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‘The Latest in Expert Speculation’: CNN and the Phenomenology of Breaking News | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

‘The Latest in Expert Speculation’: CNN and the Phenomenology of Breaking News

Captain Russel Adams speaks to the media.

Royal Australian Air Force pilot Captain Russel Adams speaks to the media after returning from a search mission for Malasia Airlines Flights 370. (AP Photo/Matt Jelonek, Pool)

Alter-reviews: I got next to nothing this week. I did see a historic "A"-less "ABB" show Saturday night at the Beacon. It was not bad at all, but also weird. Since the last four shows were postponed, it is also one of only two of all time. And I saw a strong Drive By Truckers show Thursday night at Terminal 5 in support of "English Oceans," but I just reviewed the acoustic show at City Winery a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been reading Adam Begley’s new biography of John Updike and listening to The Black-Eyed Blonde: A Philip Marlowe Novel by Benjamin Black, read by Dennis Boutsikaris for Macmillan Audio, but I will have to report back later on those. Oh and I should mention the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Workbook, which was great back then, and sounds better now. It’s got a second CD with a 1989 performance at Chicago's Cabaret Metro, and a cover of "Shoot Out the Lights." It’s pretty damn noisy. 

Oh and I wanted to recommend another book: Anthony Greco's Chomsky's Challenge to American PowerA Guide for the Critical Reader. As much of pain as Chomskyites are in my life, I do admire much of what the man has done, dishonest as he sometimes is. Here is the blurb I was happy to give Mr. Greco: "Anthony Greco's treatment of Chomsky's role in the intellectual debates of our time is among the most thoughtful, and certainly the most comprehensive I've ever encountered. We are all in his debt for his generous—perhaps overly generous—but still tough-minded and intellectually critical reading both of Chomsky himself and of the work of his critics. His ability to put Chomsky's writings in the context of larger historical debates is also to be greatly admired and appreciated by all who have sought to make sense of the man and his extraordinary (and often infuriating) body of work."

I’ll be in Jerusalem next week for this conference, sponsored by the excellent Molad and the Center for American Progress on April 1st in case anyone is there and wants to come.

And I’ll be speaking at Wayne State University in Detroit the following week, on April 7th should you live around there.

Now here’s Reed:

“The Latest in Expert Speculation”: CNN and the Phenomenology of Breaking News
by Reed Richardson

Much has been made about the white-hot supernova of coverage CNN has devoted to missing Malaysia Air Flight 370 in the past few weeks. And rightfully so. It has been both fascinating and alarming to watch a major cable network flail about so publicly. By focusing so much on a story where so little is known, CNN essentially had to liberate itself from traditional standards of newsworthiness. Over the past two weeks, it’s subjected viewers to cravenly-named "zombie" theories, a shameless over-use of its "breaking news" chyronnumerous instances of model plane-play, as well as fanciful notions that black holes or divine intervention might be at work in the plane’s disappearance.

Undoubtedly, these are low points in TV news. But if I were to nominate one moment as the nadir of CNN’s recent coverage, it would be an online article from this past Saturday. It begins with headline so lacking in institutional self-awareness that I first thought it was an ironic joke—"Flight 370: When facts are few, imaginations run wild." But buried halfway down is this revelatory passage, which just might sum up CNN’s entire journalistic philosophy (and business model) better than any strategy memo or fancy speech by network president Jeff Zucker.

"Those are the facts as we now know them. Anything more is theory, speculation—or pure fantasy. Some scenarios are more plausible than others; some have been debunked, and others have not."

At first, this sounds like a serious news organization warning viewers away from rampant conspiracy theories about Flight 370’s fate. But lest you think CNN has suddenly had a change of heart, it abruptly follows that sentence with a sub-head that is little more than a disclaimer so the network can now wallow in these very same theories:

"The latest in expert speculation"

CNN: We’re out of facts, but we’re not letting that stop us! At least we’re being promised the "latest" wild guesses, as opposed to all those theories that have been proven 100 percent wrong. And, of courses, one of the crackpot explanations the network still gives credence to comes from noted aviation non-expert Rush Limbaugh, whose elaborate shoot-down scenario, though preposterous, is admittedly a bit more plausible than God plucking a Boeing 777 out of the sky. And when CNN starts making Rush Limbaugh sound somewhat reasonable, you know things are askew.

To be sure, CNN hasn’t been alone in gorging on Flight 370 coverage. For its part, Fox News has spent hours and hours on the story and, as might be expected, floated a predictably paranoid terrorist plot as well as it own Biblical analogy while speculating. MSNBC joined in on "breaking" non-news too. And during the middle week of March, all three evening news broadcasts led off with reports on the missing plane for four straight nights.

Nevertheless, CNN has unmistakably led the pack in transforming Flight 370 into an all-encompassing news obsession. This is understandable, in a way. Though it likes to tout itself as between (beyond) the left-right partisan shoals, CNN has struggled mightily to attract regular viewers to its ostensibly objective programming. The network’s ratings have eroded sharply in recent years and its editorial direction has grown increasingly unmoored since MSNBC chose to pursue becoming a liberal counterweight to Fox News on the cable dial. These days, when it isn’t digging old Beltway panel shows like "Inside Politics" and "Crossfire" out of hock, it’s adopting "non-fiction" primetime shows like "Parts Unknown" and "Chicagoland" that would be more at home on a reality TV channel like A&E. All that’s left to rely upon, then, is its breaking news advantage, a vestigial remnant of viewer loyalty from more than a decade ago.

This willingness to fixate on one big story and sensationalize it reflects CNN’s growing embrace of the phenomenology of news. It’s an approach that emphasizes the viewer’s experience of singular news events as much, if not more than, the news itself. Thus, a piece of debris off the coast of Australia may or may not be wreckage from Flight 370, but it gets breathlessly reported on, endlessly speculated about, and quickly absorbed into the story narrative nonetheless, even if it’s later ruled out. Facts matter, sure, but so too do things we think we know. From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s definition of "phenomenology:"

Literally, phenomenology is the study of "phenomena": appearances of things, or things as they appear in our experience, or the ways we experience things, thus the meanings things have in our experience. Phenomenology studies conscious experience as experienced from the subjective or first person point of view….

[P]henomenology is given a much wider range, addressing the meaning things have in our experience, notably, the significance of objects, events, tools, the flow of time, the self, and others, as these things arise and are experienced in our life-world.

Smaller online news sites like Circa and Quartz have already formalized a similar idea of treating news in a more holistic and individually-centered approach. In 2012, Quartz global news editor Gideon Lichfield, in a blog post entitled "Goodbye to the Beat," elaborated on his thinking:

So instead of fixed beats, we structure our newsroom around an ever-evolving collection of phenomena—the patterns, trends and seismic shifts that are shaping the world our readers live in. ‘Financial markets’ is a beat, but ‘the financial crisis’ is a phenomenon. ‘The environment’ is a beat, but ‘climate change’ is a phenomenon. ‘Energy’ is a beat, but ‘the global surge of energy abundance’ is a phenomenon. ‘China’ is a beat, but ‘Chinese investment in Africa’ is a phenomenon. We call these phenomena our ‘obsessions.’ [emphasis original]

But note these smaller news sites’ obsessions are both more expansive and less ephemeral than cable heavyweight CNN’s transient fascination with one missing jetliner. The news memes above are ongoing phenomena rather than merely breaking news. As such, the former allows for sustained, contextual reporting, the latter demands a surge of ad-hoc coverage. So what does CNN get out of going overboard in such an inefficient manner?

In much the same way that the partisan frame of MSNBC and Fox News offers their regular viewers a clear signal of what to expect, CNN clearly hopes that by obsessing over the latest breaking news story, it offers potential viewers a similar assurance. Erik Wemple, media critic at the Washington Post, defended CNN’s "over-coverage" along these same lines this past Sunday on, coincidentally, that network’s weekly media analysis show, Reliable Sources. He cited both the story’s non-ideological and international nature as sitting right in the network’s purported editorial wheelhouse. Network decision makers—in defending their all-in approach to Flight 370—said the same in a New York Times article:

CNN executives note that critics of the coverage tend to be professional media watchers and that the average viewer may see only a few minutes of the coverage a day. Several CNN executives noted that conversations around water coolers and at dinner parties all over the country had been dominated by the story of Flight 370 and possible explanations for its disappearance.

Another story of the moment, the crisis in Ukraine, has also demanded attention, and while CNN has covered developments there, the senior executive acknowledged newsroom decisions had made to emphasize the plane story over Ukraine coverage. [sic]

In this case, the executive said, the CNN president, Jeff Zucker, who has aggressively steered the network toward committing full resources—and airtime—to continuing stories of intense interest, did not issue a memo telling producers to go wall to wall on the plane story. 'It was understood,' the CNN senior executive said.

'One way to define ourselves is to go all-in on stories of human drama,' the executive said.

In the short bursts, stories of "intense interest" can attract big (for cable) audiences if the public’s curiosity is sufficiently piqued. And there’s little doubt that CNN’s flood-the-zone coverage of Flight 370’s disappearance has drawn in viewers. The first week after the plane went missing, CNN’s primetime flagship show AC360 defeated ratings juggernaut Bill O’Reilly for three straight nights, a first in the show’s history. This triumph echoes ratings surges CNN experienced last year for its obsessive focus on the Boston bombing and the infamous "poop cruise." And yet, as the Times article points out, CNN’s high-visibility coverage on those short-lived news stories failed to translate into long-term success. In fact, the network’s average primetime ratings slid to a twenty-year low in 2013.

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This highlights the many perils of CNN’s news-as-phenomenon approach. Only a few news stories genuinely capture the broader public’s attention each year. So, relying upon such a scarce resource for programming and ratings can leave a network fumbling for identity when news is slow. What’s more, long absences between the last and the next big story allow viewing habits to atrophy even further. Over time, this kind of itinerant, all-or-nothing editorial strategy can easily fall victim to the law of diminishing returns.

There’s a moral hazard at work here, as well. A news network increasingly dependent upon big, tent-pole stories for its survival will naturally be tempted to sensationalize ordinary events to suit its own purposes. Case in point, last February, when CNN shamelessly manufactured the "poop cruise" into a feces-obsessed TV spectacle. Looking back at its coverage, you can detect the same desperate, grasping-at-straws tone and B-roll burnout that has colored much of CNN’s Flight 370 coverage since initial reports of the plane’s disappearance became old news.

Even when a major story with facts aplenty does arise, a network in need of the next big thing for ratings can be institutionally inclined to push the envelope, which can lead to gross mistakes. CNN, notably, has committed two embarrassing errors on big breaking news stories—the Supreme Court Obamacare ruling and the Boston Marathon bombing—in the past two years. And the steady barrage of unverified information CNN has passed along this past month with barely a caveat has been frightening. Still, these are but venal journalistic sins when compared to the opportunity cost of CNN choosing to sacrifice much of its coverage of the unfolding crisis in Ukraine upon an altar of hijacking hyperbole and transponder talk.

On Monday, the news saga of Flight 370 took a tragic, but inevitable turn toward denouement. Based on unreleased British satellite tracking data, Malaysian authorities abruptly declared all 239 passengers and crew on board effectively lost at sea in the southern Indian Ocean. Then, a few hours later, the search effort was grounded due to bad weather. With its latest obsession now seemingly winding down, CNN has begun wringing its final few hours of ratings gold out of a mystery that has proven stubbornly resistant to informative journalism. Tellingly, CNN’s final breaking news alerts are, in essence, little changed from its first reports two-and-a-half weeks ago: lots of expert speculation, but no real answers.   

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson@gmail.com. I’m on Twitter here—@reedfrich.

Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

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