Time to stop bashing CNN

In many progressive circles, it’s become open season on CNN. The oldest cable news network has become the recent whipping boy of humorist Jon Stewart as well as many others who see the network as bumbling along with one error after another.

While Fox is deservedly viewed with great disdain by progressives, there are many who consistently toe the line with MSNBC. I am among the many who frequently find it affirming to watch MSNBC to receive reinforcement for the views that I have held for numerous years. I’m also among those who find it to be as boorish as it is insightful.

CNN is different from the two aforementioned. It is a news channel, or at least it tries to be one. When visionary Ted Turner launched the network on June 1, 1980, he set out to bring the United States and the rest of the world immediate news from wherever it occurred. This required a large staff of reporters, cinematographers, producers, editors and managers. Miriam-Webster refers to news as “new information or a report about something that has happened recently.” The presumption here is that it will be presented in an accurate fashion, or as Fox mistakenly says about itself, in a “fair and balanced” way.

Except on weekend nights, CNN is 24/7 news. It broke us through the barrier of having to wait until 5:30 PM (6:30 PM in the East and West) for what became commonly known as “breaking news.” CNN had the capability to turn live to any story in which there was breaking news. When the U.S. went to war in on August 2, 1990 to kick Iraq’s Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, CNN brought us the “green jello” from many angles and many reporters. We heard from soldiers with boots on the ground, from military leaders, from Iraqi citizens on various sides of the dispute, from Kuwaitis and other interested parties in the Mid-East and around the world.

In 1992, when Bill Clinton energetically captured the Democratic nomination for president by plodding through dozens of primaries and caucuses, CNN was there. We the viewers received far more information on political strategies from key personnel than we ever had before in a campaign. When Clinton made himself a political fool and legal target in the Monica Lewinsky escapade, CNN was also there.

Through these stories and many more in recent years, CNN has worked to fill up 168 hours a week with news. The result is that many of us are far better informed than we previously were, but we also have been provided with unintended comedy. The station that tries to cover every story from beginning to end intended to do so with missing Malaysian Airline Flight 370. Regrettably for CNN, this is only the latest story in which the network becomes a parody of itself. Initial coverage was thorough, albeit it halting because of the misinformation of the Malaysian government as well as the overall paucity of facts. Traditionally when real breaking news occurs, CNN’s ratings double, allowing it to surpass Fox and MSNBC combined. It was in the network’s interest to keep the story of the missing airliner in the category of breaking news, so it made every attempt to do so.

But the story dragged on day after day and week after week. Now two months later, we really know no more than we did the day of the disappearance, perhaps less. CNN has laid itself on the line repeatedly, and generally come up empty. The low-point may have come on the evening of March 20 when anchor Don Lemon raised the question of whether the plane had disappeared in a black hole. “That’s what people are saying,” Lemon said. “I know it’s preposterous – but is it preposterous you think, Mary?” (to former Transportation Department Inspector General Mary Schiavo). Schiavo calmly responded “A small black hole would suck in our entire universe, so we know it’s not that.”

Many laughed at Lemon’s questions as many had laughed the previous year at CNN’s round-the-clock coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings which included a number of false theories, albeit all of them were qualified as not properly sourced.

CNN has made a fool of itself. But it’s also doing something that no other network has done – work to provide up-to-date news 24/7. This means that situations arise such as when Lemon was repeatedly asked to go on the air hours at a time and talk about the missing plane, while no news was happening and the only thing left to talk about was discredited theories and wild hypotheses. He was a good soldier to go out and try to keep alive the illusion of breaking news.

It finally became so farcical that the network essentially gave up coverage of what had become a non-story. But they were right that it was an unsolved mystery, and experts from around the world were faced with a challenge the likes of which they had never previously seen.

Joking about some of CNN’s on-air embarrassing moments is fair. But to use these moments to characterize their entire body of work is not fair. They have taken on a challenge that none of the other networks have attempted to duplicate. Perhaps CNN would vet their stories better if they had real competition in the round-the-clock news business. In the absence of that, I’m certainly willing to give them a break and would find it terribly disappointing if the mockery of their mistakes became so widespread that they gave up their mission of trying to bring us timely news.