Analyzing CNN

Finding the news isn’t getting any easier for us.  As our pathways to information get broader every day, our inability to decipher what’s real and what’s fake or what’s fact and what’s opinion grows at the same rate.  It’s quite the paradox:  our reach has never been wider and our intelligence has never been questioned more.  We get pandered to, yelled at, and told how to think, what to think, and when to think it.  This movement is exacerbated–possibly caused exclusively by–the cable news networks, a group of channels who use the term “news” as a placard to bring you in, but rarely produce on that promise.

I glean this knowledge from experience.  This past Tuesday, I took the plunge and devoted literally half a day towards watching CNN’s coverage of the day’s news and events.  The Cable News Network is the network of record, the bastardized New York Times of cable news, and, in the interest of objectivity, my network of choice when I follow big news events.  I’m not proud of this fact.  After mainlining the stuff like I was Bubbles on The Wire, let me tell you, I’m damn near ashamed of this fact. 

This whole experiment came about from two main events.  The first was my trip to the Stewart/Colbert rally in DC and discussing what the event called for:  returning sanity to America and to our news organizations who seem to form the public into obsessive fear monsters.  The other part came as a sort of dare while listening to a story told by Dan Levy on his On The DL Podcast.  Dan was stuck in jury duty (bad) and didn’t have his earphones (badder) forcing him to pass the time by watching CNN for three hours or so as his only entertainment (the worstest).  He issued a challenge for someone to watch he network for a full 24 hours and report on their findings.  Having some semblance of self-respect, I took him up on 12 hours.  Here is my running diary of that day.  It will live in infamy.

After a day or two to gather my thoughts (and my brain – I literally couldn’t formulate a proper sentence the day after), make some graphs, and go over the data.  Yes, there’s data.  A crapload of it, actually.  Some of this commentary will be even handed, some will be damning, and a lot of it will be righteous and sad.  The worst part?  I’m not sad because of the state of the world that the news showed me.  I’m depressed at the way that the news was given to me.  Or, in many cases, wasn’t given to me at all.

It doesn’t seem to preposterous to turn in to the “Cable News Network” and expect the news, is it?  It’s not like I’m flipping on Animal Planet and complaining about the lack of discussion on the US/Russia arms treaty.  When I turn on CNN I expect only one thing:  a run down of the days events.  Not analysis, not opinion, just people telling me what happened, what is happening, and if they have time, what things of importance will occur in the future.  Empowered by this information, I, a person with cognitive thought, will sort through what I heard and form an opinion, like “why yes, I think John McCain is a douchebag for his refusal to change his stance on repealing ‘Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell’ while instead he constantly changes the criteria that would lead him to supporting its repeal.”  It’s a simple process, really.  What would it take?  Some news gathers and someone on camera, maybe a few reporters in the field, and a small crew to present it to us as slickly as possible.

CNN and I apparently disagree on my view.  Big time.  So, as the day went on, I kept track of a few things that differ from my opinion on what the news should be.  Some of those stats include:

  • Number of stories broken – They are a news organization after all, making this akin to a batting average.  Or something like that.  It’s news; their bread and butter.
  • Number of stories mentioned – There will always be some redundancy.  Big stories are mentioned more than smaller ones; nature of the beast and of our curiosity.  If Uganda explodes into 50,000 marshmallows, then yes, I assume that will get a good share of coverage and wouldn’t be upset that I wasn’t seeing B-Roll of a puppy parade that happened in a nearby county.  The problem comes when the disparity grows too large in what is covered and what isn’t.
  • Number of contributors/analysts utilized – A running track of who came on and when, including the time in between their appearances.

The News

Over the course of 12 hours of programming, CNN broke 76 stories.  Seems like a good deal, doesn’t it?  And that seems like a prompting question I’m going to immediately say is wrong, doesn’t it?  Well, it’s actually a pretty nice amount.  Including commercials, there was a new story mentioned or broken every 9.4 minutes.  If we use the common rule implemented for hour-long dramas (70% programing/30% commercials) then it’s one new story every 6.5 minutes.  If you extrapolate that for a 24 hour cycle, that would mean 154 new stories each day.

Of these 77 stories, they were mentioned a total of 213 times, either as a straight news piece or as a topic for debate on the opinion shows that fall between “The Situation Room” and “Anderson Cooper 360,” both opinion-based shows themselves (don’t let the tell you otherwise…but we’ll get to that later).  This puts the average at one story mentioned every 3.3 minutes, and, using the earlier “70%” factor, one story mentioned every 2.4 minutes.  On this day, we should also give CNN credit for showing the entire Medal of Honor ceremony unadulterated, taking up roughly 30 minutes of airtime.  And yes, I’m aware of what a backhanded compliment that is.

While there were 213 instances of news, the actual numbers of which stories were used is pretty shocking and/or sad.  The biggest story of the day by far was the engagement of Prince William and Kate Middleton, mentioned a whopping 32 times, which accounted for 15% of total coverage.  [Ed Note:  this percentage is based of the 213 story mentions, not time – adding a stopwatch to my watching would surely lead to an aneurysm.]  This was followed by the ethics trial and sentencing of NY Rep. Charlie Rangel and the sub-news item of “how much is William and Kate like Prince Charles and Princess Diana?” with 13 instances each, clocking in at 6% of the day’s coverage.  Finally, tied for third (or fourth, if you’re a curmudgeon who takes away third place cause two things tied for second) is Sam Giunta receiving the Medal Of Honor.  He is the first soldier to receive the medal while still being of the mortal coil in about 40 years.  This deserved as much attention as the growing support for National Opt-Out Day in the growing war between privacy and personal space vs. the TSA and terrorism.  Both of these stories received 11 mentions for a total of 5% of coverage.

If you do your math, that means these five stories took up 37% of the coverage.  While CNN did show the entire Medal of Honor ceremony, they did not think it was as newsworthy as the engagement.  In fact, it was 1/3rd less newsworthy.  The other big items were The Beatles on iTunes (8 mentions, all with Beatles music, and all incredibly expensive as those rights ain’t cheap) and breaking ground on Bush’s Presidential Library (6 mentions, but only one showing of Bush and Condi’s awkward post-dig cheek kiss, sadly).

Further these items all clocked in for 5 mentions:  “How smart ARE dolphins?”, banning congressional earmarks, more people are traveling for Thanksgiving than last year, Obama’s new children’s book, riots in Haiti against UN peacekeepers over a cholera outbreak, and the new house and senate leaders (which was used primarily as a way to slag on Pelosi).  Rounding out the rest of the bigger stories are “Mike Vick, Good At Football,” new findings on hospital screw-ups for Medicare patients, and the editing of Tina Fey on PBS, all with 4 mentions.  Then Coyotes on pest patrol through the streets of Chicago and Chevy Volt as Car of the Year all clocking in with 3 mentions.

That puts an astonishing 58 other stories getting no more than two mentions.  Of those, only 13 received two mentions (my favorite?  an iReport of a whale getting really close! to a whale watcher boat) while 44 stories were only given one mention on air (A bomb threat called in for four buildings at THE Ohio State University only warrants a passing comment).  Here is a helpful–and snazzy!–graph from Excel 2003 showing all the stories mentioned and the number of times they were mentioned:

Putting these numbers together, of the 76 stories broken, 18 received 73.4% of the overall coverage (all of which were mentioned in the above paragraphs).  To be fair, a good number of those not repeated were fluff pieces (a youtube video of a parrot and a kitten, aaww, look at’em be animals and stuff!) and didn’t need another go-round..  It’s debatable they even needed a single appearance on a news program.  But some of those stories seemed to be important.  Or, at least they were at one point.  Charges are being brought up for the shooter at Fort Hood, the US sits 33rd on the “most likely to be attacked by a terrorist list), Ireland’s economy is currently pulling a Greek nosedive and is, in turn, dragging down the world economy, a rather drastic change in Medicare reimbursements, and just made an appearance, along with dozens of other stories, in a roll of news items spewed out over a ten minute period.  This happened twice over the first six hours and boosted the overall number considerably.

Even lazier, 22 of the 31 stories that scrolled all day long on the bottom ticker were never even mentioned on air.  This included stories on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 40 people killed by a drone in Pakistan, and a few instances of vague stories, like “British couple sent back home.”  Who is this couple?  Why are they important?  Should I automatically know who this is?  And what about those two wars we’re involved in?  Y’know, in Iraq and Afghanistan?  The latter being the longest war the US has ever been involved in (save for the War On Drugs, of course).  Those scrolling news items were the only mentions CNN gave.  The only time it was brought up on TV was during Sal Giunta’s post-ceremony press conference where he thanked the troops involved in both wars, “from 2001 and 2003 [respectively].”  The Afghanistan war only received one direct mention outside of the ceremony bestowing an honor to a soldier which occurred over there.

But at least we know that dolphins can view themselves in a mirror.  So that’s great.

Correspondents

Oh those poor bastards.  It has to be a very odd, lonely life to be a contributor to CNN.  You’re brought on TV on a whim and there’s no guarantee that you’ll be brought back on.  And sometimes you’ll be asked to come back for a live shot hours later.  Some add to the conversation with their expertise in the field while others are merely British and some stories happen to involve British people.  Just a cog in a giant, stupefying machine.

But they are extremely vital to the process.  Or it at least appears to be, as someone is needed to assist the main anchor all the fucking time.  I was waiting for Dana Bash to change Wolf Blitzer’s diaper at a certain point, but I’m sure he was too busy making appearances on the 4 o’clock news hour (with two appearances!!).  All total, CNN paid 45 different people to make appearances on their various programs, including 25 making only a single appearance either on live TV or providing taped reports.  A contributor was utilized on screen a total of 82 separate times over the news gathering section of their programming as well as their Analyst Scream-A-Thon that occurs later on in the evening.  Further, a “news buddy” was used every 2.6 stories on average.  Teamwork!

The person with the most appearances is the incomparable Dana (DAN-uh) Bash clocking, in with 6 appearances.  That includes 4 on-site in Washington and 2 in studio for her husband’s show “John King USA.”  She’s versatile, people.  Clocking in at second was Richard Quest, who was live on remote in front of…something in London.  He never made his way inside.  Poor bastard was on TV 5 times.  Jack Cafferty gets 4 appearances per show on “The Situation Room” which is natural, but still counts, dammit! Finally Josh Levs is also in the “4 appearances on Tuesday” club, all on the mid-afternoon news program and exclusively used on or near the Smart Screen because technology seems to terrify anchor Tony Harris.

As Dan watched his tiny block of CNN programing, he marveled at how much down time some of these contributors were up against and mused that they have to sit around on their Blackberries for hours as they waited.  With that in mind, here are the top 5 longest waits for Tuesday:

#5:  Roger Clark – This poor mope had to wait around 4 hours and 19 minutes between appearances to discuss the Royal Engagement.  The only thing he brought to the table was his accent.

#4:  Dana Bash – Not only did she have the most TV time overall, she had the fourth longest wait at 4 hours and 47 minutes.  This also accounts for travel time to the studio, I guess.  So theoretically the studio could have been in New York City and she would have still made it on time.

#3:  Gloria Borger – She was on TV for about a minute…then waited 5 hours and 9 minutes before re-emerging on “John King USA” for two segments or so.  A day of hard work for Ms. Borger.

#2:  Richard Quest – Always the bridesmaid, this one.  He had to wait 5 hours and 40 minutes in between live shots.  In my mind, he was standing outside in his trench coat and suit the entire time, just waiting…and waiting…and waiting…and kicking pigeons…then back to waiting….

#1:  Brooke Anderson – Not only were her two appearances separated by a ridiculous 6 hours and 37 minutes, but she switched from Entertainment News Gal to Legitimate News Gal by her final appearance, which would be an impressive feat if she didn’t just read whatever was on the prompter.  She also told us–on three separate occasions–that The Beatles are classicists when it comes to putting out their music, and that’s why it took so long to get on iTunes (or the lawsuit over “Apple,” or not enough money rights per song sold, or…).

The longest time in between segments that were taped was “royal watcher” Katie Nicholl (read:  legitimized stalker) who was on TV once, then again 7 hours and 10 minutes later in a taped segment.  Guess what she was discussing?  The quickest turnaround goes to Josh Levs, who just couldn’t get enough time.  At one point, he was thanked and left only to return four minutes later.  All of his appearances occurred within an hour and a half.  Busy guy, that Josh.

Other Numbers:

There were only 10 pre-produced pieces that aired over a twelve hour period (this includes the aforementioned “holy fuck are these dolphins brilliant!” package that was split in two).  That’s pretty ridiculous considering there were only 4 tech screw-ups throughout my viewing cycle. I’ll say this about CNN – they know exactly what they’re doing and how to do it neigh-flawlessly.  They also love throwing around money and not really getting the bang for their buck (as already evidenced with the contributors).  The Smart Screen was only utilized 10 times, including 2 uses of the “twitter board” (one for gushing over Mike Vick, the other for people’s takes on The Beatles on iTunes) and 1 use of the incredibly asinine “Trends Map,” which consists of lots of hashtags and words piled on top of one another over a map of the world.  It looks as stupid as it sounds, which is probably why I only saw it once.

There were 3 shots of computer screens, which is supposed to be “edgy” I guess.  Ali Veshi, the anchor for the afternoon two-hour news block, pulled a “Colbert” twice, wherein he walked from a giant screen to meet his guest at the news desk as the camera tracked him the whole way.  We can be sure this wasn’t done for laughs as he didn’t do it three times, which is the oldest of the comedy commandments.  “iReports” were utilized 5 times while I heard Prince William say “rucksack” 7 times, making me giggle 7 times  (a “rucksack” is the silly, British way of saying backpack – they’re really butchering their own language, aren’t they?).

There were only 2 uses of a mini-screen popping up on the bottom right to tip a story.  The first was for tOSU bomb scare at noon…which didn’t get brought up on air proper until 4 hours later.  Thankfully, fear tactics were only used 7 times to sell something to us.  They included only 4 stories, including the problems for Medicare patients in hospitals (1 in 7 DIE, 15,000 DIE EACH MONTH, are you CURRENTLY ONE OF THEM?!), air quality (America’s Doctor Sunjay Gupta warns that breathing bad air can kill you…directly warning all those people who happen to live in a “developing” country who has access to US CNN to see said report), how Opt-Out Day for flights will lead directly to people dying from terror attacks and how asking for privacy is akin to asking for death (featured in the “XYZ” segment that ends Ali Veshi’s news program; the only direct editorializing in the opening six hours of programming).  Finally, there was a mention of a baby black hole that is somewhere in space and might grow into a massive black hole.  This was just a tease; a full report never came.  So we’ll never know if we’re doomed to be sucked into negative space until it actually occurs.

Consider this your warning.

Coverage

Overall, the early afternoon/afternoon portion of the news programs wasn’t so terrible.  Sure, the hosts were blowhards who kept interrupting their guests or analysts with “mmm-hmmm” “yeah” or “yes” at every conceivable opportunity, but at least they got to stories.  Most of the ones broken on the day in total happened in the first 5 hours of my journey.  So kudos, Tony Harris and Ali Veshi.  I still kind of want to ignore you, but at least you did your job somewhat well.  Bronze stars all around!

Brooke Baldwin, however, is the worst person to ever walk the earth.  What makes her so terrible is that she’s rather incredibly attractive.  And she uses these powers for EVIL.  Her pandering questions during the lead ins to the stories were infuriating (“Didja hear this?” “Didja catch the game last night?” “As you already know…” followed by her explaining the entire story).  Her forceful hand was all over this two hour block of programming.  But she is important as she acts as the buffer between CNN:  News Organization and “CNN:  News Organization.”

Inexplicably at 4:10 PM we see Brooke walking around outside even though she was just in the studio literally seconds beforehand.  She’s sassy, and she’s working, giving you NEWS that’s HARD HITTING and other words that are best relayed to you IN CAPS.  I can only imagine that this is the point where Moms are home from getting their kids at school and they re-start the entire news show directly in the middle of its 2 hour scheduled block.  We get back to the top stories of the day and act as if the rest of the day never occurred.  It’s the beginning of the end.

This feeling dovetails nicely into Wolf Blitzer’s “The Situation Room,” a news and opinion show masked as a news-only program.  A story broke in the run of the show, causing a situation, and forcing the show to comment on it.  There was a BIG bi-partisan meeting scheduled between the Dems and Republicans, brought about by President Obama.  Word leaked that this BIG meeting (they really enjoyed emphasizing the bigness of this meeting) was canceled by the Republicans, prompting Wolf to say “well this is surely a big slap in the face to the Democrats.  Or at least that’s my reading of it.”

Twenty minutes later, both parties had to send CNN an email saying that it was only pushed back a couple of days.  The Republican message said, and I quote, “this is not a slap in the face to the Democrats.”  Making your own news is quite the situation, indeed.  For the record, there was never any mention that we had switched from news to opinion.  No, there was just a smooth transition as we move further into the night until we hit the Spitzer show where they completely disavowed breaking news in any way.

Coming hand-in-hand with the opinions came the hyperbole.  There were a few instances of stories “DEVELOPING,” “BREAKING” or “JUST IN” in the six hours previous to “The Situation Room.”  The best instance of this, however, came with the William/Kate engagement.  It was “BREAKING” until 1:20, when it was downgraded to “DEVELOPING.”  It miraculously turned back into “BREAKING” when they had footage of the couple’s ITN interview at 2:32.  Then it was back to “DEVELOPING” at 2:39 before reverting back to “BREAKING” at 3:20 and finally ending up in “DEVELOPING” from 6:00 forward. For those keeping score at home (read:  only me), that’s 8 “BREAKING” to 5 “DEVELOPING.”

Curiously, after 5 o’clock, there wasn’t a single story that didn’t have some sort of important tag to it.  My favorite, however, goes to “John King USA” who put “BIG POLITICAL STORY” over at least 7 different stories, including the engagement, which hasn’t had a “political” pull to us in roughly 250 years.  The saddest part of the whole “tagging” notion?  Only 14 stories were brought up and discussed from 5 PM forward.  Fourteen.  All of them had already been covered earlier in the day and all of them were currently “DEVELOPING” at the very least.  It is a veritable “less is more” type situation, except all we get in the end is less news and more bullshit.  Think of CNN as an inverted pyramid where the afternoon funnels down the important stories, figures out which are the biggest, and only press those as the evening concludes.  This culling makes these stories IMPORTANT if only because of the scarcity of things discussed.

*          *          *

Overall, this was a mixed bag experience.  I couldn’t believe it took until 7:12 for a blowhard to draw a line in the sand and say “we” in terms of a political party.  That honor goes to Ed Rollins, who made some jackass remark about how happy “we [the Republicans]” would be if Pelosi was named Minority Speaker.  Oh how he forced guffaw after guffaw, turning this show into an NFL Pregame old-guy pissing and joke fest.

He would be the biggest douchebag on the air if not for Paul Begala, who kept the “us vs. them” mentality going in a debate of sorts against Ari Fleischer, the former Press Secretary for the Bush White House.  And that mother fucker Begala is so awful that he actually had me rooting for Fleischer.  Rooting!  ACTIVELY!  Thankfully, this mentality was only limited to the end of the evening and was contained to separate incidents for “John King USA,” the reprehensible TV product that is “Parker and Spitzer” and “Anderson Cooper 360.”  All in all, while there was a lot of yelling, and it was mostly worthless, it at least wasn’t intentionally divisive.  Just ridiculous.

What I keep going back to, however, is not the coverage, but the subjects.  If you combine all of the elements of the biggest story on the William/Kate engagement, meaning the original story, the allusions to Charles and Di (almost always followed with, “and is this comparison fair to them?), and the separate story where Prince Harry put out a statement essentially saying, “o hay kewl” about the situation accounted for 22% of the news.  That’s just atrocious.

I constantly hear about how much time these networks have to kill and how many ludicrous stories they report on…and I just didn’t see it.  If anything, they don’t use their time well enough.  For whatever reason, the networks have yet to recognize that their mechanism is broken.  They are still functioning on the same formula that worked in the months after September 11th:  constant “developments” + constant threats = constant watching.  What they forget is that we’re going to watch regardless.  It’s the news!  It’s vital!  It’s the only thing keeping us all honest.  We don’t need to be told how bad situations are; just tell us what they are, we can figure it out.  We don’t need to be told how important a story is; we can decipher it for ourselves and place it on our own personal “tables of HOLY FUCKness.”  Furthewr, we don’t need to be played with, making us scared shitless of dying in a hospital only to be told the problem doesn’t affect 90% of us.

Sadly, though, we keep subscribing to it, and I don’t have any answers on how it stops.  We are obligated to tune in and to keep tuning in regardless of the quality level?  The general answer is to change the channel or stop watching, but where else do we go for quick news?  And if we do refrain from going to these channels, is there any guarantee these networks become sensible and treat us with a modicum of respect for our intelligence and worry less about their slick production and more about their scope of stories to report on?  What is stopping them from thinking that they aren’t scaring us ENOUGH and delve deeper into the fear tactics until Wolf is screaming on my doorstep about stepping on cracks and its relations to backs being broken in nursing homes across the nation?

We’re mired here, folks.  Doomed to never return to a time of normalcy.  We live in a new age, with new rules, and new standards.  People are saying that it’s never been worse.  And in times like these, we clutch to our news.  We–

–Holy shit.

I watched waaay too much cable news.

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