Tuesday, May 31, 2005

CNN at 25...

Over the weekend, while going through a box of papers, I came across a copy of a story I wrote for the Beacon Journal in 2000 about CNN's 20th anniversary.
The story caught my eye because the network marks its 25th anniversary on Wednesday and has made sizable on-air plans for the occasion. (Among them: CNN founder and Cincinnati native R.E. ''Ted'' Turner is scheduled for Wolf Blitzer's show at 5 p.m. today.)
Not that recent times have been all that great for CNN, which has seen Fox News Channel become more buzzed about -- and better connected to the current political elite.
Newsgathering in general has been under fire, thanks to the scandals that regularly generate material for Jim Romenesko's journalism Web site. (Here's a link: http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=45 ). While CNN has been trying to project a more serious air, it does so in a world where where serious news has to wait through an update on the Runaway Bride.
And when big issues do arise, viewers' judgment of coverage is often less about What Do You Know? than Whose Side Are You On?
But the battle over what news is made of is not a new one. In fact, in that 2000 story, I dredged up a quote from Turner in 1998:
''We're under pressure to keep our circulation up and our readership up and
our viewership up. And there's a lot of trivialization, a lot of overemphasis
of Princess Diana's death and Monica Lewinsky. . . . There's less
international news, less environmental news.''
My story also noted another change that would affect CNN and other presenters of the news.
``Its place as a first stop for news-seekers has also been hurt by the rise
of more rapidly available Internet news,'' I said at the time. And that's even more true now.
I used to be one of those folks who turned on a cable-news network or a morning show to get the day's headline. Now I do that online, when I make my morning check of my e-mail.
Of course, that online news comes from established organizations that have simply found another way to deliver information.
There are other places that news circulates, such as on Web sites and in message boards. But my visits to some of them have also found errors, rumors and wildly garbled versions of fact and rumor. We're going to have to rely on brand names that we trust -- whether it's CNN or Fox News or the Associated Press or something else.
CNN's challenge is to keep an audience that believes in its brand.
The smartest and sturdiest brands will then simply morph into something that reaches out to the current audience. Some of us will find those changes unacceptable, and somewhere or other you'll see lamentations about the glorious days of Edward R. Murrow.
To be sure, Murrow -- also mentioned in my DVD posting earlier today -- represents a golden era in broadcast news. But, as has been pointed out more than once, he also represents the contradictions in news that we see today.
He was a reporter and a commentator (and played his biggest role in American politics through the latter function). He could step out of the way of the camera for some stories -- but he was also a celebrity, someone who made news. He liked the hard-hitting account (''See It Now,'' his World War II radio reports), but he was also a cozy on-air chum of stars (via ''Person to Person'').
His heyday was half a century ago. But he embodied all the battles CNN and other news organizations fight today.

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