No one watching screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s portrayal of television news in the The Newsroom should assume it’s a documentary. But after witnessing the last few months of output from CNN, the HBO drama series is more prescient than perhaps they intended. In the first season of the show has management at the fictional Atlantic Cable News (ACN) scrambling to end a ratings slide toward oblivion. A third of its audience has abandoned it. After a lot of handwringing abandoning journalistic standards, managers reluctantly decided to reign in hard-hitting coverage of the most consequential news events of the day, including a potentially catastrophic flirtation by House Republicans to allow the United States government to default on its debt. Instead, the network decided to the match the decision of Nancy Grace at HLN Cable to devote most of its time to reviewing footage of the Casey Anthony trial. Anthony was charged with murdering her child in 2008. Grace has made a career by wringing out all the melodrama she can imagine from videos of actual court testimony.
Sorkin titled this episode on the network’s turn toward sensationalism “Tragedy Porn.” And true to form, for ACN and a real CNN more recently, the decision was a ratings bonanza.
There are several journalistic variations on the old P.T. Barnum quote about never underestimating what will attract American audiences. One form is “If it bleeds, it leads.” Another is that no one should underestimate bottom-feeding journalism as a way to attract viewers. What we want to know often trumps what we should or need to know.
Our case in point is the March 8 disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines jet after departing from Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Over seven weeks the network ignored significant and important stories in America and Europe to pile on continuous hours of speculation about where the plane was, and why it disappeared.
To be sure, the disappearance of the plane is and was a significant story. In our age of transponders and satellites we are simply not prepared to lose commercial aircraft without a trace. And yet an intense hunt for what most presumed would be a visible debris field somewhere between Malaysia and southern China never appeared. Even as the days passed, and in the absence of any proof the airliner had been found, the network went forward with its coverage. For seven weeks hosts asked questions. Experts guessed. Reporters interviewed each other. And “B” role footage of distraught families looped almost continuously. Rarely in recent years has a major news organization drifted so far away from reporting toward endless speculation, leaving its in-studio experts adrift in a thick fog of awkward conjecture.
Other broadcasters initially used as much as one-third of the airtime for the story, according to Andrew Tyndall, who reliably tracks such things. But no network so clearly succumbed to what media critic Bob Garfield called CNN’s “long slide from hard news to morbid infotainment.” As with its coverage of the trials of O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson, or its recent fascination with a disabled and sewage-soaked Carnival Cruise liner, the network suddenly seemed incapable of putting together more than one thought at a time. CNN could have justifiably changed its call letters to OCD.
Never mind the Russian invasion of Crimea, the collapse of what had appeared to be promising Mideast talks, or the deadly collapse of a mountain that wiped out a town in Washingon. Instead, the network instead busied itself with discussions of the Boeing 777 cockpit, or that idea that planes might be sucked into black holes, or idle speculation about what it meant that one of the pilots had a computer flight simulator at home.
The simple answer to CNN’s abandonment of its reputation as a serious international news source is that the story was good for ratings. This explanation is in line with network chief Jeff Zucker’s stated desire to come up with “a fresh definition of what news is.” The idea of pushing a story into a bogus imitation of a thriller is hardly novel to Americans. The fun of watching the “Tragedy Porn” episode of The Newsroom is that it gave us a hopeful view that serious journalists would indeed squirm when asked to forsake the meaningful for the lurid. In the process, as Tyndall noted, “CNN seriously undercut its reputation as the go-to place for major news.”