At one point in the live coverage of last week’s manhunt, a literally breathless CNN reporter saw a canine patrol headed for an address in Watertown.
“There's a dog,” she hyperventilated. “This is interesting. The dog is barking.”
Let's just give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she meant that maybe the animal was trained to sniff out explosives and was alerting its handler (despite the absence of any evidence from the reporter's vantage of any such thing taking place.) It was still a silly thing to say, and to air.
Yet all in all, the dog-barking scoop was one of CNN's less humiliating moments last week, because at least it wasn't irresponsible or false. The cable channels were predictably abysmal covering the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, delivering veritable highlight reels of worst practices: passing on rumor and speculation, endlessly repeating horrifying video of the crime scene, inflating small details (woof) into significance they did not carry, and of course, reporting as definitive the supposed Wednesday arrest of two suspects -- something that had simply not taken place.
If not for the New York Post (“12 Killed”), which out-wronged everybody by splashing the images of two innocent (brown) guys all over P.1 under the headline “BAG MEN,” the TV coverage would have been rock-bottom.
No surprise there, really. CNN and Fox News Channel have consistently demonstrated incompetence of late. There was Fox's 180-degree-wrong call on the Supreme Court’s Obamacare ruling, the nonexistent Texas mass grave confirmed by CNN and the cornucopia of errors -- such as naming the wrong suspect -- after Newtown. There are many explanations for this world of blunder. One is the idiotic value placed on being first with a shard of previously unreported information, no matter how dubious. Another is physics; in the vacuum of understanding that afflicts live coverage after breaking news, anything that fills the gaping void looks irresistible.
The final reason is the most counterintuitive: the news channels have little capacity for actual journalism. A handful of reporters and anchors does not a robust news organization make. It's all the producers can do to line up enough experts and poseurs for the cablecast day's innumerable hype-and-gripe sessions. Actual reporting requires manpower and patience these outfits simply do not have, and cannot afford.
The upshot is that when they matter most -- i.e., in the precious few annual moments when big events command a significant audience -- the news channels are destined to let us down. Fox, of course, is horrendous in an additional way, by routinely giving air to demagogues and liars and pandering to reactionary ideology. (MSNBC is equally politically biased, albeit a lot wittier and more reasoned about it.)
Let’s just say they have an excuse to suck; they exist to infuriate their fellow travelers. CNN, politically nonaligned, purports to be a pure purveyor of news. And since it's clearly not up to that job, why does it even still exist?
That would be a good question for Jeff Zucker to ponder as he attempts to retool the channel. No doubt the strategy will be to pay a lot of money to a few famous faces, on the hope of generating audiences through star power. But Chris Cuomo and Jake Tapper (who was miscast and profoundly awful live on the street) aren’t exactly Brad and Angelina. And nobody else on TV news is, either.
Crazy idea here: what if CNN were to invest instead in inexpensive young reporters and producers to report and produce news, which can now be shot and cut more cheaply than ever before? Dump the fat contracts. Dump the panel shows. Let the CNN mission be the star. Sure, the ratings would be low when nothing gripping is taking place -- but they couldn’t be much lower than the status quo. And when the stakes are high, a real news channel will scoop the pot.
There is such a channel on cable. How perverse that it should reside on HBO, and spring from the imagination -- or more like the fantasies -- of Aaron Sorkin. Sure, “The Newsroom” is idealized. Sure, it overestimates the taste and intelligence of the public. But say this about the fictional Atlantis Cable News: nobody on that channel ever went exclusive with a barking dog.