Monday, October 11, 2010

The mind freeze of immediacy

There’s nothing quite on a par with CNN’s constant barrage of breaking news.

Cable News Network was created by Ted Turner as a counterpoint and challenge to broadcast TV institutions like ABC and NBC. The upstart is now the goliath in global reportage.

While in hospitality in the fall of 2008, CNN proved itself to me, a newcomer to the bombardment offered relentlessly by CNN and its iconic anchors.

From obnoxiously pugnacious Lou Dodds to the avuncular Wolf Blitzer, CNN features a cast of thousands — dozens of anchors and hundreds of reporters on the ground the world over. 

More compelling, though, is the number of experts they bring to bear on even the most arcane element of a breaking story. These analysts — former Washington insiders, ex-advisors to presidents and principals in the latest story — offer added spice to the already rapid-fire news delivery inextricably associated with CNN.

The breaking story this day was the second presidential debate; this one held in Nashville, Tenn. Well it wasn’t so much ‘breaking’ as building.

I started watching CNN coverage at about noon Oct. 7, 2008. On the right-bottom of the screen there was a countdown clock, showing just under eight hours to the start of the televized debate.

CNN covered the lead-up with stories that constructed and deconstructed every element of what might happen, what needed to happen, what should happen during the debate between Democrat Barrack Obama and Republican stalwart John McCain.

There were graphs, talking heads, clips from speeches on the stump by Obama and McCain — all interspersed with fervent commentary and rapid-fire, on-your-feet analysis. (Well, it was ‘on-your-feet’ because the members of the august ‘panel’ were standing up.)

Inevitably the hour arrived, when all the prognostications and sage advice gave way to the actual debate. Thank goodness. After the hour-and-a-half townhall between the two presidential hopefuls, there came an hour-and-a-half of post-debate analysis.

The overkill is hallmark for CNN. But, stripped of its talking heads, its compelling graphics and puerile enthusiasm, one is left with the debris or wreckage of this whirlwind of breathless reportage.

Much of the CNN coverage was repetitive — a rehash and remake of what had already been aired. Stuff gets repackaged as the day goes on, but the core is the same. There’s not a lot of meat on these bones.

CNN cut its teeth on the first Gulf War. Its reporters on the ground captured the blood and guts of the war. It reminded some viewers of the ground-breaking coverage of the Vietnam War decades before. But the CNN reporters were, most often, safely ensconced at ritzy hotels in Baghdad, reporting the bombings that lit up the night sky.

Occasionally, a reporter was embedded with the troops on the ground, but rarely at the frontline.

Nevertheless, CNN proved its formula of providing immediate global coverage. Immediacy is sine qua non; it is the Holy Grail of modern television coverage.

This immediacy and superficial coverage are critical in the CNN ethos. But the treacly, adolescent coverage is too much about image and repetition than about cutting-edge content.

In the end, CNN wants to be something it cannot be in its present form. It would have to embrace intellectual honesty and turf most of its cast. That’s unlikely.

CNN and its digital spawn, Fox News, bore into our minds 24/7. They carve content into morsels that are easily digested. It’s news by a thousand cuts.

In 2008 when I was forced to watch it while I lay in a hospital bed, CNN was all the things that modern journalism should not be. Two years later, it is the template others use to extract the intellectually lazy viewer to the blood, sweat and tears of local and global events. It’s an example of what I’ve called elsewhere the relentless pursuit of the obvious — which pretty much sums up the sad state of modern journalism. Investigation gives way to sound and photo bites.

We’re nipping at the heels of our common reality because CNN set the bar as low as it could possibly go. That was then. The bar has dropped below the surface.

Sad, really.

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