Perhaps the best thing going for CNN these days is Anthony Bourdain, and that is a compliment, sort of.
His show, “Parts Unknown,” has always been a rare joy amid the network’s arid programming. Forget the unique misery of watching the excitable Wolf Blitzer or its high-priest-of-globalism, Fareed Zakaria. Seeing Bourdain tenderize a freshly-caught octopus against beach rock in Sicily is as close as you can come to a sensual experience on cable news, not that we expected one in the first place when we switched on the television to take in journalism.
CNN’s unethical intimidation of a Trump supporter is only the latest in what seems like a campaign to discredit itself. The network’s travails, by now, are well known—and June has been the cruelest month.
The network’s public demise perhaps began when host Reza Aslan nibbled on human brain on air back with a Hindu cannabalist sect in March, sparking outrage. It wasn’t until Aslan called the President of the United States “a piece of shit” in a June tweet that he was fired.
His departing statement offered scant apology, pronouncing himself a “social commentator” in the process, and serving up fresh ammunition to the #FAKENEWS crusaders who have long argued CNN is bloated with commentary and anemic in its news reporting.
The separation of news and commentary has a long tradition in American journalism. Love her or hate her, Maureen Dowd is a social commentator, but her perspectives are confined to an opinion column in The New York Times. She does not have an hour on air to proselytize.
What’s the difference? Good question. Much of the news today is a total blur. One op-ed bleeds into the next, political soundbites are recycled across platforms, governors who close the beaches and bask on them the next day are pariahs, but who really recalls the origins of the Chris Christie photos anyway? Does it even matter? They ran everywhere.
“Trump won despite the media and because he viewed himself as his own media machine,” said Corey Lewandowski, the president’s first campaign manager. “The public can use the internet to find what it wants and doesn’t necessarily have to watch the Sunday shows anymore to keep up.”
Trust in the media has reached new lows. Nearly two-thirds of Americans believe mainstream press is infested with fake news. A poll taken this week showed trust in the controversial president is higher than the media overall.
Falling trust in mass media is not a recent phenomenon: it has slipped over 20 points since September 11 to around 30 percent, with the highest decline among those 18 to 49 years old, according to Gallup.
It turns out the viewing public, after all, is not as ingenuous as some in the media may think.
“Voters stick with Trump because he’s authentic, and the media has an authenticity problem,” Lewandowski said.
What even is the media in 2017? It should come as no surprise that the invention and proliferation of social media coincides with the decadence of mainstream media. When presidential tweets spark news, when politicians take to Facebook instead of the Senate swamp to release statements, the game has changed dramatically.
Which brings us back to the state of journalism. There should be clear lines of demarcation between what is considered reportage and what is opinion-driven analysis.
There’s a reason the editorial pages are walled off from the news bureau: they represent oblique factions of the news organization. Today those lines have blurred, and it all very much feels like white noise, whether you are watching CNN or FOX News or MSNBC.
More than the peddling of falsehoods, fake news is really opinion journalism masquerading as reporting. But opinion journalism sells.
So, in the epoch when we are all awash in information, cable news, to keep up, must present compelling personalities to build ratings. And, to keep pace with social media, it must create urgency, book insiders to fill the endless airtime, vie for demographics from the flashing chyron at the bottom of the screen. This was never pure news so much as “news-tainment.”
Along the way, Kathy Griffin, a CNN co-host of its New Year’s Eve show, holds a fake severed head of President Trump. An ABC news reporter cries on air after Trump wins on election night.
Writing last week in The New York Times, Brett Stephens lamented how Twitter has pornified politics. He has a point, if not an incomplete one. The real debasement is the Mobius strip that has become cable “news”, where the facts bend endlessly into opinions.