In April, CNN recorded its lowest monthly ratings in more than 10 years. In May, it recorded its lowest monthly primetime ratings in more than 20 years. It’s now regularly eclipsed not only by Fox News (long the leader in cable news) but also by MSNBC.
Last year, I suggested to an editor at CJR that it do a story titled, “Why Is CNN So Bad?” It never happened, but, prompted by the network’s recent shellacking, I decided to tune in after a long hiatus. It’s even worse than I remembered.
Between 4 p.m., when Wolf Blitzer’s Situation Room begins, and 11 p.m., when Anderson Cooper finishes his second hour (a replay of the first), CNN basically features a succession of babbling anchors interviewing a series of talking heads, with clips from reporters in the field occasionally spliced in. The subjects slavishly follow the national political agenda. One day, the main story was Obama’s “gaffe” that the private sector is doing fine. CNN is really into gaffes, wringing everything from them that it can. It returned to this one over and over, with dueling Democratic and Republican operatives brought on to offer their spin. When members of Congress condemned the administration for national-security leaks, CNN again beat the story into the ground with a similar cast of commentators. The network apparently thinks that having Paul Begala on to trade soundbites with Ari Fleischer makes for riveting TV.
No one outside the political establishment ever seems to make it onto the show. One day, John “Mr. Horserace” King (the anchor at 6 p.m.) had a segment on the Romney campaign’s new effort to corral Latino voters. It’s a worthy subject, and one could imagine a lively discussion among figures drawn from the Latino community. Instead, King had on Carlos Gutierrez, the Romney man in charge of the new project, who was allowed to spew Republican talking points for a seeming eternity.
At 7 p.m., there’s Erin Burnett. In recent days, she’s been hotly pursuing a major story—the supposed explosion in the use of the bath salt Cloud 9 and its link to cannibalistic behavior. Watching her interview a toxicologist over the tag “DEA warns of Cannibal Drug,” I wondered how she ever managed to get a full hour in prime time. As for Anderson Cooper, you’d think that someone with an hour to fill every night would devote himself full time to the job, but since September 2011 he’s been hosting his own syndicated daytime talk show as well. (On a recent show, he surprised the actress Julianna Margulies with her two temptations, chocolate and martinis.) His divided attention shows; Cooper’s ratings have dropped along with everyone else’s.
More than anyone else, Wolf Blitzer is the face of CNN today. On June 7, he made a splash with a long interview with Bill Clinton in which the former president tried to explain away his earlier comments about Romney’s sterling business record and the need to extend the Bush tax cuts. In addition to the standard political questions, Blitzer asked him about his diet, told him he looked great, seconded Clinton’s comment that he hopes to be around for a lot longer, and asked him about his daughter Chelsea. Noting that he had recently seen her at a Kennedy Center event, Blitzer said that, watching her eyes, “I saw the best of Bill Clinton and the best of Hillary Clinton. You’ve probably seen that as well. I wonder if you’d want to talk a little bit about that.” Remarkably, Clinton said he was very proud of his daughter. For the rest of the day and into the next, CNN shamelessly milked the interview, playing snippets over and over accompanied by more commentary.
Seeking a respite, I tuned in to Piers Morgan at 9 p.m., only to find that his first guest was Wolf Blitzer, talking about his interview with Clinton! After a while, Morgan finally moved on, to an “exclusive” interview with author and transgender advocate Chaz Bono in which he asked how much “the fact that you decided to become a man” contributed to his break-up with his girlfriend.