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Criticizing CNN: Goodbye to that

July 9, 2013

From Jay Rosen’s Press Think.

As of today, I have retired from criticism of CNN for falling short of some sort of journalistic standard that news providers should maintain. That activity no longer makes sense. Let someone else receive the “ratings, you idiot” replies on Twitter. I’m done. I’m pretty sure you don’t care about this announcement, either. Which nicely illustrates why I’m done. #

The immediate cause of action is an amusing but also telling column by Jack Shafer of Reuters: In praise of tabloid TV, which explains why critics of CNN are absurd creatures. If you want coverage of Egypt instead of the Zimmerman trial there’s plenty of places to find it and besides audiences have always loved murder trials, so who are you to tell them they shouldn’t?

Shafer uses something I wrote as his “ha ha, how clueless can you get?” text: this little 99-word Tumblr post. That was kind of annoying because as far as I can tell Shafer agrees with everything I wrote. CNN is making its priorities clear when it sticks with the trial while world events are breaking. Murder trials are like a TV series. Jeff Zucker, CNN’s new president, does want “everyone in his company to know what the priorities are: Mini-series in the center, world events off to the side.” Shafer writes:

In today’s media environment, the media critic who insists that the cable networks follow Egypt and drop Zimmerman is like the nudging dining companion who wants to order both his meal and yours, lest you embarrass him by mistakenly ordering the burger and fries.

Which is a good line. The fact that no one in journalism bats an eye when Shafer equates CNN with “tabloid TV” tells us why I am out of the game. Some other reasons:

1. Jon Stewart does it better.

2. CNN makes $600 million a year for Time Warner, but if you challenge one of their ratings-driven decisions the main thing you hear back is: hey, they have a huge business problem on their hands. What can you say to that?

3. The other thing I hear back ad nauseum is: “Jay, watch CNN International, so much better.” Uh… okay. I don’t have CNN International in my cable package, but I do know how to change the channel. So thanks!

4. Even where you might expect to find resistance to what CNN has become – among journalists – you do not. Here’s Dylan Byers, media columnist for Politico:

The Zimmerman trial will likely be a ratings boon for all cable networks, including MSNBC and Fox News, which have also been heavy on the courtroom coverage. CNN’s domestic outfit understands the same way Time Magazine does that most Americans don’t know much about world events, and don’t care to – John King even admitted as much last year.

The truth is, CNN’s programming decisions aren’t a reflection of CNN so much as a reflection of the American people, more of whom care about a domestic court trial than about the historic events taking place overseas. Right now, CNN International is broadcasting wall-to-wall coverage from Egypt. The fact that CNN’s domestic channel isn’t should tell you what executives there think about the American people’s interests. And sure, CNN could take the lead and cover what they think the American people should care about, but that’s not necessarily a great business strategy. Read the rest of the story at Press Think.

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