Satellite dishes rush around the screen to reveal “News Alert” in big block letters. My heart rate picks up. The possibilities rush through my head ? plane crash, war development, another Cheney heart attack? But wait, what’s this? Nothing has changed in the past few hours. No news is breaking. All that has changed is CNN’s credibility and quality.

I quickly discern that some marketing guru at the all news cable network has decided that every reading of the headlines should be titled an Alert. Welcome to the new bottom-line obsessed, highly stylized, low content CNN. Guided by economics, the network’s revamping has taken it in the wrong direction.

Low production values and generic high quality anchors were the hallmarks of the old CNN. It was substance, not style. Stories from overseas, maybe even Africa, played a prominent role in their 24-hour news cycle. Indeed, the network made its name by having access to the world. When the other networks were forced to pull out of Baghdad during the Gulf War, only CNN kept broadcasting, with some reporters hiding under a table to evade the Iraqis.

Tiresome talk from pseudo-experts and pundits surrounded by glamorous, highly paid news anchor celebrities has eroded the international and long form stories. It is the Foxification of news, and CNN is the prime casualty.

The Fox News Channel’s success is CNN’s biggest problem. Rupert Murdoch’s self-righteous haven for right-wingers has become a major sensation with a formula of talk radio-style loudmouthed angry white men screaming at pundits and guests. While Fox often tilts right with its open patriotism and rhetoric, the more damaging influence on news in general is their obsession with ratings. Car chases will trump a foreign story every time. It’s business, not information.

Now more than ever, news is a product on CNN. This can be traced back to Fox which has, from its inception, packaged their stories with big, gaudy headlines, techno music and anchors with obtrusive personalities. Once during the Wen Ho Lee espionage case, they emblazoned “Chinese Take-Out” on the screen. One never expected restraint and quality from Fox, but CNN was different.

Only there could you get true world news from seasoned foreign reporters. CNN took the time to analyze affairs, national politics and produced good long form stories. Now it’s closer to the headlines and endless talk of Fox ? cheap to produce and an easy time filler.

CNN is now certifiably cringe-worthy. The day begins with perky, Fox-steal Paula Zahn, a competent anchor of a mediocre morning program. The show is a mix of elements from the broadcast network morning shows, albeit with less emphasis on celebrity. At the end of her program, and after nearly endless banter, Zahn makes room for a series of satisfactory leftover anchors from the old days of CNN.

Late morning and early afternoon programs are less-intelligent versions of their former selves, and it’s hard to take the new in-your-face graphics, pun-filled headlines and increased obsession with all things domestic.

Four o’clock is one saving grace. Extremely respectable and modest long timer Judy Woodruff has returned to anchoring her signature show, Inside Politics, which is mostly unchanged.

Primetime is not too bad, though I have trouble watching their aggressive promotions during commercial breaks. New lead anchor Aaron Brown’s program, Newsnight, is more pleasant and detailed than most. However, in a new direction for the network, Brown will often give his own feelings in his trademark conversational style.

Indeed, the pronoun “I” is cropping up more and more often. Anchors are expected to be people with opinions, not just simple purveyors. The jury is still out on this, but it can be seen as a further evolution of America’s love of television personality.

It is hard to know what direction the network is going in as it continues its transition. Intelligent night-talker Greenfield at Large was cancelled. It is unclear what kind of program new-hire Connie Chung will have since she’s generally considered a journalism lightweight.

The news is no longer the star. Personality-driven programming, though, does not have to be bad. Ted Koppel’s Nightline is consistently the gold standard of broadcast news, but that program is in serious jeopardy and its days may be numbered.

CNN should fill the void for quality news and analysis regardless of if Nightline is cancelled in favor of David Letterman. They should be focusing on diversity of opinions and diversity of stories from a variety of places and not even worry about considering Fox a competitor, as they serve different purposes.

They should be the news service of record ? as unbiased as possible, with the farthest reach and the most resources.

News should be information, not entertainment. The fact that CNN has strayed so far from that purpose is the real “News Alert.”

Bobkoff can be reached at dbobkoff@campustimes.org.



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