Miscast Model

Sure, Jon Stewart's brilliant. That doesn't mean CNN should imitate him.

As the steady stream of proposals for how to “fix” CNN continues apace in the wake of last week’s dismal news about the network’s prime time ratings, one name has been offered repeatedly as a model to which the station might aspire: Jon Stewart.

The Comedy Central star was invoked in Michael Calderone’s survey of in-the-know folks, which quoted Michael Hirschorn as saying CNN needs to be “more nimble, raw, real, less larded with the kind of newsy bushwa Jon Stewart makes fun of.” But soon his status moved from salient critic to role model. Jay Rosen, in his proposal for a revamped prime time line-up, reserved an hour for a “Fact Check” program that would be “CNN’s answer to Jon Stewart.” The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson, in the course of arguing that CNN should ape his home site’s roster of bloggers, cited Rosen’s point approvingly: “That cable news won’t successfully recreate The Daily Show is not a good enough argument against trying.” And then Ross Douthat devoted his column in Monday’s New York Times to the proposition that “imitating [Stewart] might be the network’s only hope of salvation.”

These suggestions aren’t entirely off-base: In addition to being a lot more entertaining than Wolf Blitzer and company, Stewart on many days really does provide more journalistic value. But with all due respect to Stewart and his team, who are brilliant at what they do—and who brilliantly skewered CNN’s flailing approach just last week—there’s something troubling about his status as a modern-day Walter Cronkite, the gold standard in TV journalism. If the most CNN can aspire to is something like The Daily Show—or, for that matter, something like The Atlantic’s “Voices” section, or Rosen’s proposed lineup—then what’s the point of CNN?

Stewart is appealing because he succeeds in exactly the places that CNN fails. Where CNN’s model of “straight news” and “objective journalism” descends into a parade of mindless middle-of-the-road-ism, Stewart stakes out a point of view. This allows him, as Douthat points out, to have intelligent, lively conversations with people who disagree. It also allows him to poke fun at the obscure traditions of journalism—not just “newsy bushwa,” but the clueless feigned neutrality, the indifferent he-said, she-said accounting that flows from what Rosen aptly and derisively calls “the view from nowhere.” By adopting a critical stance, Stewart points out CNN’s fatuousness in pretending that it has no stance.

And it is this success that seems to be inspiring many of the current proposed fixes. Douthat calls for “actual debate” with “arguments that finish somewhere wildly different than where you’d expect them to end up.” Thompson wants CNN to be “the voice from everywhere,” “a broadcast op-ed page” that offers “analysis with attitude.” Rosen’s whole lineup is defined by the stance its programs would take: one is “outside-in,” another is for accountability. One is left-on-right, another is right-on-left, and finally the libertarians get their say.

This is all fine as far as it goes, and again, it would probably represent an improvement over CNN’s current offerings. But at a time when there’s pressure on journalists’ capacity to do deep reporting across the industry, it seems perverse to be offering prescriptions that don’t put reporting foremost—that are, essentially, formulas for better talk shows. Again, Stewart does what he does brilliantly. But his approach is born of necessity: when you’re a small shop, your comparative advantage is offering a smart take and a different perspective.

The same goes for the (often excellent) bloggers at The Atlantic: what they’ve got to offer is their intelligence and their voice. That’s a wonderful and vital thing. But they—and thousands of other people out there on the Internet—have got that territory covered. We don’t need CNN to do some variation of what those people already do, spiffed up for twenty-four-hour cable. We need CNN to do what those people can’t do, which is to provide first-rate, wide-ranging, far-reaching reporting.

Outside of natural disasters, of course, CNN doesn’t often provide top-notch reporting. And that, more than anything, is its journalistic failing—not that its talk and analysis is lackluster and aimless, but that it doesn’t provide much in the way of news. Often, it seems not really to be trying: a model that amounts to “get pundits of every stripe to rehash the events of the day in D.C.” is not designed to uncover new stories. But even the efforts to dig deeper often don’t deliver. As Eric Deggans recently wrote of Anderson Cooper’s week-long look at the Church of Scientology, the programming “didn’t present much information readers of the St. Petersburg Timesseries haven’t already seen… it was a bit disappointing to see so little new information presented.” That pretty much sums it up.

Maybe there’s no way around this problem. Maybe, as Hirschorn suggests elsewhere, CNN’s time as a newsmaker and storyteller has passed, and it just doesn’t have the journalistic chops to undertake the deep reporting that’s needed to stand out in an era of ubiquitous headlines. And that’s setting aside the question of how it would be paid for. But as long as we’re floating pie-in-the-sky fixes, we might as well design ones that, if realized, would give us something we’re missing.

To that end, consider these threads from Andrew Cohen’s post at Vanity Fair, offering a vision so old-fashioned that it seems inspired: “The network must stop worshiping at the Cult of the Anchor and instead unleash again the creative talents of its reporters, producers, and editors,” he writes. “…Give me four minutes (on tape) from the Vatican about the latest sex scandal; four from China explaining to me what the fight with Google is about; and four on moms who smoke marijuana.”

And, invoking a very different model to emulate: “Give the beats back to the beat reporters. Let them unleash their Inner Kuralts.” And maybe their Amanpours and their Bradleys, too.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.