At CNN, fear never takes a holiday
Why it hurts America when a leading network boils every story down to: Are you going to die?
Happening now, new terror threats -- why are they coming from countries that President Obama points to as examples of where his strategy against al Qaeda is working? Emptying GITMO -- we are learning details about a new push to relocate dozens of detainees. Will they end up right back on the battlefield?
Will North Korea retaliate, as U.S. moviegoers pack theaters and stream the new movie making fun of Kim Jong Un, how will North Korea's brutal and notoriously unpredictable leader react? And Ebola scare -- new concerns tonight as a U.S. lab worker begins days of monitoring for possible exposure to the deadly virus. Have we put too much trust in the CDC?
Wolf Blitzer is off .I'm Brianna Keilar. You are in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Whoa, Happy Holidays to you, too. Look, I'm a pretty level-headed guy -- but by that point I was looking to turn around and head back to my basement, or check whether the New York State Thruway has roadside bomb shelters to duck and cover. Every story was pointed in the same direction. "'X' is happening halfway around the world. Is 'X' going to kill you? How afraid should you be of 'X'?" It's a shame, because the issues potentially raised by the topics that night -- Middle East policy, human rights, free speech, public health in Africa -- are all vitally important.
No, the problem is with CNN's spin. Every story is boiled down to its lowest possible denominator: Are you or a loved one going to die as a result of this? Take Gitmo, for example. The existence of a U.S.-run detention center where people are held without a trial for a decade or longer -- some completely innocent, some exposed to torture interrogation tactics -- is one of the greatest stains on America's reputation as a leader in human rights. It's also a recruiting tool for a new generation of anti-American terrorists. But in CNN's equation, the only thing that would matter is just one terrorist returning to "the battlefield." And remember -- CNN needs a "battlefield"...so it can have THE SITUATION ROOM.
OK, we could just blame this one hour on the holidays and the day-after-Christmas fill-ins -- except that this is pretty much CNN's M.O. all the time. Remember the Senate "Torture Report," which showed that Bush-era interrogation tactics were illegal, immoral, and counter-productive in fighting terrorism? CNN did cover that story all day -- but with an angle that no other news outlet played large. The network's big worry was whether releasing the report would inspire a terrorist attack (as shown in the photo at top). In other words, is justice and accountability for torture going to cause your premature death? See, it doesn't really matter what day of the year it is. At CNN, every day is Seprember 12, 2001.
And this was all before the tragedy over the skies of Indonesia, and the disappearance of AirAsia Flight 5801. It's strange; this is the kind of story -- a commercial jet crash in a far-off land with no U.S. passengers -- that used to get too little attention in American media, maybe a few seconds at the end of the half-hour. But for CNN in 2014, this story has everything. Like Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 that vanished in the same region earlier this year, the new missing-jet-mystery has overtones of possible terrorism, maybe even the weird and supernatural. Anything that will keep the network's target demographic -- the chronically anxious -- turned in for the better part of the day. There's no mystery, though, to CNN's strategy: Better to cover one story that scares people incessantly than cover many things that might keep them informed.
Does it matter? CNN's audience is fairly infinitesimal when compared to, say, a football game...any football game. I don't think the network has any ulterior motive beyond whatever it can do to boost its ratings. It's only one of three major cable news-networks, but I'd argue that with Fox and MSNBC perceived (correctly, for the most part) as conservative and liberal, respectively, CNN has an outsized influence in shaping the national conversation over news.
And I have no doubt that the impact of all-fear, all-the-time TV on the American body politic is quiite hurtful. When citizens are terrified that an ISIS beheader or a stray Ebola germ might show up on their doorstep in Kansas or wherever, they are less likely to take risks, less likely to ask questions, less likely to challenge the status quo. Which is exactly how the status quo likes it. There's still only 24 hours in a day -- the more of that time is spent overhyping dubious terror threats or faraway mysteries of the air, the more underhyping there will be for stories that matter -- like the top 1 Percent realizing almost all of America's income gains, or our unparalleled rate of mass incarceration.
I guess I'm not CNN's target demographic. I know that when I go, it'll be the newsroom pizza that killed me and not some crazed released detainee from Gitmo. I do worry about things -- like why my kids' college tuition is so high and what will happen to their classmates who were forced to take out massive loans, or how on earth I'll ever find a new job if the newspaper business implodes while I'm still in my 50s or 60s. I'm sure CNN will get around to covering those stories -- just as soon as they find those damn airplanes!