Published on Monday, February 25, 2002 in the Long Island, NY Newsday
CNN Trades In Hard News for Showbiz
by James R. Smith
JUST A few months back, many television viewers were comfortable with their stiff dose of caffeine and CNN's hard news in the morning. But the continuing cable network news war - primarily between CNN and Fox News Channel - has resulted in more show business and less hard news.
CNN's recent hiring of Connie Chung for a reported $2 million a year is just the latest checkbook shot across the opponent's bow. What is CNN willing to do to win the news ratings war?
CNN's " American Morning with Paula Zahn," fidgety Jack Cafferty and Anderson Cooper, formerly host of "The Mole," is beginning to look more like ABC's "Good Morning America" or your local Fox affiliate's morning program. Does the ample anchor cross-talk include considerable speculation? Segment titles, such as "The Big Question" and "Morning Buzz," have a decidedly colloquial ring. Studio-based talking heads have replaced at least some field correspondent reports. Daryn Kagan's headline summaries are very brief and generally focus on only the top four or five international-national stories, which are also rehashed by the anchors. State and regional news reports are rarely seen.
Viewer opinions, submitted by e-mail, are often summarized. Then, too, there is the ever-present couch. We may not see "cooking" clips. But are certain elements, dressed like hard news, really opinion pieces loaded with empty informational calories?
It's not just the morning show. CNN leans heavily on its corporate siblings throughout the day. Media managers savor capitalizing on synergism and cross-platform promotion, but at CNN it's approaching overload. Notice the number of AOL Time Warner magazine staffers doing segments on defense, health, money, law and politics.
It doesn't take sophisticated research to reveal that recaps, studio interviews with in-house experts, news analysis, anchor cross-talk and loosely identified opinion units have pushed out some hard news. In moderation, these elements are defensible. Their increased presence and frequency traces to management - not on-air talent - decision-making.
Anchors, like actors, follow the script and the high-profile ones are paid exceedingly well to do so. CNN's script is being written by Hollywood-hardened executives.
Shortly after the AOL-Time Warner merger, then-WB network head Jamie Kellner became the new Turner Broadcasting and CNN overseer with a mandate for change. Above Kellner is former MTV, now AOL, wunderkind Bob Pittman. Both Kellner and Pittman know entertainment and the 12-34 demographic. Unfortunately, the lower half of that demographic doesn't watch a lot of news. Surely important decisions cross at least Kellner's desk, if not Pittman's, too, so the telecasts we see must resonate management policy.
CNN also displayed a flourish of showbiz logic. Not long ago, it issued some 400 employees pink slips, with possibly more coming, in a cost-cutting move. It then spent more than it saved on contracts for three people - Connie Chung, Larry King and Paula Zahn. There's also the bill for "American Morning's" new street-level set. Kellner chalks it all up to the cost of doing business in a competitive environment, reminding us that CNN is a "very profitable" franchise and that news coverage won't suffer. The same team that is carving a leaner organization with one hand is spending big packaging bucks with the other.
Fox has taken plenty of heat for airing what's perceived as news with attitude. Has CNN been lucky enough, thus far, to fly above the Fox flak? Rupert Murdoch's tabloid tendencies make his media platforms, such as Fox, easy targets for the critics but he is a savvy, tenacious, market-driven competitor and, particularly since the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, those qualities have played pretty well in Peoria. MSNBC seems to be waiting for the dust to settle and CNN has usually claimed the high journalistic ground. But that may be truer of the old CNN, a media brand that founder Ted Turner nurtured at no small expense.
Some promotional techniques, such as calling Zahn "sexy," and production devices, such as audio whooshes ushering transition graphics across the screen, seem to scream show business. If you are taking the "high road," such tactics are not appropriate in a formal journalistic context - a context that supposedly fosters credibility, stability, trust, professionalism, high ethical standards and spurns Hollywood trappings.
There's no malice behind CNN executives' lifting some hard news. It's like the coffee business. At one time, coffee cans contained a pound of coffee. Now the container that looks like it holds a pound of coffee has only 11 or 12 ounces. It's the same brand; there is just less of it inside. Let's hope what emerges from CNN's packaging-spa regimen is more hard news muscle and less flab.
James R. Smith is an associate professor of communication and media at SUNY New Paltz.
Copyright © 2002, Newsday, Inc