When I was hired as a producer at MSNBC, almost seven years ago, I did not own a television. I considered myself an accidental TV producer, having crossed the line from public radio to cable news to help launch what I thought was going to be my dream job. The show I worked on—Up Late with Alec Baldwin—was canceled after only five weeks on air. Welcome to the TV news business.
Over time, I forged a role as a producer for The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell. I was proud of the work I had done in public radio. I thought I could use that experience to bring a broader range of stories to light at MSNBC. By the end of my tenure this summer, however, I realized I could not improve it from within. The problem as I came to understand it is industry-wide. I had to leave the network to try to change it from the outside.
And that, in part, is why I’m now taking on this new challenge, as CJR’s public editor covering CNN. I will use what I have learned from nearly a decade in cable news to show you why you see the things you do, and why you get that frustrated feeling about certain coverage without knowing quite why.
The television news producers I know are whip-smart and want to do the right thing. The problem is the job itself, which forces them to muffle ideas of substance and moderation. The biggest roadblocks, as I observed, are not ideological bias or outside influence from corporate interests. Those things are juicy narratives. But they aren’t what really drives the decisions.
The largest obstacle to reliable news and information is this: hardly any programming decision is made without considering how it will “rate” (i.e., how it will appeal to the largest audience possible). No one is immune, not US senators, not presidential candidates. Election coverage. Will it rate? Pandemic. Will it rate? Civil rights crisis. Will it rate? It’s the only metric that matters.
There are so many shortfalls that flow from this model. For one, predictions about what may “rate” are often based on rudimentary factors, such as what has rated well in the past or what personal bias leads producers or anchors to think will rate well in the future. News is subjective.
But ultimately, financial incentives are a bad way to decide news priorities. Ideas at the extremes overpower those in the middle. MSNBC calculates that the ideas of the far left will rate. Fox News calculates that the ideas of the far right will rate. And CNN calculates that those two teams’ arguing with each other will rate.
What the viewer tuning in to coverage of Black Lives Matter protests sees are more violent clashes rather than peaceful rallies. Audiences are more likely to sit and watch a burning car than a classical-music vigil, the thinking goes, more likely to respond to a violent cop than a decent one, more likely to send a clip of two people arguing from polar positions of hate viral than a reasonable discussion.
A former boss said to me, “We are a cancer, and there is no cure.” But he added, “If you could find a cure, it would save the world.” I take that as a challenge—and a mission. It is a flawed system, and one that undercuts a pillar of our democracy.
On CNN, the news is increasingly inflammatory and oversimplified, for the benefit of the bottom line. (It is now owned by AT&T, which shows signs it intends to make the media companies under its umbrella more cynical and short-termist than ever.)
It pits the far left against the far right; there is no room for nuance. You’ll notice that CNN segments rarely achieve any resolution. They thrive on conflict, all so they can set up the next fight for another day.
On the second night of the Republican National Convention, CNN hosted two segments featuring three Republicans: one who is voting for Joe Biden; one who is voting for Donald Trump; and one who is purportedly undecided. Erin Burnett played video montages, one each from the RNC and the DNC, in an attempt to show how both sides were using fear to motivate voters.
That format may appear balanced from afar, but in truth it was a distortion, as if the two events were equally dark. Then, two days after the president’s RNC speech, a Republican strategist sparred with a Democratic strategist over Trump’s attack on Democrat-led cities. Again, that match pretended to be “fair.” But to CNN, the success of the segment would be judged mostly for its ability to elicit a visceral reaction from the audience, which surely kept watching, and not for the fact that it continued to give oxygen to Trump’s divisive rhetoric two days after the fact.
To be clear, my intention here isn’t to criticize the people working at CNN. Their industry has been shrinking and in crisis for years. They don’t have much choice, however they feel privately. But the system they are stuck in uses staff, contributors, and viewers as tools. We’re merely there to sow conflict and make the numbers go up, to sell more ads. They deserve better. We all deserve better.
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.