The evening of Easter Sunday, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake hit Baja California. At 8 p.m. E.T., CNN had live coverage. MSNBC was running a special, Why Planes Crash. Fox News had host, preacher and former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee talking about God, Easter and the Sandra Bullock movie The Blind Side.
Guess which of the three news channels is lowest rated in prime time. Hint: the one that was covering the news. In the first quarter of 2010, CNN lost nearly half its prime-time audience from a year ago. In February, CNN prime time even finished behind its little sibling, HLN. CNN, however, says that its profits continue to grow healthily and that it reaches more individual viewers per month than Fox or MSNBC.
But every media maven and his sister have been offering "What should CNN do?" advice: More hard news! More infotainment! Bring back Crossfire! Stay away from Crossfire!
TIME is CNN's sister company in Time Warner and as another big mainstream-media institution, we're implicated in the same kind of problems. As TIME's media critic, then, I offer my own "What should CNN do?" prescription, even if it hits close to home.
Part of CNN's problem is that Fox News and MSNBC cater to the right and the left, respectively, cultivating faithful fans. There aren't major earthquakes every day, but Sean Hannity and Keith Olbermann can produce temblors on demand. It may not be the worst who are full of passionate intensity, as Yeats wrote, but passionate intensity sells on cable. A small partisan base is enough for big ratings; the mildly interested middle might rather watch Grey's Anatomy.
But CNN also suffers from being a mainstream institution at a time when mainstream authority is in crisis. CNN's problem is the problem of the New York Times, the banks, the government and climate science. If you are an institution or "expert," especially one claiming impartiality like TIME and other newsmagazines, whose obituaries people have been writing for decades you are suspect.
The answer for CNN is not to abdicate its authority but to use it more aggressively. Today, with technology making raw news a commodity, the challenge for consumers is sorting out politicized counterclaims on everything from health care to meteorology to security. Viewers want someone to cut through the kicked-up partisan dust. They want to hear, flat out, when someone is full of it. CNN too often gives both sides, then shrugs. A CNN anchor interviewing two party hacks and leaving us to decide who we should believe doesn't cut it.
CNN did try rebranding itself a while back as the network of passionate nonpartisanship. It gave Campbell Brown the slogan "No bias. No bull." It ran ads for Anderson Cooper in which a conservative viewer and a liberal viewer praised him equally for fact-checking the other side.
The problem is priorities. "No bias. No bull" is a slogan that doesn't make sense: if you're truly dedicated to "no bull," then "no bias" is implicit though you will end up taking sides. But if your first priority is proving "no bias," you end up pitching bull or pulling your punches, and your audience can tell. (Not to mention it's boring TV.)
What CNN needs, in other words, are hosts who draw authority not from being insiders or centrists but from challenging guests and calling things as they see them, even if it means braving accusations of bias. This is the strength of people like Fox's Shepard Smith, who's willing to step on conservative toes, and Jon Stewart, a liberal who has nonetheless flogged Obama. It's what CNN (and others) did after the Hurricane Katrina debacle in 2005.
CNN should focus not on both-handedness but on truth. It should let the chips fall where they may, not make sure that the chips, over time, aggregate around the middle. The slogan for my ideal CNN or any news outlet would be "The news: whether you like it or not."
That's what I'd like to see. Would that help CNN's ratings? Probably not. Neither have any of the other "What should CNN do?" proposals or the network's various makeovers over the past decade. But this approach would at least better serve the serious news audience CNN's people at a time when news is both commodified and politicized.
Like the prime-time networks and other big news outlets in the niche era, CNN has to manage decline. That reality accepted, CNN can focus on being the best version of itself for an age of contested reality, combining its still formidable news gathering with informed, impassioned hosts who are dedicated to being more than the self-conscious, nervous, vanilla midpoint between Fox and MSNBC. What should CNN do? My ideal CNN would be one that acts like it doesn't care what anyone thinks it should do.