CNN: Certainly Not News

For the past twenty-four days, CNN has outdone itself.  I thought they stopped reporting the news back when they covered the Casey Anthony trial.  And then when they got every detail about the Boston Bombing wrong, I thought “surely they can’t get any worse,” but they did.  CNN’s coverage of the Malaysian plane disappearance represents the lowest point televised journalism has ever reached.

For twenty-four straight days, Flight 370’s disappearance has dominated CNN’s news coverage.  Here are all of the stories they missed while they covered the plane:
•Russia massed its military on the Ukrainian border and got hit by international sanctions
•Washington state had a massive landslide.
•General Motors excluded safety features in its cars for years.
•The Affordable Care Act signed up six million people.
•North Korea threatened more nuclear tests.
•The Supreme Court heard a case about religious exemptions to contraceptive coverage.
•California got hit by two earthquakes.

CNN covered a missing plane more than all of these stories combined.  Their coverage of the news has gotten so bad, that other news companies are criticizing CNN for it.  Certainly, Fox and MSNBC are not much better, but when they take shots at CNN, CNN knows it has done a poor job.  Even Larry King, the former cornerstone of CNN called their coverage “abysmal.”  Something is very, very wrong in the news industry.

It makes me question what the purpose of the news is.  I used to think it was informing people about important events in the world.  The authors of the Oxford English Dictionary are on the same page:  news is “The report or account of recent ([especially] important or interesting) events or occurrences, brought or coming to one as new information.”  So then, what is CNN reporting?

To be sure, not the news.  Their coverage of the Malaysia flight is neither an account of the plane’s disappearance (it is mostly speculative), nor is it important (maybe on day one or two, but not day twenty-four), nor is it coming as new information (everything we keep hearing about has already been said).  But while their coverage is not news, it is profitable.  CNN doubled its viewership since it started reporting on the plane.  More viewers means advertisers will pay more for commercials on their network.  This money keeps CNN afloat.  Therefore, they have an incentive to keep the story running for as long as possible.  CNN took the definition of news and replaced the words “important” with “lucrative.”

This strategy poses all sorts of problems for the future of news.  Shoddy stories, loaded with speculation and hysteria, are the media’s heroin.  The ratings spike is a cheap high, but once it burns out and the advertising money dries up, they have to do it again, and again, and again, until it becomes the normal way to lure in viewers.  CNN has long faced a steady decline in their ratings, pushed out of the competition by MSNBC and Fox.  As a last resort, they sensationalized the news.

The news used to be called the “fourth estate.”  Their coverage of the important issues kept people active and informed. Through reporting, news organizations had real social and political power.  They could keep governments accountable.  How did we learn about the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam or Watergate?  The news.  But unless we change the way we report, news will be doomed to irrelevance.  I hope for the sake of us interested citizens that this Malaysia plane story really is the lowest CNN can go, because there is nowhere to go but up.