CNN: Victim of Ideology, or Its Own Shortcomings?

The ratings gains by Fox News Channel and MSNBC — coupled with the declines during the first quarter for CNN — could lead to various conclusions. The most obvious one is that with a new Democratic administration and an extremely polarized cable news audience, viewers are gravitating toward their ideological comfort zones. So conservatives are taking solace in the “Obama is a socialist” rantings of Fox’s Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, while liberals cozy up to Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow. CNN — trying to stay down the middle — thus becomes the odd network out.

There is certainly some underlying truth to this, but I wouldn’t overlook CNN’s own missteps in contributing to its ratings woes. (To be fair, the year-to-year comparisons are skewed by election coverage in first-quarter ’08, but there’s no denying that CNN’s competitive standing has slipped.)

Most of the thoughts that instantly come to mind regarding CNN in the last year are all of the sniggering variety, many having to do with the gratuitous use of technological toys that did more to obscure than illuminate its coverage. From holograms on election night to fever bars crawling across the screen during debates to the “Word Cloud” plucking terms out of President Obama’s speech to the aerial (or was that satellite?) shot of the inauguration, the network forever seems to be planting a big “kick me” target on its back, making life too easy for the writers on “The Daily Show.” As one critic put it, the latest stunt, “word cloud,” looked like “Your brain on CNN.” I was thinking more “Schoolhouse Rock.”

The shame of it is that CNN should be — needs to be — better. With Fox veering harder right and MSNBC finally gaining traction as a progressive counterweight, there’s a genuine need for serious reporting — beyond the confines of “Frontline” and PBS — that goes beyond just people in a studio spraying out their opinions. CNN could distinguish itself as the news counterpoint to the talkradio that its competitors are becoming, and it only has to attract a few million viewers hungry for that to become a rousing success. But first, it has to get smarter — and stop futilely hoping that gizmos are going to be its salvation.

Instead, we get Wolf Blitzer and John King explaining the joys of “word cloud.” “Some may find it cool, some may find it confusing,” King began, leaving out the obvious — namely, “And some may find it completely ridiculous.”

For his part, Anderson Cooper fidgeted uncomfortably, as if he’s somehow above all the nonsense. Sorry, A.C., but from my 360-degree view, the whole network is up to its ankles in it, and it’s time to start shoveling.

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