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Jonathan Topaz '12: Killing the boredom-killing business

In the satirical movie "Network," Howard Beale, an established and respected nightly news anchor, is fired for his newscast's poor ratings. In his farewell address, Beale goes on a shocking tirade and consequently earns the name "mad prophet." Beale starts a new show, which quickly becomes the most popular show on television. During one of his telecasts, which merely consists of Beale's ranting and proselytizing, he states, "Television is not the truth. Television is a goddamn amusement park." Newscasters, Beale says, are "in the boredom-killing business."

It is not just Beale, but this entire movie that seems almost downright prophetic about the trajectory of news media. Glenn Beck, who at times has likened himself to a modern-day Howard Beale (the irony is apparently lost on Beck), has achieved a massive viewership and garnered much attention from the media. Beck, who is prone to on-air diatribes and emotional meltdowns, and has repeatedly called President Obama a "racist" and a "Marxist," has on many occasions achieved nearly three million nightly viewers.

The White House appears to be on the losing side of an absurd feud with Fox News. Keith Olbermann and Bill O'Reilly, who appear in primetime on the nation's top news stations, represent ideological polarities and often attack each other directly. And comedian Jon Stewart, whose show airs on Comedy Central and appears directly after cartoons such as South Park and Futurama, was recently voted "America's Most Trustworthy Newscaster" in a Time Magazine Poll.

It is a disturbing political climate in which established op-ed columnists such as Frank Rich feud with entertainers like Beck, and MSNBC and Fox News precipitously move to the poles of political opinion for ratings' sake. So it was surprising when Lou Dobbs, who appeared nightly on CNN at 7 p.m., quit his show after growing animosity between him and the network. Dobbs, who openly expressed his passionate anti-immigration opinions and gave credibility to the conspiracy "birther" movement that questioned Obama's citizenship, may possibly join the Fox Business network.  

So, with the unexpected loss of Dobbs, one of the network's most controversial and recognizable personalities, how would CNN respond? Would it replace him with someone with a similarly bold anti-immigration platform? Perhaps a left-wing ideologue to attract a new audience to the 7 p.m. hour? Would it use this opportunity to elevate one of its political commentators — possibly the conservative Bill Bennett or the liberal Paul Begala — to his own nightly show?

In an astonishing and refreshing decision, CNN went with the decidedly unsexy John King to fill Dobbs' shoes. King developed minimal celebrity status during the 2008 presidential and congressional elections, during which he travelled the country covering the races from a non-partisan perspective. During his years with the Associated Press and then CNN, King established himself the old-fashioned way — reporting from campaign trails and war zones.

In other words, King is the ultimate straight man. Routinely delivering political commentary during the 2008 election for hours at a time, King intimated barely any ideological stance. He called it "troubling" that evening newscasters often "start the conversation with a bias," and instead of preaching from his perch at CNN headquarters in Washington D.C., he plans to travel the country to take the pulse of ordinary American citizens.

Cynics may attempt to attribute this move to business considerations. Dobbs' ratings were not particularly impressive, and with MSNBC and Fox News extremely popular with their respective ideological bases, CNN might find it economically sensible to brand itself as the non-ideological network.

But this argument does not quite hold up. With an evening lineup of John King, Campbell Brown (whose show is entitled "No Bias, No Bull") and Anderson Cooper, CNN has taken an audacious and praiseworthy step away from primetime opinion. Journalist Sam Donaldson asserts a commonly held notion that Network taught the public over 30 years ago: "The trend — and is it going to reverse, I don't know — is toward opinion." Evening news — beginning at 5 p.m. with ideologues such as Beck and Chris Matthews, and ending at midnight with O'Reilly and the liberal Rachel Maddow — has solidified itself as entertainment. And high ratings ensure that increasingly partisan coverage is here to stay. CNN must understand that this migration back to straight news is a death wish ratings-wise, and its decision to do so is downright admirable and heartening for the sake of journalism.

On the other hand, maybe CNN can thrive. Perhaps it is the idealist in this columnist that prays that legitimate coverage can reemerge, that CNN can make a strong stance for responsible, intelligent and nuanced scrutiny of important issues and policy. Olbermann, in a statement that identifies a man astoundingly out-of-touch with his craft, asserts that "People now watch news on TV for elucidation and context and analysis. They have brought the facts with them." As debates about health care and Afghanistan progress, and myths about socialism and nation-building and death panels pervade mainstream discourses, it is apparent that ideological fringes are deeply affecting individuals' ability to bring "the facts with them." Perhaps CNN can finally prove to the Howard Beales and the Keith Olbermanns of the world that news reporting can exist outside the boredom-killing business.
Jonathan Topaz '12 thinks that Bill O'Reilly needs to go back to covering our nation's most pressing issues, like SexPowerGod. 


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