Friday, December 21, 2018
Los Angeles, California
Could CNN Be The Worst Of It?
Nearing discharge six days after my second aortic valve replacement in 11 years, many horrible experiences clamor for written expression. An initial leak in the prosthetic valve, an unexpected sinus rhythm problem, the removal of four chest tubes emerging from my chest like the Alien—these all beg for detailed exploration.
Nonetheless, metaphorically standing by the exit door like a hobo eyeing freight trains, the flaming descent of cable news networks, specifically CNN, tops the list of my personal hideous events of the last week.
From the time I regained consciousness on Monday afternoon, I mostly watched CNN. Keck/USC hospital failed to provide better TV news, like the BBC or PBS. It felt like purgatory. I stared, mouth agape, for the next five days. It felt like five months.
I began each day watching the usual boring morning show hosts. They were noteworthy wastes of time. Next, I observed more spirited appearances by quasi-journalists like Christiane Amanpour, Jeffrey Toobin, Dana Bash, Erin Burnett, Wolf Blitzer, Van Jones, Anderson Cooper and Jake Taper.
Many consider them cutting edge journalists; I consider them internally conflicted. They strive to work journalistically but their constricting, oppressive work environments prevent them from doing so. They must enjoy, or require, the large salaries the network offers. As a result, they sacrifice excellence for profit.
If you look carefully, you can observe the shame they feel themselves. You can sense internal conflicts writhing at selling pablum instead of truth, at performing instead of reporting, at knowingly violating standard journalistic ethics.
Keep looking. In the briefest of side glances, pauses, or short silences, you’ll see hints of their shame. You’ll notice creeping feelings of horror running up their spines as they observe themselves behaving like puppets or info-entertainers. There’s a poignancy, a pathos, in their facial expressions.
The major CNN anchors—Don Lemon, Anderson Cooper, and Mario Cuomo—project a belief in a journalistic legitimacy completely contradicted by their professional behaviors. Like their colleagues, they too betray a sense of imprisonment, entrapment, resignation. Their level of denial incompletely disguises it.
Because, again, these employees of CNN regularly violate standard professional ethics of journalism.
According to the American Press Institute, journalism is defined as the activity of:
gathering, assessing, creating, and presenting news and information.
Analyzing the sentence word by word demonstrates how CNN fails to qualify as a legitimate journalistic endeavor.
CNN’s information gathering, for example, is based entirely on what will generate ratings, not what is relevant, important, or informative to viewers. That is why if you switch over to BBC even for just a few minutes, you’ll be shocked to see images of Tsunami in Indonesia, civil war in Yemen, or political strife in France. You mean, Trump isn’t a news item everywhere?
Limited to an isolated diet of only CNN, you’d think the entire world consisted of Trump supporters, detractors, observers, commentators, or analyzers.
You might forget any other part of the world even existed.
Further, on CNN, no true or accurate assessment of relevance of news occurs. Instead, evaluation of newsworthiness is based on selling blood thinners, posture-enhancing canes, eczema medications, anti-depressants, special “made in America” pillows, and other products targeted to the mostly older and ill. These population apparently are foolish enough, or ill enough, to waste their precious life energy obtaining “news” via CNN.
Creating refers to how information gathered is presented in a way maximally informative to viewers. CNN cares neither about information nor presentation. It delivers little if any context. Instead, it presents some strange variety of entertainment or, perhaps worse, gossip. Gossip must be more accurate, because CNN (save perhaps Jenny Moss) rarely entertains.
What else might CNN be selling?
Perhaps it’s a type of Soylent Green intended to sustain the mindlessness expected of 21st century brains. Or, maybe CNN sells a type of speedball—the slang name for a combination of tranquilizer and stimulant—intended to distract. A speedball combination of heroin and cocaine killed John Belushi in March 1982 at the Chateau Marmont. CNN viewers too are being killed off, but less quickly, less dramatically, and less obviously.
How else does CNN’s cable news program abjectly fail to qualify as journalism?
First, it provides minimal to nonexistent news.
While I was in the hospital, Trump (perhaps) reached his peak level of infantilism. A perfect irony, he objected angrily when a Fox news anchor (aka Trump’s only advisor) confirmed that Mattis’ exit left no other “adults in the room.” Trump’s reacted with a literal temper tantrum.
CNN offered the sordid details of Trump’s infantile reaction. It provided minimal information about the meaning of Mattis’ departure, the effects of Trump’s plan to abruptly withdraw from Syria and Afghanistan, the reactions of the surprising number of Republicans who disagreed with him, and more.
In brief, and again, CNN fails to provide context.
The commentators shout out a few facts—loudly, sensationally—hoping to entice viewers. By the time you dig through the bun, the mayo, and the thin slices of tomato and onion, you find only the tiniest piece of protein. It’s not even beef or chicken. It’s tofu.
Second, the minimal information gathered by CNN is endlessly repeated.
After CNN squeaks out its few tidbits of facts, it runs a few more medication commercials, and then resumes re-shouting the same few facts. Mattis’ resignation, Trump’s crying like a toddler, his infantile revenge, his upset at his TV advisors, and his impulsive plan for withdrawal from Syria and Afghanistan was repeated over and over and over and over again. It was a perfect version of hell—boring, redundant, absurd, and then more boring, redundant, and absurd.
CNN behaves like a friend who invites you for the weekend, serves you a Costco lasagna for Friday night dinner, and then re-heats it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner the next two days. You’d be dying to leave by Sunday night. Maybe earlier.
Third, anchors ask few real questions. Instead, they ask leading ones.
Anchors have a job, relating directly to the definition of journalism just noted. They solicit information from news sources using standard interview techniques. Few at CNN demonstrate this basic skill. CNN’s anchors’ professional behaviors exist on an unethical continuum.
A few of the competent ones, like Fareed Zakaria or Christine Amanpour, ask real questions. In fairness, some of CNN’s more legitimate journalists, like Jeffery Toobin, write articles for the New Yorker. He is capable of real journalism.
Some of the mid-level ones, Jake Tapper for example, ask a mixture of real and leading questions. Too often, however, even he slips into quasi-questions like, “don’t you think Trump erred in firing Mattis?” This is not news collection; it is a leading question inferring an opinion—his.
Remember, journalists are supposed to gather and report information. They are not paid to offer their opinions. CNN anchors increasingly, sometimes constantly, blur the objective with the subjective. Ideally, viewers would easily discern a clear line of distinction between the two. They cannot.
The most awful CNN anchors, specifically Cuomo and Lemon, ask mostly if not entirely leading questions. They rarely seek truth or report it. Instead, they spew their opinions. Personally, I agree with many of them. But, I’m not interested in theirs. They lack the credentials to offer them.
Fourth, CNN excessively self-promotes.
Even legitimate journalism firms like the BBC or NPR stray too far in promoting themselves. They announce their specials on drug-trafficking, Africa, the Me-Too movement or the like, taking precious time away from reporting the news.
But CNN’s self-promotion is spectacular.
How many times must viewers learn of poor Anthony Bourdain’s last show?
Do we need to be repeatedly reminded of their food, travel, historical, or other specials?
And, must we, again, be reminded of their special on Jesus to be aired on Christmas?
Finally, who cares about Anderson Cooper hanging out with Andy Cohen on New Years’ Eve?
Do they matter? No. These men are simulations. They are copies of copies. No one will remember them in 20 or 30 years.
Even if you like these quasi-journalists, CNN’s endless self-promotion of their 2018 sliding into 2019 party has nothing to do with journalism. The behavior only validates CNN’s status as a television show—much like the ones Trump likes—like All In The Family or Fox and Friends or Rocky and Bullwinkle.
Fifth and last, CNN shamelessly sensationalizes.
Sensationalism does not belong in any form of legitimate journalism. The expression, “if it bleeds, it leads,” refers to using dramatic or thrilling information to sell advertisements.
CNN uses sensationalism whenever possible, by the day, by the minute, by the second.
A good example is their standby physician, Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon by trade but, on CNN, an expert in all things medical. You can count on seeing Sanjay opining on everything from the flu to Parkinson’s disease, from skin cancer to ulcers. It’s such a joke. Also, it reflects the lack of depth or context already discussed. If you want to educate viewers about skin cancer, at least, for God’s sake, hire a dermatologist.
The latest, and almost hilarious example of CNN’s sensationalism, surrounds the bright red timer tracking the amount of time remaining until the government shut down. It was ridiculous. The timer first displayed the amount of time remaining until the government shut-down. Then, literally the second the government ran out of funds, the timer began running in the opposite direction, showing the amount of time the government had been shuttered.
I reiterate the significance of my last week to punctuate the point of this posting. I underwent an open heart procedure to replace a prosthetic aortic valve. In the process of recovering, I most significantly reacted not to the pain, to the fear of death, or to the possible medical complications, but to how CNN force-feeds us garbage.
MSNBC is nearly as bad and, well, Fox News, a well-established form of right-wing propaganda, needs no mention.
What’s the takeaway?
First, CNN fails to meet the criteria for a journalistic firm by any measure.
Second, we can empower legitimate journalism by boycotting gossipy, entertaining, quasi-news shows like CNN.
Third, consider the actual danger inherent in CNN’s unethical journalism. Despite its clear bias against Trump—a bias I share—its quasi-journalism will likely increase the likelihood that he will be re-elected in two years. Their news shows are overwhelmingly devoted to Trump-related stories. As the saying goes, no publicity is bad publicity. CNN fills the airwaves with free publicity for our clown-president.
Fourth and last, and particularly if fleeing CNN’s feed-trough of social manipulation, thoughtfully seek other sources of legitimate news like you can find at NPR, PBS, BBC or in print or digital editions of the Economist or the New York Times.
Having vented my ire at the time wasted gaping at CNN with sternum freshly sawed and heart repaired, I can finally move on to other topics like life and death, the importance of living in the moment, the dominance of simulation and simulcra in our culture, and more.
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Alan Karbelnig, PhD, ABPP