If you have ever seen all the cable news networks on screens next to each other—at the gym, for example—you’ll have noticed something strange: they all cover the same stories, every day.
Given that these are separate and competing news organizations, and certainly don’t coordinate with one another, this can be hard to explain. Some topics—such as impeachment, especially on the day of the Senate trial—are obvious; others, however, are not.
Such uniformity devalues the news; provides toxic voices with blanket coverage; and burns out and frustrates journalists, who feel in their bones that sprinting after the same story as everyone else is a fundamentally pointless activity.
It’s been most visible in recent weeks in networks’ fevered obsession with the Republican representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, following reports by CNN and Media Matters on conspiratorial posts on Greene’s social media accounts. On the night the Senate voted to fast-track the $1.9 trillion covid relief package, each hour of CNN prime time led instead with the junior congresswoman. Anderson Cooper’s “A block”—his top stories—broached the subject one-on-one with Anthony Scaramucci, Trump’s short-lived White House communications director, for reasons that were not immediately clear to me. That same day, Lawrence Summers’s op-ed on the economic deal became a major policy debate, but was notably absent from prime coverage on CNN. (It did get discussed the following day but again was ignored during prime-time hours.) The military coup in Myanmar, or how President Biden may struggle with it, was hidden from any non-insomniac audience nearly all week. The list of news topics uncovered goes on and on. The cable crime of obsession is also a crime of omission.
“There’s no rule that says the vacuum left by Donald Trump news cycles has to be filled by MTG news cycles,” Liam Donovan, a Republican strategist who sometimes appears on CNN, said on Twitter, referring to Greene.
Dave Weigel, columnist for the Washington Post, weighed in on that vacuum: “May be overthinking this but Trump’s 77-day election tantrum deprived people of time to adjust to a presidency that mostly isn’t about what the president is saying.” By phone, he clarified to me that Biden is parceling news out in conventional fashion, which won’t meet the threshold for scandal that cable channels especially crave. That said, he added how the journalists would be “derelict to not cover a Trump loyalist” dividing the party like Greene is.
Damon Linker, senior correspondent for The Week, argued recently that the media is helping Greene by giving “a powerful megaphone to someone who above all else craves national attention for her obsessions and derangements.” He added: “In this respect, news organizations that place Greene and others like her at the center of the news cycle are being played.”
On CNN, this repetition is not accidental. Jeff Zucker, the network’s chief, assigns topics and guests to pursue every day during his morning call with producers. It’s defended as “getting everyone on the same page.” But why would they want to do that as opposed to, say, allowing CNN’s many excellent journalists to follow their instincts?
Money, of course. In news, says Jay Hamilton, a professor at Stanford and the author of All the News That’s Fit to Sell, “there is a fixed setup cost,” which amounts to the resources needed to report a story in the first place. But the cost to repeat that same story—or to incrementally advance it, as the cycle moves on—is very low.
It’s a game of maximizing the minutes. And CNN has many ways of doing it. The network feels, for example, that its audience wants to hear its hosts’ perspectives on these central narratives, too. (I recall, from audience research at MSNBC, that they’re wrong and that many viewers consider the fare they’re served extremely predictable.) From a certain perspective, a news cycle that begins with a tweet, adds reactions to that tweet, and ends with Chris Cuomo’s opinion about the same tweet is a successful one.
It’s not coincidental that this also means less journalistic risk. Simply put, you won’t get in trouble for saying the same thing everyone else is saying. In news, as in the Serengeti, you’re safest in a herd.
In 2001, for example, reporter Bethany McLean faced significant backlash when she asked, in Fortune magazine, “Is Enron Overpriced?” defying previous reporting on the booming company. She was correct in the end—her work helped uncover corporate fraud—but she needed bosses who were willing to back her, rather than cut her loose at the first sign of criticism, in order to prove that. Most journalists no longer have that kind of support. A Twitter outrage, no matter how ill-conceived, can end a career.
Imagine how different it would be if, as CNN begins to plan its moves away from the Zucker era, the network just allowed its journalists to pursue the stories that interested them. This is not to suggest CNN journalists weren’t interested in Greene and the GOP divide. But I bet they were also interested in a surplus of other stories. Let those be told and we’d get a sense of independence, which would foster trust. We’d get more varied stories. We’d get more important stories, probably, just by dint of the number of topics on-screen. And ultimately, that might make viewers more likely to tune in. Because they might learn something new.
Ariana Pekary is the CJR public editor for CNN. She was an award-winning public radio and MSNBC journalist for two decades. Now she focuses on the systemic flaws of commercial broadcast news. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @arianapekary.