The booming bass voice of James Earl Jones was a fixture in my living room during my childhood. When I heard that declaration, I knew that the news on TV would be reported without bias or exaggeration.
Or excitement, for that matter. CNN was reliable, but it was also really boring. When I saw CNN on TV in the family room, that was my cue to retreat to my room and play Sega Genesis.
Who would want to watch the news for fun? The only time the news was interesting was when events were interesting.
I vividly remember the family gathered around the television during the Gulf War. Colin Powell and Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf pointed at maps to illustrate military strategy. Green and black images of bombs exploding in Baghdad showed the American people what modern warfare looked like. When the war ended, CNN turned the camera to George HW Bush arguing about tax policy with members of Congress. I went back to my room. The news was boring again.
In recent years, all that has changed. On cable TV, the news became THE NEWS! Fox News led the charge. They put bells and whistles, along with a sense of urgency and right-leaning slant, on each of their news stories. “Breaking News!” would flash on the screen, accompanied by music. The network’s banners and graphics would project intense messages, no matter how mundane the story was.
During prime time, the network would ditch the premise of neutrality entirely. Pundits like Bill O’Reilly invited left-leaning guests on the air, and then made them look foolish while attacking their positions with ruthless efficiency.
The message Fox News projected was clear. The Left was destroying the country. The News was important. And America had to tune in.
America did. Traditional media outlets looked at them with disdain. Many felt that the network lacked basic objectivity. Their stories failed to meet the objective standards of journalism that my father learned at Ohio State a half century ago.
But by God, they did well in the ratings. Few outside the political right respected them, but that didn’t matter. The Right revered Fox News. Fox didn’t just have viewers, they had followers.
Putting a political slant on the news stories of the day was not invented by Fox. It was common practice in the 18th and 19th centuries. Print media outlets on opposing sides of the political spectrum were denigrated as “rags” by their opponents. Insults of “fake news” are a recurrence of that theme. We’re leaving the neutrality of Walter Cronkite behind and re-entering a new era of yellow journalism.
Over the past five years, and especially in the 2016 election cycle, CNN got tired of getting their asses kicked. They added flair and excitement to their reporting. They put up provocative headlines and titillating banners on-screen while anchors reported the news. Primary debates were promoted like boxing matches. Talking heads of opposing viewpoints sat around a table screaming at each other. The hosts frequently joined in the shouting matches that took place on the air.
The 2016 campaign was always going to be dirty. CNN turned it into a brawl. It should come as no surprise to the American public that Donald Trump, the most unpolished brawler of them all, emerged victorious in the arena that CNN built. Over $2 billion in free media coverage, much of it from CNN, helped Mr. Trump in that cause.
Now we have a President who is openly bellicose with the media. In a previous article I wrote on another blog, I predicted that Trump as President would be the greatest threat to the 1st Amendment since President Adams and the Alien & Sedition Acts of 1798. Sadly, that prediction was accurate. During his first six months in office, Trump has restricted access to the White House Press Briefing and openly denigrated respected journalistic outlets like the Washington Post, New York Times, and CNN as “Fake News”.
Where does America’s flagship cable news network stand? They’re furious. Jim Acosta and others at CNN consistently complain about the indignities they endure at the hands of the Trump Administration.
Yet they are at fault for their present status. CNN became Fox News to overtake them in the ratings, and now they’re upset that they’re being treated like them.
There’s still time to turn it around. The hour is late. The free press is standing on the precipice of destruction. The country needs CNN to become boring again. Deliver the news without the sensationalism. Drop the overt glee on-camera every time the Trump Administration does something unpopular. Drop the O’Reilly-esque “gotcha” interviews that devolve into shouting matches. America doesn’t need to see endless replays of the following script:
TRUMP SUPPORTER: “Thanks for having me on, (insert first name of reporter, here)”.
CNN: “President Trump said this today. Let’s go to the clip” (intense whooshing sound effect).
(CLIP OF TRUMP SAYING SOMETHING STUPID)
CNN: “Do you think Trump sucks now? Do you regret your previous support? Explain how you can still support this garbage fire of a president”.
SUPPORTER: “Trump’s not garbage. He’s awesome and you’re Fake News”.
CNN: “That’s outrageous!”
(Talking over each other, yelling, name-calling, etc.)
It is unproductive to have Chris Cuomo yelling at Kellyanne Conway on New Day every week. It’s playing right into Trump’s hands. Look, the President will attack stories he doesn’t like. That’s who he is. Don’t respond or become indignant when he does. I learned a phrase when I was a football coach in rural Polk County, Florida. When you’re wrestling a pig in the mud, sooner or later, you’re going to discover that the pig is enjoying it.
President Trump revels in the brawling atmosphere of modern media, because he can paint a picture of himself as the victim. When you get in a shouting match with a fool, from a distance, you can’t tell who the fool is. The President knows that he can get the desired brawl by goading the media, and he can therefore flip any story that portrays him unfavorably.
The response to such actions? Just roll the cameras. Trust the American people to come to the correct conclusions on their own. If you try to push them in that direction, they’ll inevitably run into Trump’s arms.
Follow the example of the Washington Post, which continues to do solid investigative journalism, and doesn’t brawl with Trump every time the President tweets at them. NPR (National Public Radio), in a brilliant move, just tweeted the entire Declaration of Independence one line at a time. Trump supporters rallied to the defense of the tyrant, King George III, and accused NPR of politicizing a national holiday. Those types of stories make Trump look bad without making the network look bad.
The Germans have an expression- Der Ton macht die Musik. The tone makes the music. Right now, CNN’s tone is strident, and it needs to be neutral. CNN doesn’t need to be a participant in Trump’s downfall; it only needs to be its recorder. Keep the cameras on him and he’ll create the mess himself that results in his removal from office, whether that removal comes from the 25th Amendment, impeachment, resignation, or electoral defeat.
If they continue on their sensationalist path, CNN will drive the American Center and Center-Right directly onto the Trump Train in 2020.
Objectivity is boring, but in this age, it’s essential. Let Fox win the ratings, and CNN will win back respect.
Until CNN is boring again, I will be watching PBS. The news is sensational enough without the additional urgency CNN pumps into each broadcast. In an era of noise, CNN should return to its roots as the voice of reason.