One of America’s national pastimes has to be criticizing the media. The media is too liberal, too conservative, too sensational, too violent, we are fond of saying. At the risk of adding a chorus to an already tired song, I’d like to make this criticism: CNN, the standard bearer of all major television news, has a maddeningly low opinion of its audience’s ability to take in all sides of a complex story (and all of its cable competitors are worse still). I’m consciously avoiding reducing my criticism to a soundbite (“the media’s too liberal!”), because that is precisely the problem. At CNN, in-your-face, easy access formatting dictate the manner in which reporters cover news rather than the news itself. Take, for example, any one of the dozens of programs where two talking heads, each holding antithetical and extreme view points, scream at each other, while a faintly impartial (at best) moderator asks loaded, simplistic questions whenever the screaming seems to be on the verge of “degenerating” into discussion. These programs invariably have “vs.” in their titles and are no more than a half an hour long, divided into segments of no more than seven minutes.
One recent CNN special program, entitled “Sharon vs. Arafat,” is a particularly irksome example of how this SportsCenter style of hard news reporting is inadequate at best and misleading at worst (and to make such a comparison is unfair to SportsCenter). Ariel Sharon and other Israeli officials certainly do not shrink from casting it in such a light, but the last thing a news agency should be doing is reinforcing image-making and propagandizing of the newsmakers it covers. CNN consistently fails to display any sort of critical thinking on the stories it reports.
Of course we don’t want our news providers thinking for us, but when it comes to politics and international affairs, they should at least be thinking for themselves. The people CNN covers watch CNN, and if CNN is basically just 24 hours of formatting and entertainment concepts applied to news, it doesn’t take these people long to figure out how best to predict (if not manipulate) how they will be covered
For instance, it must be nice to be Attorney General John Ashcroft and be able to count on CNN to spend most of its time broadcasting call-in shows hosted by people who refer to American Taliban fighter John Walker as “Johnny Taliban” and who are obsessed with instigating fights over the conditions at “Camp X-Ray” between raving guest and callers carefully screened for the volatility of their opinions and personalities. John Ashcroft certainly doesn’t lose any sleep worrying that CNN is squandering any of its 24 hours of coverage reporting on, for instance, the specifics of the Geneva Convention and how it has been applied historically.
I’m not a media conspiracy theorist, and I’m also not so nave as to fail to understand that the bottom line is everything at CNN and its competitors. But I do believe that a 24 hour news channel that is as predictable as a Fox sitcom should at least be insulting to the intelligence of its audience and ultimately does a disservice to the idea of a well informed American public.