Wolff mauls CNN

There’s been a lot of CNN-bashing going on lately, some lamentations, and even the odd defense.

Now comes Michael Wolff’s media column for September’s Vanity Fair, “The Gray Lady of Cable News.” Wolff makes the case that CNN’s ratings-bleeding blandness might be its profit lifeblood. In his expert hands it’s as sharp and fabulously cruel dissection of the network’s woes and small triumphs as we’ve seen. Here are just a few highlights.

First, a great bait-and-switch lede to set the tone:

Jon Klein is an extremely affable broadcast-news executive, a chinos-and-Docksiders 52-year-old whom almost everybody in the TV-news business likes and believes is not only responsible for CNN’s ignominious ratings decline—it has lost in every prime-time slot for most of the last five years—but also for the collapse of broadcast journalism itself.

Klein and his stewardship of the network rise to a level not just of confounding mismanagement but of moral void in which the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity. In this example of the existential crisis of modern life, not only is CNN being beaten year after year by Fox, but it’s precisely its well-intentioned earnestness that is responsible for the rise of ideological television.

“CNN’s inability to evolve has given the game to Fox and us,” says MSNBC president Phil Griffin.

On the hiring of Eliot Spitzer for the 8 p.m. slot:

I’m sure I can’t accurately, or fulsomely enough, describe the guffawing and head smacking and sheer incredulity that his first decision in this effort—to hire disgraced former New York governor Eliot Spitzer as one of the two eight P.M. anchors—has provoked among the diaspora.

And on how Spitzer got that slot:

…after Jeff Bewkes had approved hiring the tainted former governor, after the temperature of the Time Warner board had been taken about such a dubious hire, and after the whole idea of the investigative series had been thrown out, Eliot Spitzer, a man who, on top of being one of the most disliked people in America, has no television experience, was given a show.

How CNN learned to love itself…

While event-driven reporting, shortly after the event occurs, invariably becomes repetitive and dull, not least of all because everybody else is reporting it, at CNN they are not ready to admit that dull is wrong. If CNN be dull, then news is dull—so be it.

…And got some love in return.

… advertisers want to be on CNN because it is not Fox. To advertise on CNN associates you with respectability—while advertisers on Fox are associated with Bill O’Reilly. Even if you want the Fox audience, also making a CNN buy gives you cover. Dull, bland, worthy, consistent, has a market.

On Klein’s equivocation:

Jon Klein, in other words, answers to a lot of people, a corporate rather than television art: Klein is reported by various diaspora sources to excuse CNN’s prime-time performance by saying that his bosses wouldn’t let him hire MSNBC’s star Keith Olbermann when he wanted to, while, alternatively, in a diss to MSNBC and that ilk of programming, saying he refused to hire Olbermann when he could have. (Sometimes, in this story, it’s said to be MSNBC anchor and cable star Rachel Maddow, who briefly appeared on CNN, whom Klein pridefully declined to hire.)

A final look to the future.

If news is a commodity, if CNN’s fundamental problem is that it spends most of its air time reporting what everybody already knows (and not spicing it up with point of view or going narrow and deep into a subject), then, well, why not just be the biggest producer of it in the world—that’s a business…

…In the end, there will be only one provider of boring news—that’s CNN’s hope.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.