After the State of the Union speech last month, Jon Stewart chided the three cable news nets for fitting their respective caricatures all too well: "So the haters have Fox, the lovers who are afraid to be hurt again have MSNBC, but what about all the people who watched the speech and found it too straightforward and understandable? Well, there's always CNN."
Then followed a montage of CNN's embarrassing technoverkill--the panels of a thousand pundits seated behind consoles on the bridge of the Enterprise, the servile reading of anonymous Twitters on the air, the fetishistic touching of the "Magic Wall" of pixelated graphs and flash polls. But stuck in the middle of these laughable excesses (at about 1:50) was a shot of Wolf Blitzer giving a nod to "the stimulus desk," as if that were yet another desperate gimmick to make the oldest cable news outfit look with it.
But, like its excellent Haiti earthquake coverage, CNN's stimulus project is no gimmick. Rather, the stim desk is a glimpse of what being the no-drama cable outlet could mean in a hopelessly divided country. And it's a good thing.
Don't get me wrong: CNN is still the beige network, neither red nor blue, and often seems to talk out of both sides of its face at once. But you don't have to be a genius to see that that's where much of the country is right now, having rejected both parties for their timidity, stupidity, and moral querulousness in a time of crisis. And CNN's struggle to find its identity between MSNBC and Fox--especially now that it has finally dumped the dead weight of Lou Dobbs--has opened a window of opportunity for something that looks a lot like old-fashioned journalism.
The Stimulus Project has been a fair-and-balanced, in-depth look at the good, the bad, and the good-twisted-into-the-horrendous-by-the-right that the stimulus bill has wrought. Such basic reporting is obviously needed, since people like newbie senator Scott Brown are still wandering about claiming that the stim bill "didn't create one new job."
The way it works is plain and old-school: CNN has dozens of correspondents, factcheckers, producers, and "all-platform journalists," both in Atlanta and across the country, crunching numbers, finding people who are grateful for their stimulus-created job, or finding projects that produced fewer jobs than expected (like a bridge for a small town in Missouri). Along the way they've tripped over a few fancy-pants projects attacked by Republicans as a waste of money (like laying new tracks for a wine train in Napa Valley) that did not, in fact, receive "a single stimulus dollar," as CNN declared. Of course, in the time-honored tradition of TV news, CNN didn't necessarily discover all these stories itself, but it publicized them far beyond any local news outlet's reach: during the Stimulus Project's launch in late January, it ran two segments every hour every day for a week.
And the project is still kicking--running stories less frequently, of course, but now that the network has set up the infrastructure (so to speak), stimulus stories are shovel-ready and easy to shoehorn into the day's sked.
And then there's Haiti. While most media are long gone or have left only skeletal crews, CNN is keeping five news teams, totaling about 30 people, on the ground (down from about 60 during the first two weeks). And this week, Anderson Cooper and Dr. Sanjay Gupta are back in Haiti, after about 10 days off in New York.
"CNN aired almost three times as many stories originating from inside Haiti than Fox and MSNBC combined," the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism found, while the LA Times wrote that the "resources CNN poured into covering the destruction in Haiti in the [week ending January 21] helped the cable news channel nearly double its average viewership this year..."
While some think that CNN "exiled" Cooper and Gupta to Haiti to pump up ratings that have dived back to normal (which is last place in primetime among the three cable news channels) since their first two weeks there, I'd like to take the Katrina-seasoned Cooper at face value when he explains why he returned: "There is more happening here than 10 American missionaries in jail. I guess I came to remind myself of that. No one deserves to die in silence, and no one's struggle to live should go unnoticed as well."
Cooper and Gupta have been criticized for getting personally involved in Haiti, for saving a kid from the chaos or performing impromptu surgery, but I've never felt they were showboating. They're more like the Greek chorus of the news.
You can't say that about either of CNN's rivals. As much as I live by MSNBC, it's as ego and personality driven as Fox is ego and propaganda driven. Olbermann's fulminations are increasingly over the top, and enough already about Mika's book tour. Mass media incentivizes most of its talent (with exceptions like Rachel Maddow) to scream, score, and go all drama-queen over so-and-so "eviscerating" so-and-so--success, after all, is measured by internet hits and YouTube replays. Finding a place where no-nonsense reporting has a berth seems like shelter from a soundbite storm.
It's been just three months since Dobbs was forced from the network he helped found nearly 30 years ago, but you can almost sense the atmosphere of a house from which a crazy uncle, long confined to the attic, has finally been carted off for good. Everybody who lives there suddenly has a new energy, maybe even a new sense of self-respect. It's hard to say whether an Obama-like straddle of partisan passions will be enough to compete for impulse cable viewers in the American market, but it's pleasant to think it might.