What CNN Sacrificed for Missing-Plane Ratings (Guest Column)

Issue 13 REP CNN Missing plane - P 2014
AP Images

Issue 13 REP CNN Missing plane - P 2014

Wall-to-wall coverage, ridiculous theories: An analyst on how Jeff Zucker replaced news with "the pseudo-fictions of reality TV."

This story first appeared in the April 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

CNN's decision, for all intents and purposes, to devote itself for weeks to a single story has been vindicated by increased ratings. Its saturation coverage of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 reinforces the network's image as the place to go when a sensational major story breaks. It also exemplifies the fresh definition of "news" Jeff Zucker promised when he took over CNN.

The choice to go all-in on the human tragedy of a transportation disaster is revealing. If the sewage-soaked cruise liner in February 2013 was a beta trial, then MH370 was the full release. There is very little politics or policy in this story; thus, CNN's news judgment triangulates itself as distinct from the partisan, ideological worldviews of its major domestic rivals, Fox News Channel and MSNBC. CNN even distinguishes itself from its main global competitors, Al Jazeera and BBC, which place politics and policy higher on their agendas than human interest.

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There is no denying MH370 was a headline grabber. The broadcast networks' nightly newscasts agreed: For 11 straight weekdays, each of the three -- ABC's World News, CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News -- chose the missing jetliner as its top story, going 33-for-33 on such leads.

Nonetheless, there was a distinction between CNN and the broadcasters, which did not go wall-to-wall with the story. The broadcasters acknowledged that there was other news in the world, assigning MH370 only 34 percent of the three-network news hole during that 11-day period.

And it was not just any "other news": A major international crisis was playing out in Ukraine, illustrating nicely the difference between events that are important and those that are newsworthy. Clearly, it was correct journalistic judgment to treat MH370 as more newsworthy -- less important but more mysterious and dramatic. Equally, it was incorrect journalistic judgment to disregard Ukraine as a result: It deserved an honorable second place on the news agenda, not relative oblivion. CNN seriously undercut its reputation as the go-to place for major news by disregarding Ukraine.

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The second major drawback to CNN's coverage was that there was not enough information available. So what did the network do? Too often it abandoned actual journalism -- reporting events known to have happened -- to engage in speculative discussion of increasingly cockamamy theories (black holes?) about what happened inside the plane. At their most ridiculous, these hypotheticals became almost theological: Was there a 1 percent chance a theory might prove accurate, or was it 100 percent impossible?

Thus CNN morphed from a news channel into an imaginary-chat channel, substituting expensive boots-on-the-ground reporting from Ukraine for hypothetical bloviation by studio experts and consultants. Video journalism properly expends great energy in its search for the dramatic, the unusual, the arresting, the human moment. But at its extremes, it can cross the line into fabrication. Zucker's CNN, in its quest to triangulate newsgathering away from the political wonkishness of MSNBC and the ideological-message discipline of Fox News, runs the risk of exiting the realm of journalism for the pseudo-fictions of reality TV.

At its worst, CNN's MH370 coverage has crossed that line: by omission, scanting real-world events in Ukraine; and by commission, presenting hypothetical fantasies as worthy of attention.

Andrew Tyndall publishes Tyndall Report, which monitors television news.