CNN Breaking News Alert

The network still matters.

CNN’s John Roberts (right) talks to a reporter

Here is a lede to give a TV-news director a migraine with aura: Last week, at the end of the first quarter of 2010, the New York Times published a 14-paragraph story on CNN’s “precipitous decline” in ratings. Bill Carter writes that the network’s core anchors had lost—or repelled or misplaced or whatever—about half of their viewers in the past year. How bad was it?

It was so bad that it was worse than this very joke, uglier even than the horsy name HLN, which is the new label on sister channel Headline News. It was so bad that HLN—a waiting-room budget brand, daily-tabloid style—beat blue-chip big CNN in the month of February. It was so bad that Christiane Amanpour broke out her most flattering flak jacket.

As it happens, Amanpour decamped to ABC last month, and wait, it gets worse, maybe. In New York, the largest TV market in the country, CNN has moved up to Channel 78 on somewhat unsatisfying Time Warner Cable, its executives being unwilling to shell out for even a second-rate position on the channel guide. Was that move an instance of shortsighted penny-pinching? Or should we read the Channel 78 revolution in the most charitable way? That would involve believing that CNN is banking on the loyalty of a small, elite audience. In a paradox made possible by the fragmentation of mainstream culture, it’s looking at once like a niche product and a national institution.

In a Sunday op-ed, Ross Douthat expressed sympathy for the CNN insiders who “see themselves as victims of a polarized political culture”—a culture where Fox News and MSNBC are locked in a symbiotic food fight. But that part of his argument is a rhetorical concession, an ass-covering qualification. His real point is to diagnose CNN’s rating dive as a consequence of its restraint and sobriety: “The disinterested anchorman pose worked when TV news ran for 30 minutes every night at 6 p.m. It doesn’t work across hours and hours of prime time, with Campbell Brown blurring into John King blurring into Wolf Blitzzzzzz. …” A juvenile digression: This mildly amusing clip about Blitzer’s Situation Room is NSFW (adult language, adult situations, The Situation).

Right, then: Douthat prescribes that the cable network devote itself to reasoned debate, which is hilarious. For one thing, television is somewhat allergic to reasonable opinions, and a business model grounded in broadcasting the espousal thereof is a road map to bankruptcy. In committing itself to gathering news (which is expensive) rather than broadcasting opinions (which are cheap), CNN is banking on the market for comprehensiveness and evaluation. Fox News and MSNBC aren’t actually its competition, the main point of CNN being to supply raw material for debate. In the years since the first Persian Gulf War, the network has become singularly important to American culture and politics—the tube’s equivalent of a paper of record, sometimes for ill, but really pretty good, you know. It is the worst form of major-cable news except for all those others being tried. It is as serious as it can be, granted that it must lavish attention on, for instance, Tiger Woods’ epically magma-splattering bimbo eruption.

To be clear: CNN boasts all the usual inherent flaws of TV news and also some small unusual ones, exemplum gratum Lupi Blitzeris, but still it’s pretty good. The reporting is thorough, the evaluations intelligent, the graphics clean, the banter cordial (as opposed to cloying). Though making fun of the Magic Wall will never get old, the fact remains that the profusion of screens-within-screens adds an eye-catching depth of image and a comfortable feeling of roominess. And CNN’s mission to be comprehensive is reflected in the diversity of its on-air talent. Don’t get me wrong, some of my best friends are white men, but it’s encouraging that you can go entire hours without seeing one either at the anchor desk or on remote.

The prime-time schedule kicks off with an hour of Campbell Brown, who is a better interviewer than Brian Williams, a more “relatable” presence than Katie Couric, and hotter than Diane Sawyer. Last night, anchoring coverage of the explosion at Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, she was as sharp as the pins on her tasteful earrings, urgent but never breathless. At the top of the 8 o’clock hour, MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann was noisily spoiling for a fight about John Paul Stevens’ replacement on the Supreme Court—a prospective nominee who, not even being yet on deck, is thus far an imaginary friend. Meanwhile, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly was blathering about media bias, effectively covering coverage of coverage. Campbell, however, elicited facts and context from a former assistant secretary for mine safety, a local reporter from WCHS, and a senior executive of the National Mining Association. I love it when an interviewer solicits a clarification by saying, “You’re gonna have to forgive my ignorance.”

When Olbermann finally got around to the story, MSNBC relied on a static Google Earth image of the Upper Big Branch for illustration. CNN also relied on Google Earth but used it better, with stronger images and greater clarity. There was motion, tracking and tilting across the picture in a way that revealed a great deal of information while keeping the eye excited. And, CNN’s version of the landscape, with its barren trees, seemed both seasonally appropriate and appropriately stark. By contrast, MSNBC aired a view of a fluffy-topped deciduous idyll.

At 9, Campbell threw to the venerable softball pitcher Larry King. “We’ll be watching, Larry,” she said, not quite convincingly. Larry’s mine-disaster coverage had its merits. He was savvy in getting the governor of West Virginia to commit to reappearing on his show the next night. But also he wasted our time in asking the director of the miner-training program at Penn State whether the rescue effort would be hampered by nightfall. The interviewee was too much a gentleman to point out explicitly that mines, being underneath the surface of the Earth, are already kind of dark.

Then Larry did some Tiger coverage, which featured asinine expert commentary from the author of Where’s My Fifteen Minutes? Excerpt: “Some have compared the effects of PR to lubrication in a machine.” True. Also, some have compared the lubricative uses of PR to those of Astroglide. Shortly thereafter, Larry chatted up fine Jane Fonda, who succeeded gorgeously in relentlessly promoting an obesity-awareness campaign. Larry was baffled that her next movie will be a French-language production: “Why a French movie? Monster-in-Law was hysterical.”

At 10, Anderson Cooper stuck with the mine story for maybe two-thirds of his broadcast. CNN had run through all there was to say about the mine and yet continued to say it at patient length, such that even though they had live video of emergency vehicles, it got hard to pay attention. (It didn’t help that Anderson looked kind of washed out. I love his white hair, but the lighting director and the costume department need to do him right.) He perked up on two occasions, once when talking with Sean Penn. (The actor-director straightforwardly pled for further aid to Haiti in advance of the rainy season.) The other lively moment found him batting away a bubbly showbiz correspondent’s Justin Bieber small talk. Whereas some anchors play-act and protest too much when teasing trivial stories, Cooper evinced assertive boredom.

That’s the great thing about CNN. The network expresses itself with what it doesn’t say. The best TV-news moment of the first quarter of 2010 occurred on CNN after the State of the Union. The crowded panel had started to overblow the matter of Samuel Alito’s subaudible muttering. Then Campbell turned for comment to David Gergen, who coasted on a moment of silent thought before pulling the brake: “I don’t want to talk about this.”

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