Why the Onion is Wrong About CNN and Miley Cyrus

MTV is in the outrage business
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Humor website oversimplifies the realities of the digital-news biz

Like a lot of the funniest satire at the Onion, a serious message often lurks beneath the jokes. So when the humor website published a fake memo Monday from an executive at CNN.com justifying prominent homepage placement of Miley Cyrus’ dirty dancing at MTV’s “Video Music Awards,” it wasn’t difficult to comprehend the underlying anger.

The Onion condemned the Cyrus coverage not only as a “disservice” to readers but to “the hundreds of thousands people dying in Syria, those suffering from the current unrest in Egypt.” The implication is that those unquestionably more important stories are more suitable to the top of the homepage.

But were the Onion a real news organization, it might understand a more complicated truth behind the uneasy coexistence of Cyrus and Syria in modern digital newsrooms: It’s difficult to subsist on substantive journalism without some help from more crowd-pleasing content.

Don’t tell that to the Onion, which seems to think it’s already figured out what motivates a CNN editor to give prime exposure to Cyrus’ antics.

“If we’re able to get more eyeballs, that means I’ve done my job, which gets me congratulations from my bosses, which encourages me to put up even more stupid bullshit on the homepage,” reads the memo, which carries the faux byline of real-life CNN.com managing editor Meredith Artley.

In one fell swoop, the Onion chalks up the decision to a mix of ego, greed and job preservation. Were it only that simple.

What the Onion does get right is that an editor in Artley’s position must be cognizant of the business model underlying CNN.com and most other websites: maximizing advertising revenues is dependent on maximizing traffic. And so like Cyrus herself, journalists toiling online find themselves occasionally “twerking” uncomfortably close to the groin of their employer’s financial goals.

That’s a pressure that has existed long before the Internet, but has certainly been accentuated by the analytics that give publishing companies detailed feedback of how content performs in a way the print world couldn’t.

While that’s great for understanding what does or doesn’t resonate with users, the sad fact of the matter is that the quality journalism so near and dear to editors’ hearts is often not what drives traffic. That leaves a news organization with three basic options:

1) You can remain in denial that quality alone will prevail despite all evidence of the contrary.

2) You can do whatever it takes to drive traffic and lose any sense of distinct brand identity.

3) You can coordinate a balanced attack between the quality that supports the brand but not traffic with more broadly appealing content that does more for traffic than it does the brand.

If you guessed CNN is going with the third option, give yourself a prize.

As extensive as the Cyrus coverage is, it is a cheap and quick way to yield great results–the polar opposite of Syria coverage, which is likely expensive, time-consuming and an inconsistent audience draw.

But that’s where those who cherish the Syria coverage need to understand that Cyrus doesn’t detract from Syria; it actually bears the weight of traffic demands that Syria shouldn’t be expected to meet. Thus Cyrus is helping shoulder the cost of more substantial coverage that Syria can’t possibly meet on its own.

Fantasize if you must about a Cyrus-less CNN: all substantive coverage, all the time. But as long as CNN needs the kind of scale that keeps it on the ground in Syria and the world over while still dependent on advertising revenues, the organization must be mindful of keeping up audience levels across all platforms. Do you think Syria can carry that load?

Syria can even benefit from a little Cyrus time; there’s something to be said for any kind of content triggering a mass influx of users, which increases the chance they will move on to other content on the site. Come for Cyrus, stay for Syria.

Still, there are those who will insist that Cyrus does not belong at the top of the homepage for even a millisecond because if the statement CNN is essentially making with its placement: Cyrus is more important than Syria. Anderson Cooper would never lead his show with a segment on Cyrus (though he’d certainly get to it in the final quarter-hour).

Before wringing your hands raw over online news, consider that this is a temporary state of affairs. We’re still in the infancy of Internet content delivery, and there’s going to be plenty of innovation in the years ahead. The notion of a home page as one curated idea that the masses consume alike has already begun to be replaced by a more algorithm-driven, personalized approach. No two home pages are the same. If you like your news Miley-free, your browser history will make that clear to your news provider of choice, which will filter what content options you receive based on your behavioral data.

And that’s where privacy issues start to creep in, but let’s save that conversation for another time.

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  18. containseggs says:

    This is so staggeringly, pathetically off the mark. This is not the web page of a serious news organization. http://containseggs.com/2013/08/26/this-is-cnn-warning-the-post-contains-questionable-miley-cyrus-content/

  19. Jon says:

    I see. It was our misunderstanding of your article that prevented us from seeing it as the profound commentary it is. Maybe -just maybe- it was that you over-analyzing the onion’s piece in order to frame a rather weak argument for your take on the matter just didn’t seem like good writing.

    Take it easy, next week. An article on a nice pair of shoes, perhaps?

  20. Being showered with so much love from my dear readers that I don’t know where to begin, but I’m going to keep things simple. The fundamental mistake so many of my commentary’s critics seem to be overlooking is that I was zeroing in on the Onion misunderstanding the MOTIVATION for CNN to be overdosing on Miley Cyrus coverage. The Onion article clearly chalks up the motivation to greed, ego, job insecurity, etc.; I’m arguing that the motivation is actually to help financially support the kind of journalism the Onion laments isn’t getting enough attention, i.e. Syria. The Onion piece in no way makes that connection, so I’m stepping in to do that. Hope that clarifies what I thought was clear in my commentary.

  21. Bill Lancaster says:

    In the 1950s the majority of information in America shifted from news to advertising. In the past ten years information has shifted from what little news was left to tabloid. Most of mainstream news and Internet content is an a hurried rush to the bottom. What does it mean today when the average American says, “Oh gosh, I don’t have the time to read or watch that.” I think the issue has moved on from one or mere media economics to something much deeper.

  22. Benjamin Harrison says:

    Wallenstein, you’re a twit and whining wanker. Unfortunately, both The Onion and the Daily Show are better sources of news and commentary than any of the US news organizations.

  23. unominous says:

    You write for a living so you should learn this difference: The author makes an implication, the reader makes the inference. While that is too common a mistake among ordinary folk, a critic who misses that distinction is begging to not be taken seriously.

  24. James! says:

    Wallenstein misses the point of The Onion’s piece entirely, which wasn’t to mock CNN in particular, but to mock the audience that allows something like that to become the business standard. Where the content that maximizes ad revenue isn’t the important news of the day, but the “crowd-pleasing” pop news. And, as The Onion’s piece outlines, that’s the situation not because CNN wants it to be so, but because we the audience makes it so.

    Could Syria carry the load Wallenstein outlines? or Egypt? or the 50th anniversary of the march on Washington? Each case is debatable, but if none of them can, Miley Cyrus’ VMA performance certainly shouldn’t. The joke is on us, not them.

  25. Lou says:

    It was THE ONION.

  26. c i r o says:

    Variety whines about criticism of entertainment coverage. This isn’t journalism, it’s passive-aggressive advertising.

  27. milo says:

    “The Onion condemned the Cyrus coverage…” No it didn’t. It satirized it, and it’s sad that the writers at Variety don’t understand the difference. A publication calling something “a disservice” isn’t the same as a line in a fake memo saying something is a disservice.

  28. Nick B says:

    Thank you Mr. Wallenstein! The insight you provided in this editorial may not just be the best that I’ve read in Variety but also the best from amongst the major media organizations.

  29. Jim says:

    You could join the 2 stories – Cyrus and Syria. It’s not hard, to create a hybrid that would draw people in with the shiney slut, but then subtly inform them about what’s important in the world within the article. “Miley Cyrus turned heads during a performance last night at the VMAs with her skimpy costume and provocative dance moves, which were shallow and lewd compared to the meaningful choreography of traditional Syrian folklore dances such as ‘al Dahha’, which date back hundreds and thousands of years. Twerking, on the other hand, is only a few years old and will die with the rest of America’s shallow and disposable youth culture during our next generational cycle.”

    You see what I did there? And you can springboard off of that into *any* story about Syria. The six figures CNN copy writers probably make isn’t worth their little imaginations.

  30. j.b. diGriz says:

    Ha, this is so meta-thematically amazing in its unselfconscious awfulness, I can’t stop smiling. Thanks for not only proving the Onion right, being completely obvious to the primary message of societal indictment , but ALSO for re-enacting the same crime of an accessory that CNN committed. It’s a trifecta of damnation.

  31. Kilburn says:

    This articles proves how dead on The Onion is with its satire. Hits too close to home for some. The best part is that in an article called “The Onion Gets It Wrong” – then goes on to prove the Onion was right in the point it was making.

  32. James says:

    Congratulations, Mr. Wallenstein: in criticizing Onion, you managed to confirm everything they said. I”m sure all readers – there, here, everywhere- who bother to read anything anymore, are acutely aware of just how crucial it is for any and all media to survive by drafting on stories like the Miley Cyrus Foam Finger Dance. By honestly stating what none of the media says openly – that CNN hasn’t hired an unattractive male or female newscaster, and FOX News just happens to put Kimberly Gilroy and her incredibly short skirts and 6 inch spiked heels closest to the camera during those scintillating round table political discussions, and just what is going on with Lamar & Khloe and is Bruce Jenner’s face actually melting before the cameras – it is certainly the end of the world as we’ve known it. But at least you got to draft on a story that drafted on the story that wasn’t much of a story to begin with. And here I am, in it with you. And where is Howard Beal when we need him? We’re still big, it’s just the pictures that got small – A Marginally Concerned Citizen.

  33. Jerry Joslyn says:

    I’m confused. Has the war in Syria spread to Cyprus?

  34. Abe S says:

    The fact that anyone would write a serious defense to an Onion article speaks more about the truth of the matter than any of the lame justifications presented above. Andrew Wallenstein doth protest too much, methinks.

  35. As I write this CNN is engaging in wall to wall coverage of Miley’s new leaked twerk music video. Game, set and match to “The Onion”. Andrew Wallenstein….Go to your room.

  36. telzeyamberdon says:

    I’d really like to watch Al Jazeera America, a no-crap, no-Miley news network, but my cable provider wants an extra $12.99 a month to get that tier of channels and I cannot afford to pay $150 a year *more* for cable than the already-ridiculous amount they’re gouging me for. I think a lot of people would love to watch real news, it’s just that nobody is willing to give it to us. CNN has become unwatchable. If I want to watch that sort of mindless nonsense, I’ll tune into the E! channel–at least they know how to do nonsense right.

  37. marge says:

    Miley Cyrus act was totally disgusting, there was no need for that kind of action on tv, even her mum was shocked

  38. Aaron says:

    Perception is reality, no one (regular person, not someone who works in online publishing and understands all these dynamics) understands or cares about any of this. Their perception is their reality and that perception is that CNN is pandering and for that, lacks credibility. Especially when they are already constantly accused of being slanted and having an a agenda driven by back-door financial relationships.

  39. John Miller says:

    I get your drift, Andrew. But, The Onion is about blunt satire, as opposed to careful, reasoned satire. CNN indeed runs a business, and they need to make money. While having the sensationalistic stuff on pays the bills, hopefully CNN will not let the balance go too far in Cyrus’ direction.

  40. Renfield says:

    Lady Gaga Miley Cyrus sex drugs rock roll breast leg naked twerk, cat video. Great story, Huh?

  41. Jim K says:

    Nobady cares WHY you feel it nessicary to play to the lowest common denomiter. And don’t forget that there have been media that did not, but they fell victem to sociopathicly acting companies who only measured success by cash and stock prices, and who’s only real reason for existing is to constantly make a bigger profit every month, than the same month the previous year.

    It’s just sad that you’ve successfully trained the consumers of the world to expect nothing better for themselves than the lowest common denominator. It wasn’t always this way.

  42. Mike Dunne says:

    “An editor in Artley’s position must be cognizant of the business model underlying CNN.com and most other websites: maximizing advertising revenues is dependent on maximizing traffic.” That’s just what The Onion said, in a more entertaining way. After that, your content is filler.

  43. Kevin says:

    This article further my belief that Variety is in a state of decline for it is being run by buffoons.

  44. C Simpson says:

    This commentary is a satire, right? Obviously Andrew Wallenstein is a made-up Onion character spouting silly baloney to keep the non-issue alive. I think I’ve seen his photo in the regular feature where Onion asks questions so that made-up dweebs give oblivious answers. AW goes on for a really long time, though… is that part of the joke? or what?

  45. Dandru says:

    Wow. The author of this article COMPLETELY missed the mark. Astoundingly inept.

  46. Dan Anderson says:

    I feel like you don’t really understand satire. It’s supposed to be over the top while still making some valid points.

    And this:

    “We’re still in the infancy of Internet content delivery”

    Really? It has been a very long infancy. Don’t you think we’re at the toddler stage, since we’re decades into “internet content delivery?”

  47. Crabby Umbo says:

    Andrew…

    ….really? You’re taking a comedy newspaper to task for a joke? Really? This is what you’re spending your time on?

  48. cnn news says:

    Well, this story will be dead in about 12 hours, so who gives a stuff anyway.

    But, Scott (too many ‘t’s, if you ask) missed the whole point entirely, which is quite something.

    If you are a “News” organisation, you’d be better, in my humble opinion, in reporting ‘news’ rather than some ‘skinny white girl’ gyrating wildly at some organised media event. This is not “news”, this is product placement.

    The Onion’s point, if I decipher this correctly, is that Miley Cyrus and/or the next unclad thing is what will drive media coverage for the foreseeable future.

    I’d like to think we can be better than this

  49. You overlook that the Onion puts a fair share of the burden for that story placement not on CNN, but on the news-consuming public. To wit:

    “You want to know how many more page views the Miley Cyrus thing got than our article on the wildfires ravaging Yosemite? Like 6 gazillion more.

    That’s on you, not us.”

    Seems to me the Onion recognizes where the blame lies.

  50. People who watch the news to get *news turn off when fed a diet of fluff items like Cyrus. CNN used to be my go-to for emerging world events. I trusted what they reported. That’s changed. The hard edged network true to the truth and calling of journalism is no more. They spew politically approved talking points and Hollywood gossip.

    • cnn news says:

      CNN never used to be my “go-to” organisation, but I thought I could trust it at a pinch. My trust remains with the BBC, for now.

      How can we fix this (trust and integrity) for CNN, FOX, MSNBC etc. and every other ‘news’ organisation?

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