All right. So some others have weighed in on what would save CNN. Here are my two cents.
I think CNN producers are misled by which stories get the most hits on the website. Murders and sex scandals get the most hits, I think they think, so let's play those up! But if I happen to be on the website, and there is a link to some sort of murder or sex scandal, I will often follow the link and read the story. And apparently others do, too. That said, I tend not to even go to CNN's home page precisely because it's littered with child sex abuse stories. So even though I do click on those links when I happen to be at CNN, the presence of those links makes me less likely to visit the site in the first place. Although my interest may be piqued when actually presented with the information, I do not seek this kind of story when my real goal is to see what's happening in the world.
I suspect the information on the most-clicked stories has also bled into their news operations.
I disagree with two proposed solutions to this problem. One is Ross Douthat's idea of a channel devoted to left/right debate. God forbid! That is exactly the problem with the current version of CNN: the idea that if you have a couple of yahoos yelling at each other from a basis of ill-thought-out ideological presuppositions, the truth or enlightenment somehow emerges. It does not, it turns out.
The other problematic solution is the idea of medium specificity. Conor Friedersdorf suggests that what CNN needs are compelling images, because this is TV, and TV is a visual medium. This is an old idea in aesthetics - that a work of art is good insofar as it exploits the resources that are available uniquely to that medium. This has never been a compelling aesthetic argument to me. I find films that emphasize visual images no better or worse, all else equal, than films that are talky narrative ones. And I enjoy theater productions that show scenes that film could do "better" (like, say, have a ship on an actual sea instead of a rocking stage set). And I definitely don't see why a magazine-type show would be the better for it. NPR has some great stuff, but some of their let's-use-the-medium-of-sound-in-a-novel-way stories are tiresome. Also, TV is crucially also a social and verbal medium, not just a visual one.
What NPR also has, that CNN would do well to imitate, is experts talking about stuff at some length. CNN could cultivate a more educated niche viewer who is willing to let news stories go for a bit longer. As others have noted, this has worked for NPR. And rather than having go-to political commentators, why not get actual experts in a given area who are not regularly employed by the station? I do think Friedersdorf idea of more magazine-oriented stories is a good one, but they don't necessarily have to be visually dazzling.
CNN could be a place that would be somewhat more literate, more leisurely, more informed. Not some sort of farcical left-right debate, but in actual analysis.
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