Turner cabler works to make plan viable

As CNN’s John King concluded his recent interview with Carly Fiorina, a live mic caught the California senate candidate praising the host. “You do a great job on this show,” she told him — which King surely did from her perspective, inasmuch as he didn’t challenge any of her remarks.

King’s promotion to weekday host comes on the heels of CNN solving what liberal activists had labeled its “Lou Dobbs problem,” thanks to the opinionated and controversial personality’s resignation. Increasingly, though, it appears the Turner network might have set upon a viable strategy — namely, establishing itself as a straight-news alternative to the polarized, overheated climates on Fox News Channel and MSNBC — while pursuing that war plan with the wrong troops.

CNN wants to be the media equivalent of Switzerland, professing neutrality at a time when everyone else looks to be choosing sides. But being impartial doesn’t mean simply letting partisan advocates slug it out without analysis or context, which happens with disheartening regularity.

What CNN needs, perhaps desperately, is an interviewer with the stature and gravitas of Ted Koppel, who in his “Nightline” days was able to cut to the heart of issues, without ever raising his tone of voice. Instead, CNN trots out a mostly undistinguished roster of talent — especially during the daytime hours, when news, or something like it, reigns on its competitors — then enshrouds them with distracting technological toys, from King’s “magic wall” to holograms to the new infatuation with gleaning viewer reaction from Twitter and comments posted online.

As for King, watching him interview newsmakers and travel the U.S. engaging in unenlightening chats with local folks hasn’t inspired much faith that the network’s “great hope,” as Marketwatch’s Jon Friedman proclaimed him, has a puncher’s chance of succeeding. He raised similar doubts at last summer’s TV Critics Assn. tour, when he defended CNN’s coverage of bogus controversies — usually percolating up from talkradio, such as the “birther” movement — by saying that journalists “don’t get to decide” what conversations are legitimate.

Such mealy-mouthed practices, along with CNN’s reliance on gadgets and gimmickry, have made the channel a frequent object of derision among those who should be in its corner — critics hungry for smarter, less politically tainted news. “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” has been especially brutal in dissecting CNN’s shortcomings when the channel doesn’t fulfill its stated journalism-first mandate, exhibiting disappointment with CNN because, based in part on its lengthier history, less is expected of its rivals.

In recent months Stewart has blasted CNN for “fact-checking” a “Saturday Night Live” sketch, mocked its anchors for failing to press advocates, and ridiculed the inanity of pandering, cutesy segments with titles like “Just sayin,’ ” “What the … ?” and “Are You Kidding Me?”

Although many conservatives dismiss CNN as a Democratic house organ, those with less jaundiced political eyes recognize there ought to be room for a straight-news zone between Fox News — which has grown more shrill with the arrival of Glenn Beck and the Obama administration — and the leftward tilt of MSNBC’s evening talent.

CNN, however, too often brings to mind the excesses of bleed-and-lead, celebrity-obsessed local newscasts, which in their pursuit of younger demographics have merely sent discriminating viewers scurrying elsewhere for anything but weather forecasts and the occasional sports score.

Assuming this is accurate, the danger is that CNN’s potential inability to attract an audience with its announced middle-of-the-road approach will be perceived as an indictment of hard news, as opposed to the fact the channel isn’t consistently providing that option, its rhetoric notwithstanding.

Fox and to a lesser extent MSNBC have found a way to buck the cyclical nature of news ratings by relying on personalities, translating the core of their lineups into a zesty op-ed page. With Dobbs gone, CNN has reiterated its aspiration to represent the TV version of a newspaper’s front section.

Some question whether there’s a market for that on commercial TV, equating nonpartisanship with blandness. They might well be right, but we’ll never know if CNN falls short not due to its strategy, but because it paid lip-service to those ideals without ever truly implementing them.

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