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August 31, 2015

CNN at 30: A Look Back, Ahead

by Gary Susman, posted Jun 3rd 2010 9:00AM
CNN logoCNN turns 30 this week. Usually, by age 30, people know what they want to be when they grow up. Cable news channels, apparently, aren't so sure.

CNN launched 30 years ago with its first news broadcasts on June 1, 1980, anchored by David Walker and Lois Hart. For a long time, Ted Turner's brainchild seemed a crazy idea. Within a few years, however, it was indispensable, allowing viewers to keep track of such breaking news as the Challenger disaster or the onset of the Gulf War. For the first half of its existence, it also had the field to itself.

Over the last decade and a half, however, it's had to compete with Fox News and MSNBC, as well as countless competing news sources on the Internet. As CNN turns 30, without much festivity or fanfare, the network is still trying to react to the changed media landscape, struggling to survive and to define its mission.

The first problem is that, at 30, like it or not, CNN is Old Media. It still holds on, to some extent, to the values that defined mid-century American journalism -- an aspiration toward objectivity and non-partisanship (even if that aspiration isn't often observed in execution), a reliance on establishment voices as sources of expertise (and, consequently, a reluctance to admit new members to the club), and a paternalistic faith in the judgment of its own editors (along with an assumption that viewers will trust them too). As old-fashioned newspapers, news magazines and broadcast TV newscasts are discovering, those values don't hold any more.

The reason? Fox News has remade TV news in its own image (which was, in turn, patterned after AM talk radio). Now, it's all about opinion and partisanship, not objectivity. Expertise is no longer to be trusted, unless the experts come from your side. And a ground-up populism of the viewership (or at least the pretense of it) is considered more reliable than the top-down judgment of professionals.

MSNBC, after much stumbling, finally figured out how to operate much like Fox, only tacking left instead of right. CNN, however, has been unable to decide whether to emulate Fox and MSNBC (but then, why would anyone watch CNN, when they can watch the real thing elsewhere?), or whether to remain objective and unopinionated -- and risk losing viewers by being less entertaining than its loudmouthed rivals. With its long history of hard news-gathering, including in foreign locales the other channels have abandoned, CNN could serve up spinach-news better than anyone, but who wants to eat spinach?

CNN analyst Roland Martin calls out Fox News

CNN has tried to have it both ways. On the one hand, it hires commentators like Roland Martin, who recently criticized Fox News for its sensationalism and lack of substance. On the other, it hires Fox-like provocateurs like Erick Erickson, whose statement about pulling a shotgun on census workers led the White House to scold CNN.

White House raps CNN over Erick Erickson's comment

Meanwhile, CNN's apparent unwillingness to back its hard-news operations with money seems to have led to the departure of some of its most respected correspondents. This spring, it lost Christiane Amanpour to ABC, and two weeks ago, it lost Campbell Brown.

Which brings us to CNN's other problem: its failure to cultivate new talent. (It's a failure that almost all other TV news operations share.) Whether its delivering news or opinion, TV news is still TV, and it's still dependent on stars, so where are they? Aside from Anderson Cooper (who seems to have one foot out the door, given his moonlighting gig on CBS' '60 Minutes'), who else has CNN groomed for stardom?

For many, the face of the network is still Larry King, who probably has suspenders older than CNN. King's contract is up next June, and while the 76-year-old has shown no indication he wants to retire, there's no apparent successor in the wings. Meantime, his ratings are down, and as an interviewer, he often seems off his game. (At least his guest bookers are still on top of theirs, judging by Tuesday night's coup of scoring a lengthy Lady Gaga interview.)

The weird thing about King is that he's actually, when you think about it, the most objective reporter on TV. He has no ax to grind, no apparent ideological spin, no agenda other than maintaining his proximity to whoever is making news at the moment, whether it's a politician, a pop star or the parent of a missing girl. But King comes from a world that no longer exists. They're not making any more like him.

And given that King never challenges his interview subjects or calls them out when they say something self-serving or downright false, maybe that's a good thing. The one thing none of the TV news operations do well -- and the one thing they really ought to be doing -- is separating fact from fiction, the important from the trivial, truth from falsehood. It's no surprise; that sort of work is difficult, time-consuming and expensive. But since no one else is doing it, CNN could make that its niche, and it could corner the market. A commitment to that goal would be the best way for the channel to celebrate the big 3-0.

•Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.

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