As Rome burns, CNN goes pop

Google the term “cable news network” and CNN comes up as the top hit. Meaning, someone inside CNN still considers the organization a news outlet (at least as far as SEO is concerned). Yet, after the first full day of work for a country of 80 million people that, over the weekend, overthrew their autocratic ruler of 30 years . . . a day that also saw pro-democracy riots break out in another Middle East country, one with a strong anti-U.S. bent, what did have as its lead story for most of the day?

The story about a pop artist who failed to win a music award. (I will not mention the artist’s name here for fear of having my Wiki attacked, let’s just call him “JB.”)

Mine is not the first blog to criticize the self-described “first name in news” for its penchant towards softball headlines. Nevertheless, what struck me yesterday is what I felt was a 7-hour insult to those who looked to CNN to follow the amazing events in the Middle East.

CNN is a business, and its need to grab eyeballs is understandable. But the folks in Atlanta really seem to have lost their way. A quick check yesterday of competing news websites showed lead stories covering Egypt, Iran, Obama’s budget and the story of the two students killed in a Georgia cave. CNN did have a sidebar story off to the left about those killed in Egypt’s protests last week, but the JB story was front-and–center from the time I got in the office at 8 a.m. until the time I gave up looking at it, about (My last check at 2:47 p.m. did show that Iran protests had displaced the Egypt story.)

What is confusing (or sad??) is to think about the demographics of those who have high-speed Internet access during these hours. I thought to myself “kids are in school, aren’t they? Who is CNN targeting?”

Then it hit me . . . they are targeting us. That’s even sadder.

One of my favorite authors while in college was social commentator and media critic Neil Postman. His 1985 book “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” discusses the decline of communication in the age of television and the concept of media acting as agenda setters. (The book inspired former Pink Floyd bassist Roger Water’s 1992 solo album “Amused to Death,” which is where my interest in Postman began.) Postman made parallels to Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” in which the masses are conditioned not to care

Postman wrote,” Television is altering the meaning of “being informed” by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation. Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information – misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information – information that creates the illusion of knowing something, but which in fact leads one away from knowing.

Postman, who died in 2003, could easily replace “television” with “Internet” in expressing his concerns today.  But in doing so, would his concerns bleaker? When I go to CNN I expect substance, not just facts. Young JB not winning a music award may be a fact, but it is also extremely superficial, especially when held as a lead story for 7+ hours on this particular Monday. If people want entertainment news, can’t CNN point them to Entertainment Weekly’s, also owned by CNN’s parent Time Warner?

I am not sure at what point CNN went all “EW” on us, but its decline probably accelerated when they decided to cut ties with the Associated Press in June 2010. “We will no longer use AP materials or services,” Jim Walton, president of CNN Worldwide said in a memo to employees, “the content we offer will be distinctive, compelling and, I am proud to say, our own.”

I did not agree with everything Neil Postman wrote, but I credit his books (and maybe Roger Waters) for providing ideas that helped me get my head out of comic books, and into something that made me think a bit more. If what CNN is serving up now is “distinctive and compelling,” comic books might be an improvement.

Yes, if I don’t like what CNN is serving up, I can go elsewhere. However, as I finally changed my browser homepage from to, I have to wonder, how much good could the “first name in news” be doing if it actually put more value in actual news and the benefits of keeping America better informed.

Do you think news outlets have a responsibility to set the tone for deeper discourse in America and our youth?

This entry was posted in Media, Social Media, Tom McDonald. Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to As Rome burns, CNN goes pop

  1. Garrett Rice says:

    Couldn’t agree more. To paraphrase Count Rugen from ‘The Princess Bride’, “we’ve got an overdeveloped interest in crap information. Its going to get us into trouble someday.”

  2. Ben Rakozy says:

    So are you telling the riots in Egypt weren’t because of Justin Bieber not getting an award? Jk. Very interesting post.

  3. Ryan Mannion says:

    Nice post. Very thoughtful. I don’t think that news outlets have a responsibility to set the tone – I actually don’t think they should at all – their responsibility should be as a trusted source of unbiased information and reporting that allow us to make our own judgments and opinions. It’s like newspapers supporting certain political candidates. Their coverage of that candidate “disinforms” me because I think it’s biased. Anyway – CNN may have heard you. Libya has been the lead story for the past 24 hours.

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