American Culture

Forget Spitzer's errant penis: Think more about CNN's blunders

You remember this tableau, don’t you? It’s Monday, March 10, 2008, and the governor of New York state is standing in front of reporters and beside his stoic wife. In a story, Eliot Spitzer, the reporter wrote, “confess[ed] to an undisclosed personal indiscretion, saying he had acted ‘in a way that violates my obligations to my family, that violates my or any sense of right and wrong.'”

On that day, a story on posed this question: Is scandal enough to sink Spitzer for good?

We learned that, on Feb. 13, 2008, Spitzer spent three hours and $4,300 on a prostitute. She was “Kristen”; he was “Client 9.” On March 12, in a story, we learned Spitzer had spent $15,000 on prostitutes. Spitzer announced he would resign, saying, “I am deeply sorry that I did not live up to what was expected of me. I will try once again outside of politics to serve the common good.” [emphasis added]

But now CNN has hired Spitzer, not to “serve the common good” outside of politics but to serve CNN’s desperate need for better ratings in prime time. Out will go Campbell Brown at 8 p.m.; in will go Spitzer and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Kathleen Parker.

Americans love stories of redemption, and Spitzer has a right to make a living. But I won’t be watching the as-yet unnamed program, and it won’t be because Spitzer disappointed me as a man and a politician. I won’t watch because this show represents yet another dumbass decision by CNN’s top brass.

Losing audiences and losing revenue

CNN has had problems finding and holding audiences for nearly a decade. CNN’s most popular hosts have seen their ratings nearly halved over the past year.

CNN’s executives have for years been unable to stem the descent in CNN’s ratings. They have not had a definitive plan for financial and journalistic success, and stuck to it decisively, for a long time. CNN has been reactive instead of proactive to its competition —MSNBC, Fox News, and even its own HLN (formerly Headline News).

Like all news-oriented media, CNN struggles with advertising revenues. That leads to cutting expenses — meaning jobs. CNN’s American Morning, which used to be a good news program, whacked eight staffers in 2008, cuts it said were “driven by editorial changes in the program. … The show has evolved and this staff restructuring will better meet the program’s current editorial needs.” [emphasis added]. Result: a program that’s gone “hip” by CNN definition with a pop “playlist” after commercial breaks, more opinionating by its hosts, the daily dose of Jeanne Moos, and … the Magic Wall. But less news.

Remember, too, that nine years ago, CNN cut 10 percent of its workforce, fundamentally altering how it gathered news. Importantly, a third of those cuts hit the network’s Internet division. The latter was not a prescient move.

Over the years, CNN has lost or canned first-rate journalists. Remember CNNfn? Bad ratings. Gone in 2004. In 2008, it cut its entire science and environment reporting team, including the respected Miles O’Brien. Reason? “We want to integrate environmental, science and technology reporting into the general editorial structure rather than have a stand alone unit,” said a CNN spokeswoman. “Now that the bulk of our environmental coverage is being offered through the Planet in Peril franchise, which is produced by the Anderson Cooper 360 program, there is no need for a separate unit.”

Given the Deepwater Horizon debacle in the Gulf, that team would have been a distinct journalistic asset for CNN.

Seeking other sources for news content

In August 2006, in part thanks to astonishing technological advances in cell phone and camera technology, CNN launched its I-Report program, labeled a public journalism initiative. A cynic would label it content without compensation. (I-Reports have had positive outcomes, I should note.)

As more experienced journalists retired (such as Bruce Morton) or left for other pastures (such as Bill Hemmer to Fox), CNN sought less expensive ways to gather content resembling news. Remember its 2008 plan for “all-platform journalists” in “one-person shops” in 10 cities? Wrote mediabistro’s Dan Cox: “CNN wants to hire journalists on the cheap who will be able to piece together stories on the fly that can possibly used on broadcast, radio, Internet or even mobile programming. Hard to say what stop-gap editing measures might be launched, if any in this blog-o-centric world we inhabit.”

As this past decade progressed, CNN has transformed itself from news to less news, more analysis and more entertainment. Why? Reporting is expensive. CNN’s programming these days costs less to produce. Further, news corporation executives now perceive audiences as increasingly amenable to content based on political conflict and culture wars. CNN is not the only media organization that has shifted from reporting news to allowing agenda-driven talking heads to “analyze” news from those perspectives.

CNN, even during its daylight hours, features talking heads attempting to explain the news rather than report it. CNN stopped selling news long ago. Now, it sells commentary about the news. Yet it still attempts to cast itself as less driven by ideology and more dedicated to news and reporting than its competitors.

The promise: less Crossfire, more storytelling

Remember how raucous Crossfire became? And what Jon Stewart said about Crossfire in his Oct. 15, 2004, appearance?

It’s not honest. What you do is not honest. What you do is partisan hackery.

Three months later, CNN’s new president, Jonathan Klein, canned Crossfire’s Tucker Carlson and canceled Crossfire. Klein said he would end “head-butting debate shows” and reinstitute “roll-up-your-sleeves storytelling.” News purists rejoiced.

But style soon trumped substance (because of low ratings, of course). In 2005, the low-key Aaron Brown, highly regarded for his 9/11 coverage, was bumped out of 10 p.m. for the flashier Anderson Cooper.

Klein failed to rein in Lou Dobbs at 6 p.m. as Dobbs drifted from good reporting to ideologically driven bombast. Klein has allowed CNN’s prime-time programming to become “he said, she said.” Anchors show a video to Guest Commentator A and Guest Commentator B. Liberal A yells, “Left!” Conservative B shouts, “Right!” And viewers learn little.

CNN, like its competitors, has reduced “news” to analysis provided by the same talking heads night after night. It’s not hard to predict who will be explaining the news on CNN tonight. Pick from this cast: Mary Matalin. James Carville. David Gergen. Paul Begala. Gloria Berger. Donna Brazile. William Bennett. And other familiar names and faces. And rabid conservative (egads!) Erick Erickson, whom CNN called “a perfect fit” for John King’s 7 p.m. show. Ah. Ideological balance.

Klein has allowed technological toys and style to dominate common-sense reporting and analysis. And he allowed, after presidential debates, camera shots showing as many as 15 talking heads lined up in a CNN studio, all prepared to tell American voters what the candidates really said.

Bye bye, AP: Hello, Twitter

Just this week, CNN ended its relationship with the Associated Press, the service that provides news to CNN and especially Any editor who’s lost local reporting staff or other resources will tell you this: “I just backfilled with AP.” Now, CNN does not have even that source for news stories. So, it appears, CNN’s “backfill” will be Rick Sanchez and others reading tweets and Facebook status lines.

Jim Walton, president of CNN Worldwide, said dumping AP would allow CNN to

more fully leverage CNN’s global newsgathering investments. We will no longer use AP materials or services. The content we offer will be distinctive, compelling and, I am proud to say, our own. [emphasis added]

CNN’s own story said this move represented “a desire to differentiate CNN from its competitors.” Quoting Walton again:

It will provide consumers with the unique news and information experience they expect from CNN. And it will make us more creative, resourceful and collaborative journalists and news professionals. [emphasis added]

And now? We get Spitzer, a liberal, and Parker, a credentialed conservative, in a program touted by CNN’s Klein as a “roundup of all the best ideas” of the day. Ideas. Not news. This won’t be Klein’s promised “roll-up-your-sleeves storytelling.” I’m not sure what it will be.

All this saddens me.

From first-rate to third-rate

CNN, first ridiculed as the Chicken Noodle Network after its launch 30 years ago this month, became the best, most-respected newsgathering operation on the planet (CBS, because of job cuts, slowly surrendered that title). Even today, if a crisis of sufficient proportions strikes anywhere in the world, CNN is on it. It’s ironic that CNN is trumped in ratings by Fox. CNN sent 19 journalists and their support staff to cover the devastating tsunami caused by an Indian Ocean earthquake in 2004. Fox sent none.

CNN has news in its DNA; Fox does not.

During its first 20 years, CNN merited respect as an organization of journalists. But in the new millenium, seismic shifts in American culture, the Internet, higher expectations of profit, and its executives’ failures to adequately adapt to that changed landscape has eroded CNN’s ability to retain that respect.

It’s 2010. Oil has splattered the Gulf in what some call America’s worst-ever environmental disaster. CNN is there. But six years after Indonesia, does CNN have the journalistic horsepower it once did? Examine CNN’s list of reporters. You’ll recognize names of many experienced, talented reporters. But so few: That lists contains only about 75 names. CNN considers its beat to be worldwide. But only 75 journalists to cover all that? More telling, only 75 journalists to fill 24 hours of airtime, day after day after day?

In my professional lifetime, CNN has brought me so much information about the world that I didn’t know, and I appreciated it. Now it brings me so little. Too often, it appears to be the Cable Nutjob Network. By hiring Spitzer, CNN has added one more.

16 replies »

  1. You know, you say multiple times that CNN is doing less news and more analysis. I’m not 100% sure that you aren’t doing the word “analysis” an injustice there.

    I get your point, though. THIS is a great ANALYSIS in the proper sense of the word.

  2. I’m not sure which institution you dislike more, Eliot Spitzer or CNN. I don’t care enough about Spitzer to comment on him (though he is brilliant despite his flaws, and even Nixon was rehabilitated after his far higher crimes – mainly as a foreign policy sage). But I worked at CNN for close to ten years and still care deeply about it.

    Some of your criticism is on the mark. Some is way wide.

    Since the first Gulf War, 1991, CNN has strugged to turn awareness of its presence into habitual sampling of its product. Nothing’s really worked, and you can trace the problem to management’s longtime insistence that the news, not “talent,” was the star. The problem with that noble notion is that nobody tunes in on news-free days.

    This was not so awful when there was no competing 24-hour news channel. Now there are two, not counting the financial / business channels, and both succeed via personality programming. Fox News Channel clobbers CNN not because we are a nation of sneering crypto-fascists but because it’s a better-produced, tighter, “voicier” product with more intriguing, magnetic personalities at its fore. (Including some excellent journalists such as Shep Smith.)

    In one paragraph you say “CNN still has news in its DNA” and a moment later you dismiss it as the “Cable Nutjob Network,” so that’s a little garbled, but every news organization balances both profiles. NBC News, as serious a broadcast organization as remains, also makes oodles of money on a squishy-soft four-hour Today Show and its tabloid-yucky Dateline franchise. You can call, piously, for more sobriety across the board, but news is a business. Covering wars and disasters is fiendishly expensive and the audience rarely rewards the expenditure. If CNN keeps hemorrhaging viewers at this rate, there’ll be at lot less feet-on-the-ground coverage. No ratings mean lower newsgathering budgets. This is why the broadcast networks, which until the 1980s girdled the earth with overseas bureaus and firsthand coverage, are husks of their former selves. It’s what threatens CNN. Spitzer replacing Campbell Brown’s conventional newscast at 800pm (a ratings catastrophe) is a desperate countermove. If he draws an audience, it’ll fund ultimately more crews in Kandahar.

    If you yourself didn’t have a little tabloid in your blood, you’d have resisted the schoolboy urge to put the word “penis” in your header to attract attention, so I think you understand the balancing act I’m talking about. In fact, you decry the decline of honest shoe-leather reporting, but your analysis doesn’t seem to have any. All quotes and links from elsewhere in the Internet echo chamber, right? No original interviews? You yourself prove the point that opinion is cheaper and easier to generate. I think people enraptured by the Internet “journalism revolution” sometimes miss the point that most blogging merely embroiders on facts and trends gathered elsewhere (or amplifies falsities, or crushes nuance). That the audience for news drifts away from original, expensive reporting to marinate in cheap nouveau vox pop is another distressing trend CNN must deal with.

    Finally, CNN remains an organization with great bench strength, only a fraction of it on camera. A tally of on-air reporters is a manifestly false yardstick. 75 reporters for 24 hours? You can do great with half that number, easy, and a lot fewer anchors. Producers, particularly field producers, and photographers are the real sinew of a TV network, and CNN’s are the best on earth – take it from me. Regardless of what you think of the on-air talent. Concluding that 75 reporters isn’t enough to put on a news network is like concluding that 535 senators and House members isn’t enough to run the entire federal government.

    Ironically, if you care about real journalism and CNN’s fate, you will root for Eliot Spitzer, or anyone like him, to build an audience and get some wind back in the network’s sails.

    CNN is still not as far gone as it could concievably go; I bet, for example, that when they think of a title for his new 800pm program, it will not have the word “penis” in it.

  3. Dr Denny

    Love your blog and this website. I was very disappointed in Eliot Spitzer, and, as a Southern man, I feel sympathy for his wife. I hope Spitzer has grown up some after all this, and that he has restored his family relationship. I do miss his skills in the current dilemma. He could have helped put some real heat on Goldman Sachs et al.

    I am a civilian w/r to Journalism and it’s present problems, but I am admire good journalists and am at a loss to see how the hollowing-out of the news business can be reversed. My own racket, which is the development of innovative scientific solutions to real problems, has been under attack by the philistines for some years, so I think that I can empathize with journalism’s problems as well as sympathize.

    Please remember that John Wayne was an actor.

    Dr Bob

  4. Tom,

    Thanks for your passionate, eloquent defense of CNN. I and my colleagues here appreciate the time you invested in your comment. I also appreciate what you taught us and our readers about CNN, particularly about what 75 reporters and field producers are capable of doing.

    You can rightfully chastise me as merely a voice in the echo chamber, as you put it. And you can also criticize the post for its lack of original interviewing. Please appreciate, however, that my critique of CNN is that a viewer who has watched the network since its inception. From that point of view, what my post did was compare what CNN’s top executives told me I would see on air with what I actually see on air. When CNN’s president says he’ll put more “roll-up-your-sleeves storytelling” on my television screen, then that’s what I expect to see. But I see more “he said, she said” commentary than the reporting he promised.

    About Spitzer: On CNN’s “Reliable Sources” Sunday, Klein defended his choice of Spitzer: “I think in this day and age, especially with the rise of blogs and YouTube, there are so many different types of people who have gotten very good at expressing points of view. And I think there’s room for that on the CNN schedule. I think the driving factor needs to be, does the person bring an intelligence? Do they have informed opinions? Do they offer incisive analysis? And if so, that’s got a place here.”

    Perhaps he is right. But from my perspective as a viewer, I wish CNN would provide over each 24-hour cycle more news on more topics with less analysis — or at least far fewer analysts. Those analysts, I’d argue, represent their own “echo chamber” because CNN uses the same cadre of talkers repeatedly. On Sunday, Klein even boasted that on election night CNN “needed a bigger set to cram in all of those different points of view that were expressed in a very lively way every night.”

    But his boast of “all of those different points of view” is, frankly, off the mark. A set crammed with so many talking heads represents a false diversity. I wish CNN used fewer, and let those few speak at greater length and depth.

    I would change one point in my post: I will watch the Spitzer-Parker program. If I wish CNN to become what I believe it can and should, I ought to support it. If CNN’s ratings do not improve, it will have fewer resources to do what I believe CNN used to do better than any other broadcast network: Let reporters find out stuff and tell people what they found.

    Thanks again. Tom. Come back any time.

  5. Dr. D: I agree wholeheartedly with your observation that CNN goes to the same narrow, predictable store of pundits too often, and the predictable lineup represents a “false diversity.” I know what Donna Brazile, Mary Matalin, et al are going to say before they open their mouths, so why not cut them out of the equation?

    It’s a tough, interesting question, one I’ve been asked many times by would-be pundits who would quite like to get the call themselves from a CNN booker, and the answer is slightly complex.

    The universe of suitable commentators on any given issue is fringhteningly small. Let’s say a policy issue erupts which demands immediate punditry. Let X equal the number of people in the world qualified to comment. Now subtract the number who have no forceful point of view on the topic. Then subtract those who are out of range of a network camera. (Sorry, all you smart people at the University of Montana, etc.). Of those remaining, subtract all who are no good on camera (e.g., terrified, cannot speak in pear-shaped sound bites, etc.). Finally, subtract those who want to appear on TV… right NOW… dropping everything from Little League games to dinner dates. Let Y equal the disqualified pundits. Sadly, over and over, I have found X – Y reliably to equal about 3… which is why Donna Brazile keeps getting on TV.

    Cheers and thanks for the wise note.

    • Now subtract the number who have no forceful point of view on the topic.

      Why would we do that? And doesn’t the very fact that this is a consideration sorta suggest that Denny has a point, and a good one?

  6. … penultimate graf above, seventh line, should of course read “… who DON’T want to appear on TV right now… ” Copy editor!

  7. Hi: Samuel: If a qualified commentator has no particular point of view about issue Z, there is no point in putting him on television. These commentary segments are slightly pre-staged in the manner courtroom trials are rehearsed: you know roughly what the witnesses, who have been thoroughly pre-interviewed, are going to say and how the segment’s going to play out. There’s little more excruciating than watching two or three people with no point of view pfumpher around out there for five or six minutes. Performance characteristics play a role — if you stutter or elllipsize into the distance, or you can’t work into a blank black lens, you won’t get on — but what makes a guest a great guest is her or his ability to frame / advance / defend a point of view in compact fashion.

    • Tom: Again, I think you’re doing a pretty good job of indicting all that CNN (well, really, ALL “news” media) has become. I know exactly what you’re saying – you’re describing the ritual. We all know how the ritual works, to the point where anytime we encounter something that even slightly violates expectations it’s grating.

      A lot hinges on how you define ‘point of view.’ I took exception primarily to your use of the word ‘forceful,’ which is all about generating as much heat as possible. I’m a big fan of thoughtfulness, though, and sometimes we learn the most from people who understand the issues well enough to discuss them in depth, from a variety of perspectives, generating insights that the Thunderdome model of news can never provide. Less heat, more light. Jon Stewart hasn’t become the most reliable newsman on television because he’s Edward Murrow. He’s done it because the “real” news networks are little more than pro wrestling programmers.

      Of course, that makes for “bad television” and low ratings. I believe Postman’s term was “amusing ourselves to death.”

  8. I’m not certain that repeatedly describing “what is” constitutes much of a useful response to a piece about “what should be.”

    We already know the who, what, when, where, why and how of pundit culture. If we don’t, the information is easily accessible and the “why” is self-evident – it sells. Explaining the ins and outs of getting a slot on CNBC doesn’t really touch the original issue: is there any longer a place on television for “straight news”? Is that a dead construct?

  9. Ann,

    Tom may disagree with me, but I’d say straight news is no longer possible, simply because of the size of the maw of the machine. Before CNN, three networks and public television gave us a half to an hour a day, usually preceded by local news. That left little time for punditry save for Sunday mornings. And, prior to CNN’s debut, opinionating was not necessarily welcomed at the broadcast networks.

    CNN in the ’80s tried very much to be more straight news than commentary. But it first recognized the need for news rotation (because of the 24-hour cycle). Providing 24 hours of different news every hour even then was not financially possible.

    Second, given the dramatic change in politics and the increasing rise of corporatism and money in politics beginning in the Reagan era (egads, I almost typo’d ‘error’), commentary, mostly in the form of explanation and analysis, became necessary. But even then, viewers did not see a set with 15 or so analysts waiting to provide their bites.

    CNN these days cannot do straight news 24/7 because it cannot afford to. Until its ratings rebound, and advertising revenues re-emerge, it’s analysis/commentary on the rise.

    With the impending departure of Larry King from his 9 p.m.. slot, I’m dying to see what Jonathan Klein decides to do there.

  10. Funny, 24/7 never even occurred to me as an option – I was thinking more of straight news surviving in a niche market. Maybe an “old-fashioned” news hour for irascible Boomers…

    ETA: And by “funny,” I don’t mean “funny ha ha.”

  11. Samuel, your point on the word “forceful” is well-taken. Perhaps substitute the term “articulate and succinct.” Pundit pageants are indeed cast to emit more heat than light, which is a form of audience pandering but also disadvantages viewers over the long term by reducing tolerance for complex discussions and solutions… which is how we got to a political arena where the engaged minority, lefties and Tea Partiers alike, just scream bumper stickers at each other. TV culture helped induce this state. Then again, the first rule of television — and it’s a fair one — is don’t be boring, so it’s a dilemma few have solved. Probably the old Koppel Nightline came closest in our era to embracing both erudition and sizzle.

    As for whether there’s still a market for “straight news,” of course there is, but in the last ten or fifteen years, consumption patterns have changed completely. Connected people now absorb snack-sized portions of news all day, leaving them disinterested in a dinner-hour full-course summary. (The audiences for the traditional network newscasts skew very old — you can tell by the advertising, for crematoria and denture cream, not Dodge Chargers and Bud Light — these are the demographic minority that is NOT “plugged in” all day. But they’re dying, and so in time will the CBS Evening News.) The conventional wisdom is that by the time prime time rolls around people want some entertaining perspective added to the news they’ve been accumulating in dribs and drabs since 700am, and that wisdom is borne out by the audience’s relentless rejection of “straight” newscasts in prime time.

    I always rather liked the way CBC does it — with “The National,” a 1000pm hour that leads with hard news, but only as much as it warranted by the days events, and then transitions at some point to back-of-the-book pieces that can be investigative, comic, feature-y, whatever. I thought that would have been an interesting experiment for NBC to try instead of the Jay Leno debacle last year.

    People still clamor for news, but in formats and categories and channels they control. It’s a market-driven environment. The munificent, elite oligarchs who once controlled the media channels, with one eye genuinely on the public interest, have all been replaced by rapacious, elite oligarchs with both eyes on shareholder value. Adlai Stevenson said that in a democracy people get the government they deserve; to paraphrase, in a market economy, they get the news they demand. And what they demand is, in the main… well, to be amused to death, cf. Postman.