group, has a series of hurdles to clear, not the least being that few of his predecessors have endured 18 months in the job. CNN’s commitment to the tsunami’s aftermath, however, recognizes that news—not just Carlson screaming about it—must be a central component. CNN must establish a destination where people go to understand the wider world, which doesn’t mean obsessing over outwardly normal types who kill their spouses or kids.

With the major networks having reduced their claim to being a source of news and in-depth analysis, the door is open for CNN if the network can deliver the goods. That means not swaying with every minor breeze, panicking at each ratings setback or jettisoning management before they can break in the office furniture.

The truth is that not only does CNN need to be better than it has been but there’s a need for the channel to occupy an under-served niche that has real value.

Fox News has its own successful formula. But that leaves ample room to operate so long as someone at CNN remembers a bit of wisdom popularly associated with the East—the one about the link between “crisis” and “opportunity.”