CNN At 25: “the World’s Most Trusted Network”

CNN went on the air twenty five years ago this June 1 from the basement of what had been the a Jewish country club in Atlanta, The UN flag was flying overhead as Ted Turner proclaimed his cable revolution with the announcement that the channel that the big broadcasters then dismissed as the Chicken Noodle Network would stay on the air until the end of the world, fully report its demise and then play “Near my God to Thee” as was done on the deck of the titanic.

The “mouth from the South” who would become a media mogul is now writing articles on the dangers of big media (penned by PBS’s Pat Mitchell, a prominent “Turner turnover” who is herself on the way out). He spared no adjective as a one man hype machine for the promise of a new global news order. He was audacious, bold, and charismatic but the institution that is his legacy is anything but.

It has become a bland brand, more packaged than passionate with its prime competitor and arch-enemy Fox News the new innovator and home of controversy. CNN as “rebel” has been trumped by Fox as renegade.

Just look at who the network has chosen to showcase in its anniversary week. The CNN blog announces that nary a risk is to be taken with this exciting well balanced (sic) lineup:

“The promos are running and Larry King Live will be helping CNN celebrate its 25 Anniversary the week of May 30. The promo says former President George H. W. Bush and wife Barbara will be guests that week. Also former President Bill Clinton and if I heard correctly Barbara Walters will be on during the week and will be interviewing Larry King. BTW, Larry is celebrating his 20th Anniversary at CNN this year.

“I knew I forgot a couple of the scheduled guests the promo said would be appearing. An e-mailer reminded of the others: Vice President Dick Cheney and Liz Cheney AND Dan Rather.”

If this is “liberal media,” lets toss that label into that old trash can of history.

Early on, Turner and the white bread news team that he assembled made sure that the channel would religiously cleave to the center. They enticed the ideological warlords of the right to sign on, big mouths like Evans and Novak and Pat Buchanan. For years, the left complained that the Crossfire show billed as a battle between right and left had no one from the left on as a regular.

The brass heard the complaints but did nothing. (It finally took a sharp-tongued Jon Stewart to call them on their staged food fight of a program denouncing Crossfire as “bad for America” while on Crossfire. His plea: “STOP IT.”

Larry King brought old-fashioned big name celebrity exploitation on to center stage while the rest of the programming was careful not to rattle any cages. CNN came to global attention in its coverage of the first Gulf War of which their star correspondent Christianne Amanpour would write: “Behind our backs, behind the backs of the field reporters, field producers and crews on the ground our bosses made a deal with the establishment to create ‘pools” -what i call ‘ball and chain,’ handcuffed, managed news reporting.”

Peter Arnett, their star reporter at the time later took the fall for an investigative report on the use of nerve gas during the Vietnam War and was forced to quit (as he was again during the Iraq War when he was working for MSNBC and the National Geographic.) When the producers later sued CNN claiming their reports were true, CNN settled rather than dispute their evidence, insisting on a gag order as the price of a payoff. They did the same when Eason Jordan more recently was forced to step down for saying what was on his mind about the killings of journalists in Iraq. So much for freedom of speech.

Once it became a major corporate player, CNN began to began to act like one. As Ted Turner moved up into the suites of corporate power his role as a media gadfly was less visible. It’s not surprising in our climate of unbrave media that money, not mission is the only bottom line. Efforts to synergize reporting with Time Magazine never really worked neither did hard hitting investigations or international coverage (Except on CNN International, a separate channel which most Americans can’t see and which is run by a former BBC exec.)

Riz Kahn, a former CNN International anchor complains that real international news is increasingly rare. He told me in an interview for my film WMD (Weapons of Mass Deception). “For me it’s a huge difference being able to get international news. One of the benefits I had living in Atlanta was I was there in the heart of an international newsroom. As soon as I stepped outside, domestic media never gave me that. It’s a real shame, actually. Especially for the world’s most powerful nation.”

After many observers commented on the differences in coverage of the Iraq Ear by CNN International and its international channel, I asked Morning anchor Bill Hemmer about it. He was defensive, “Um, I’m not so sure it was different. The content was the same, the presentation sometimes is different. Um, American audiences have certain expectations of how the news is given to them.”

What are those expectations? Constantly updated and often redundant coverage of high profile crime cases and scandals? Acting as a megaphone for Bush Administration claims? Using the same “experts” and pundits over and over?

In a new book that shows how TV News often follows a “soap opera paradigm” to assure that coverage and story structure reflect corporate priorities not the public interest, Niagara University Professor James Wittebols looks closely at CNN’s coverage of the pivotal 2000 election. He identifies techniques that are designed to “keep audiences tuned it by conveying the ongoing immediacy of the story” over its substance.

“Such an approach means getting a complete and coherent account of the story takes a back seat to the emphasis on emotion and immediacy,” he writes. (“The Soap Opera Paradigm,” Rowman and Littlefield. 2004)

Does that mean that everything on CNN is worthless? Of course not. There is some good coverage in “breaking news” situations and even serious journalism from time to time. But if you are looking for a network to challenge power, look elsewhere.

I was part of CNN in the early days, and, among the staff at least there was an excitement and a sense of being part of a cutting edge venture that was taking on the news industry. Earlier this year when I visited the spanking new studios at the overdone Time Warner colossus in Columbus Circle in New York, there was more of a sense of a news factory doing cookie-cutter reports and routinized shows. No wonder morale is low amidst cutbacks and layoffs. No one can ever imagine a UN Flag flying there.

CNN has now become a centerpiece of a consolidated and corporatized news industry. The buzz is that merger with a network news operation might not be far off.

As John Lennon once sang, “The Dream is over.”

Mediachannel.org’s News Dissector Danny Schechter tells his CNN story in “The More You Watch the Less You Know” (7 Stories Press.) His new film WMD comments on all the network coverage of the Iraq War. (www.wmdthefilm.com)

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