Saturday, June 9, 2012

An Open Letter to Turner Broadcasting President Phil Kent

Dear Mr. Kent:

I was interested to read in yesterday's Huffington Post that "CNN is considering leadership changes in wake of ratings woes".  The story reports how the current president's contract is up for renewal and implies that some major changes are called for. Allow me to make some suggestions about the direction you might consider in looking for a replacement.

1. It is essential that CNN return to its place as "the most trusted name in news". The contrast between the caliber of your news coverage during the first Gulf War and more recent years is very disappointing. What made the Gulf coverage so amazing was that you had people on the ground sharing information that couldn't be found anywhere else. Today too much of your coverage is about what people think about what might be happening and what that might mean. You really need to return to value-added reporting.

2. This is an opportunity for CNN to foreswear "gotcha" journalism. Too much of modern broadcast journalism is designed to catch someone off guard or to spark a conflict between candidates. Bernard Shaw questioning Michael Dukakis about someone raping his wife was a forerunner of what is now commonplace. Instead, it would be great to have your anchors asking candidates about their policy positions. When Senators and Congresspeople are on, they could be asked about the specifics of legislation and how they hope to see their views represented in legislation that could pass both chambers and be signed by the president (whichever parties are represented).

3. Stop using pundits all the time. Too much of the broadcast news day is spent with people filling time. The positions that are shared appear to be predictably shaped by ideology and not any data. Too many opinions are shared with more confidence that the situation calls for. And lose the retired military spokespeople. They have personal interests and too often speak without any current information. In the long run they confuse more than they help.

4. The rise of fact-checking provides an opportunity for CNN to incorporate an educational role into its work. Let Fox News and MSNBC reflect ideological views. CNN should instead take the role of clarifying claims made on the other networks. If you focus on what actual data reflects in terms of employment patterns, economic growth, issues in Europe, or struggles in states and cities, you could show that your journalistic commitments rise above talking points.

5. Scale back your reliance on technological gimmicks. Much of what you've done in terms of real-time data during elections is great. On the other hand, holographic images of the Tampa convention just look silly. Just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should. If it doesn't have added informational value, just let your anchors talk. And for goodness sake, stop with the tweet and e-mail reports. Isolated comments from random citizens does not add to the information flow. If you are to be "the most trusted name in news" it won't be because we heard form Joe Smith in Topeka. If I want to know what my neighbors think, I can ask them. But I never think they're giving me news.

6. Dedicate times of your day to human interest or entertainment news and keep those separate from the hard news reporting. The Today Show can enjoy jumping from the debt ceiling to Kim Kardashian, but a news network shouldn't do that. If there's real breaking news of national or international scope (which doesn't mean simply good helicopter footage of a local issue) you can come on at the relevant point in your reporting when you have solid information to share. Don't come on live television and speculate incessantly during a developing story.

6. Stop trying to fight the media bias fight. It has become commonplace for those who criticize the news to argue that the media is biased. Some very good press reporting recently has examined the claim and shown that bias is claimed when people don't get their personal views endorsed. What that suggests is that you will always be accused of bias. So quit worrying about it and focus on quality information. The Crossfire days were the forerunners of today's 24 hour ideology television. It's good that you moved away from that. The necessary information for an informed democracy doesn't divide by political party. Your role is to hold to reporting.

7. I recognize that you operate in a highly competitive environment and that ratings drive your economic success. So the solution for you is to go where the hole is in the marketplace. Between Fox News and MSNBC, the Huffington Post and the Daily Caller, the New York Times and the National Review, the Daily Kos and the Drudge Report, people have lots of opportunity for hearing only what they want to hear. So why watch CNN? Because it's "the most trusted name in News". It's the place where you get to see how the ideas you hear on your preferred sites test out against reality.

8. Recognize that it's hard to fill 24 hours a day. That big hold that demands attention is what feeds the fluff stories and the incessant pontificating. Do your best to develop careful stories, factually based, providing personal impact illustrations. Tell the truth and demand the same of those you interview. If your guest spins a talking point, ask the follow up question. Your anchors (especially Soledad O'Brian, Wolf Blitzer, and Anderson Cooper) have tried to do this but it too often gets played as if they have personal opinions that simply disagree with the speaker. Avoid the personal. Make use of existing fact-checking sources and let your guests know that they should expect to be challenged with they trot out their favorite previously-disputed talking point.

I end this where i started. There is today a golden opportunity for CNN to return to an earlier period of glory. It has the potential to do what no one else is doing. If it can do that, it might even reshape some of the other networks and websites. And I'd return as a viewer and gladly listen for James Earl Jones to tell me "This is CNN".



1 comment:

  1. I think they should pick up the Daily Show from Comedy Central