OFF THE GRID

CNN + CBS = Less than Zero

May 7, 10 | 7:25 AM   byMichael Wolff
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Bill Carter, the New York Times’ hoary television reporter, in his story the other day about partnership talks between CNN and CBS, treated both networks as though they were august news organizations, instead of ruined artifacts of a former age.

Carter’s is yet another an example of the illusion the news media somehow successfully maintains about itself—about its importance and permanence and, even, the awe with which it is regarded—in the face of all evidence to the contrary.

As it happens, CBS—“once the home of Walter Cronkite,” as Carter intones—is desperate to get out of the news business (desperate to get out of what’s left of its news business), or anyway CBS Inc, of which CBS News is an irrelevant part, is desperate to get out of it. CNN—with its “extensive news-gathering resources,” in Carter’s version of basso profundo—is desperate to do something that will keep supporting its ever-diminishing business prospects. The former doesn’t want to be in the modern news business, the latter doesn’t know how to be, so combining them produces what exactly?

As veteran a television news producer as you can get (of course without a job) writes me the following (I read his tone as one of incredulity):

“If CBS contracts out all of its remaining (and it's not that much anymore) newsgathering it could probably save close to $100 million. CNN becomes, for CBS (and maybe others), a Reuters-like supplier of raw news materials that CBS can then package. None of this makes CBS any better unless they take the savings and invest them in top talent, which they won't. It becomes Potemkin news village.”

And:

“None of this makes CNN better either. They need one thing: better shows. The greatest minds at CBS cannot fix CNN. Its entire lineup is a placeholder. The only problem is there is nothing waiting in the wings. Cable TV and the web have a couple of things in common, but the main one is that viewers & users vote on the content constantly and instantly. Everything comes down to story selection, presentation, and tone. If you are slavishly avoiding conflict and point-of-view the viewers will avoid you. CNN is like Newsweek with more ads.”

Each organization is moribund, not just because of limited resources and more aggressive and garrulous competition, but because they are both stuck in the sort of identity that people like Bill Carter regularly reinforce. CBS News, stripped of its news-gathering operation and of its corporate support, tries so hard to pretend that it is still a major news voice that it can’t play any other role (and, of course, is no longer credible in the only role it knows how to play). CNN, continuing to believe it is the real cable news, and everybody else is fake, is so paralyzed by its own brand that it can’t respond to how the form has changed. Carter, without apparent irony, quotes CNN President Jonathan Klein: “Our journalism is the currency of the national conversation.”

Who would say such baloney? Or, rather, saying such baloney is exactly the problem. The business exists in a bubble of its own virtue and glory days and log rolling. It may not be the news business that’s the problem. But journalists. They will go down writing and believing their own press.

More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at michael@newser.com. You can also follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWolffNYC.
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