Morgan’s show is truly fatuous. His fawning two-hour special on the Queen Elizabeth’s 60th Jubilee was gleefully mocked by Jon Stewart. For me, Morgan showed what he’s really about when Whitney Houston died. In a column for the Daily Mail, Morgan described the moment he heard the news:
The one sure-fire way you know when a big story breaks in Los Angeles is by the sound of helicopters buzzing around the skies. I was driving through Beverly Hills late in the afternoon when I looked up to see three choppers circling the Beverly Hilton Hotel, venue for Clive Davis’s big party. It was too early for the red carpet to have started, so something big must have happened. Then the first text message arrived: ‘Whitney Houston’s dead.’ Wow. I raced straight to the CNN bureau in West Hollywood, to co-anchor what turned out to be four hours of rolling news coverage of this shocking event.
Those four hours were followed by many more as Morgan returned night after night to this world-altering event, exploring its causes, implications, and significance from every conceivable angle.
Morgan was brought in January 2011 to replace Larry King. The retirement of the celebrity-hound King after 25 years on the air gave CNN a prime opportunity to fill a marquee slot with someone fresh and original. Instead, it essentially selected another King, only younger, smarmier, and more royalist in outlook. And, in an embarrassing rebuke to the CNN brass, his ratings have dipped even lower than King’s.
Overall the words that kept coming to mind while I viewed CNN were: conventional, unimaginative, repetitive, and—most damning of all—boring. CNN executives themselves finally seem to have awakened to this. Recently, they announced a new, unconventional hire: Anthony Bourdain. The host of No Reservations, the culinary road show on the Travel Channel, Bourdain will soon be offering similar fare on CNN. David Carr, writing in The New York Times, was greatly impressed by Bourdain’s hiring. To me, though, it simply suggests that CNN is going to offer more empty calories.
How might the network do things differently? The most commonly discussed alternative for CNN is to go the way of Fox and MSNBC and become more partisan. Fortunately, it’s resisted that approach—we need a real news network, not another polemical one. What’s really striking about CNN, though, is how little actual news—how little reporting—there is on it. Amid all the chatter, talking points, and spinning, there are very few stories from the field. In general, I get more nourishment from the half hour of The CBS Evening News (much improved under Scott Pelley) than from the seven prime-time hours on CNN.
This is dismaying in light of the vast staff CNN maintains. From cnn.com, I calculate it has some 85 domestic and 35 international reporters, 33 anchors and commentators, and 14 executives. They are no doubt backed by hundreds of producers, cameramen, and assistants in bureaus around the globe. Yet their presence is seldom visible on the air. Rather than hire a globe-trotting chef, CNN could begin really covering the globe. With so much air time and so large a staff, it could even try emulating 60 Minutes, whose mix of reporting, investigation, and (alas) personality profiles remains the best news show on commercial TV.
Actually, CNN already does host one 60 Minutes-like show—Fareed Zakaria’s hour-long GPS specials. He recently did one on how to save the US healthcare system. I found it both educational and entertaining—an oasis in the CNN desert. If only the network had the conviction to offer more such shows. It certainly couldn’t do much worse than it already is.