CNN Choosing “Smarm” Over Substance

Originally posted: September 4, 2010

Surveys show a drop in public confidence in the performance of television news. A recent move by CNN demonstrates why public confidence is plummeting. CNN’s decision to give an hourlong, prime-time news program to disgraced former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer shows that journalism is out the door and bizarre spectacle is in at the pioneering cable channel that once exemplified high standards in broadcast journalism.

CNN lost its cable news ratings lead to Fox News Channel almost a decade ago, but the network maintained a degree of respect because it was viewed as a place where journalism still happened. CNN has been referred to as the Clinton News Network because of perceived support of the Democratic Party, but the network frequently led the competition at times of breaking news and for news events such as campaign debates and election coverage.

It was bad enough when CNN’s sister network, Headline News, morphed into a virtual tabloid showbiz channel, giving prime-time shows to strident crime reporter Nancy Grace and comedian Joy Behar, but it was still just Headline News. Now, it is the real CNN, the channel that created cable news, discarding its journalistic credentials to hire Spitzer and give him the prestigious 8 p.m. time slot.

Spitzer brings no journalistic experience to the show. CNN promotes him as “a legendary prosecutor and progressive governor.” Here’s betting, however, he wouldn’t have gotten the CNN gig without his primary credential: his sensational scandal and subsequent resignation as governor for being a frequent client of high-priced hookers. Without that seedy background, Spitzer is just another progressive ex-governor. CNN hopes that Spitzer’s novelty will generate buzz and raise the network’s edginess profile. Spitzer will earn a reported $500,000 per year for his bad behavior. No doubt, Mark Sanford and John Edwards are preparing rsums to send to CNN.

Spitzer’s co-host is Kathleen Parker, a respected conservative newspaper columnist who demonstrates independent thinking. Parker won this year’s Pulitzer Prize, and her syndicated columns appear in more than 400 newspapers, including The Star. Her placement on a cable news channel makes sense. She could anchor this show on her own. Spitzer, however, has to have Parker co-host to give CNN enough cover to keep the program from being viewed as a freak show.

In an open letter to CNN, the National Association of Black Journalists blasted the Spitzer hiring, writing, “Are you telling us that CNN could find no one better than an ex-politician who quit being New York governor after consorting with prostitutes to grace America’s living rooms each night?” The NABJ letter focused on its concern about the lack of racial diversity in prime-time cable news, but the point about Spitzer remains on target.

Parker defended Spitzer’s hiring, writing in a column, “I decided that his intelligence, insights and potential contributions outweighed his other record. . . . Who wouldn’t like to hear his thoughts today on financial reform legislation?” There are, however, plenty of other intelligent people to discuss financial reform legislation in prime time who don’t carry such an “other record.”

CNN, no doubt, is in overhaul mode because of declining ratings and departing talent. CNN used to average more than a million viewers an hour in prime time a few years ago. It now gets half that. The CNN prime-time shows barely surpass the daytime ratings, and sometimes even trail the viewer numbers on Headline News, the weak sibling. The average age of a CNN viewer is 63, a damaging statistic to advertisers who generally seek younger audiences.

The Spitzer-Parker show will be CNN’s fourth change at the 8 p.m. time slot in eight years, after weak performances by the likes of Paula Zahn and recently departed Campbell Brown. Longtime CNN fixtures such as Lou Dobbs and Christiane Amanpour have departed, and now Larry King is ready to retire.

King’s reported replacement is former British tabloid editor Piers Morgan, who is more widely known to Americans as a judge for NBC’s “America’s Got Talent.” Once the Morgan show is confirmed, the CNN/HLN lineup from 8 to 10 p.m. this fall will include a gabby comedian, alarmist crime reporter, judge of amateur singers and dancers, and fallen politician with no moral compass. How disappointing to see the Worldwide Leader in News become the worldwide leader in smarm.

Jeffrey M. McCall is a professor of communication at DePauw University in Greencastle, and author of “Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences.” Contact him at jeffmccall@depauw.edu.

 

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