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.