Jay Rosen Retires From Criticizing CNN

The prominent media critic will no longer bother criticizing CNN for not living up to the standards of the profession.

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NYU journalism professor and media critic Jay Rosen will no longer bother criticizing CNN for not living up to the standards of the profession.

He begins by quoting Dan Gilmore: “CNN’s transition is now complete. The entire channel is basically a version of the Nancy Grace show.”

He continues,

As of today, I have retired from criticism of CNN for falling short of some sort of journalistic standard that news providers should maintain. That activity no longer makes sense. Let someone else receive the “ratings, you idiot” replies on Twitter. I’m done. I’m pretty sure you don’t care about this announcement, either. Which nicely illustrates why I’m done.

The immediate cause of action is an amusing but also telling column by Jack Shafer of Reuters: In praise of tabloid TV, which explains why critics of CNN are absurd creatures. If you want coverage of Egypt instead of the Zimmerman trial there’s plenty of places to find it and besides audiences have always loved murder trials, so who are you to tell them they shouldn’t?

[…]

What I was trying to accomplish by criticizing CNN has been overridden by Jeff Zucker. Here’s what I mean. CNN’s problems were well stated a few years ago by a competitor, Phil Griffin, head of MSNBC, who asked: ”What do they stand for?” That is the million dollar question.

[…]

Zucker has ended that by giving his own answer to Phil Griffin’s question: what do they stand for? The same thing Entertainment Tonight stands for! Television that occupies your attention, not for a purpose but merely for a while. Another answer might be “drama without dramatists,” meaning: drama where the plots and characters are provided by the people unlucky enough to be caught up in tabloid-ish or flashpoint events. Trials are ideal for that, but so is the poop ship. Criticism of these tactics actually tells Zucker that he is on the right track. Now the ratings are up relative to his competitors, and nothing ends the conversation like an uptick in the numbers. Unless it’s bringing back Crossfire, which is like saying, CNN: brain dead and proud of it.

David Carr, media columnist for the New York Times, once wrote: “By marketing itself as the most trusted name in news, CNN is and should be held to a higher standard.” I once thought that way too. But now I realize that not enough people join in Carr’s belief, inside or outside CNN. And without it there’s no traction.

So I’m saying farewell. I used to say: I criticize because I care. But I no longer do.

The natural response, presumably, is that Fox and MSNBC are worse. But I think Rosen’s right. At least those networks tacitly admit that they’re in the business of catering to a specific ideological subset of the news market. CNN pretends that they’re the “straight news” alternative when they’re simply infotainment.

To be sure, CNN didn’t invent this model. Sensationalist news aimed at a mass audience goes back at least to the days of the penny press in the 1830s.  Even the most prestige outlets, including the New York Times and the Economist, over-cover scandals, natural disasters, and other titillating stories. Even the best foreign affairs sites, such as ForeignPolicy.com, rely on absurd linkbait to boost pageviews.

Shafer is right: journalism is a first and foremost a business and ignoring the wants of the audience is a surefire way to go out of business. But, at some point, you’re no longer in the news business at all. And it’s quite possible CNN has reached that tipping point.

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. I suppose I’d like to know what Rosen’s alternative is.

    As noted, these channels need to survive as businesses. For that, they need viewers, and to get viewers they need to cover the the things that will grab viewers attention. As a quick glance at the weekly morning shows on the broadcast networks (which get far more viewers than any cable news show even today) will show, that means covering the trivial as much as the hard news, usually more the trivial. Indeed, that’s something that’s been true of the news “business” since the days of William Randolph Hearst, if not sooner.

    Rosen approvingly quotes MSNBC’s Phil Griffin, a guy who runs a network that is clearly more of a propaganda mill than a news network, to criticize CNN but, does he hold MSNBC to the same standard? I don’t see why they get a pass just because they’ve filled their schedule with advocates rather than journalists. And, I’d note that, of late, their own model seems to be failing in the ratings, especially since the addition of uber-hipster advocate “journalist” Chris Hayes to the prime time menu.

    Not that it matters to me. For the most part, all of cable news is crap, but I’ll still turn to CNN for breaking news, especially international news, before I’d consider MSNBC or Fox. At this point, though, that’s getting to be the only time I watch any of those networks.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @Doug Mataconis: In terms of foreign affairs coverage, al Jazeera and BBC are better. But they operate on different business models, so may not be fair comparisons.

  3. @James Joyner:

    They also not easy for most Americans to access. BBC World News is buried deep in the 180s on my cable lineup, and al Jazeera isn’t available, although it will be interesting to see what that company does when it formally takes over the failed experiment that was Current TV

  4. JohnMcC says:

    Of course the opposite viewpoint would be that those viewers represented by the ratings numbers have as much right as we nerds do, to decide what is ‘news’. I think we have to live with the fact that our desire for depth and nuance is a very small segment. My general advice is to turn it to CSPAN and break the knob off. (At least until we upgraded and I found there is no knob anymore, d*mm!t.)

  5. Woody says:

    Can’t remember the last time I watched CNN – or any other “news” channel, for that matter. TV has become the Dollar Store of information – cheap knock-offs of blatantly low quality produced for the masses “snacking their way to the departure gate.”

    I do realize it’s a business, but I also realize that a well–functioning democracy requires quality journalism. Perhaps we should value “democracy” over “market” here.

  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    If you want news delivered by journalists, turn off the TV. Turn on….. (fill in the blank)

  7. Tony W says:
  8. PD Shaw says:

    I wonder if Rosen is crabby because CNN and MSNBC switch to Zimmerman trial coverage about the time most of us go to work and can’t watch, but Rosen’s job is to watch.

  9. Pinky says:

    Who’s Jay Rosen?

    I don’t mean that in a snarky way. I mean, who is he? I think I’ve heard the name before, but I don’t remember him from any particular column or interview.

  10. Franklin says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    BBC World News is buried deep in the 180s on my cable lineup

    That’s a weak excuse for not watching it, if that’s what you really want to watch.

    Anyway, you and JohnMcC are basically hitting the same point. It’s not really CNN’s “fault”, so much. It’s the fault of the idiots around us who only care about the Zimmerman trial which in the grand scheme of things means nothing. And we can’t make the idiots around us non-idiots. And perhaps they think *we’re* the idiots.

  11. wr says:

    I do love the cheap shot at Chris Hayes. Apparently it doesn’t matter that he’s one of the few people on cable news who is willing to interview people outside of the political and economic mainstream. It doesn’t matter that he’s written one of the best books on American politics in years, or that he is actually able to think “outside the beltway.” To Doug, he’s just another “hipster” to be sneered at. No doubt Doug believes Hayes spends his free time at drum circles.

    I’m sure Doug will retort snappishly that he never watches Hayes’ show, and pretend that somehow this proves him right.

  12. Matt Bernius says:

    @Pinky:

    I don’t mean that in a snarky way. I mean, who is he? I think I’ve heard the name before, but I don’t remember him from any particular column or interview.

    Ummm… From the first sentence of James’ article (complete with link to Rosen’s site containing a bio):

    NYU journalism professor and media critic Jay Rosen will no longer bother criticizing CNN for not living up to the standards of the profession.

  13. Andre Kenji says:

    So, the problem is that cable news isn´t supposed to be highly profitable. It´s a niche product, and news gathering is extremely expensive. The problem is that in the United States Fox News changed this perception. Fox News uses a lot of opinion people, so, they don´t have the costs of keeping foreign bureaus and paying for reporters. They just pay people like John Bolton to talk in the air. They also focus a lot on entertainment and other things, instead of things like international news. So, they have huge ratings and huge profits, that you usually does not see on cable news, in part because they don´t have the high expenses that cable news were supposed to have, and in part because their content ins´t exactly news.

    The problem is that everyone thinks that cable news should have the same level of ratings and the same level of profit than Fox News. We are always told about how horrible MSNBC and CNN ratings are, on the other hand, 500.009 viewers for cable news are not supposed to be bad.

    This perception that cable news should have the same level of profit and viewers that Fox has is killing MSNBC and CNN.

  14. Andre Kenji says:

    Many international news channels are available on the internet. There is a Ipad app that has Sky News live programming, Al Jazeera´s English is also available on the internet(All the taped shows are available as high definition video podcasts). France 24 is also available on the internet, on three languages.

  15. stonetools says:

    What Jay Rosen should be lamenting is not that CNN doesn’t meet some journalistic “ideal standard” , but that those who try to meet that journalistic ideal standard can’t compete with those who follow the “tabloid-journalism”/Fox News model. It seems that he was furious that CNN didn’t fulfill that standard, even if it was a failing business model, and never really came to accept that it WAS a failing business model. FWIW, I think CNN did try to meet the Ideal Standard, but gave up when they lost too much market share and learned to love the Fox News model.
    I rely on NPR/PBS for my domestic news and BBC for my international news. Note that these are for the most part publicly funded institutions. I think we can see where the news business is headed. People like Jay Rosen going to attack CNN for not gathering news like a publicly funded institution, but I don’t see much of a point to it. Other than changing the law to give for-profit institutions a financial incentive to report news according to the ideal standard, I don’t think things will change.

  16. NickTamere says:

    ….al Jazeera isn’t available…

    If you’re in the DC area you should be able to get Al Jazeera with a regular ol’ antenna, channel 30.5. It’s also carried on most Cox, Comcast, and FiOS in the DMV under the MHz network package of channels.

  17. al-Ameda says:

    I do not find CNN to be as objectionable as many conservatives and media critics do. I find CNN to be generic and I’m ambivalent toward their coverage and presentation.

    Honestly, the place where media coverage is in the toilet is local television and radio news – cheesy personality-oriented stuff, splashy graphics, constant crime and infotainment reporting – it’s really low grade stuff. Local reporters are basically preening – it’s all about them, not the story. In a way, most local news stations look to shows like Good Morning America and Today as their model – shallow and cringe-inducing.

  18. Matt Bernius says:

    @stonetools:

    It seems that he was furious that CNN didn’t fulfill that standard, even if it was a failing business model, and never really came to accept that it WAS a failing business model.

    It wasn’t a failing business model. It simply wasn’t the *most profitable business model*. Like most news institutions that have shuttedered, I don;t think CNN ever lost money on a sustained basis.

    This, btw, is the core of Rosen’s beef (as he writes below):

    CNN makes $600 million a year for Time Warner, but if you challenge one of their ratings-driven decisions the main thing you hear back is: hey, they have a huge business problem on their hands. What can you say to that?

    This is the core problem of profit driven news in the age of the large, diversified corp. Simply turning a profit isn’t the goal. The goal is maximizing value and that means anything short of maximum profits is a “huge business problem.”

  19. stonetools says:

    @Matt Bernius:

    This is the core problem of profit driven news in the age of the large, diversified corp. Simply turning a profit isn’t the goal. The goal is maximizing value and that means anything short of maximum profits is a “huge business problem.”

    You may be right about that, but that’s the way the media market is these days. Unless you change the incentives, the cable new networks are going to be pushed by the shareholders to the value-maximizing model Now I’m not sure how you change the incentives-maybe giving a big tax credit for winning the Pulitzer Prizes for journalism ?
    Without something like that, then I see relentless pressure on cable news to conform to the Fox News model, like it or not.

  20. Dave Schuler says:

    Essentially, we’ve moved to a model not unlike the newspapers in the UK. There the major papers have specific party affiliations and everybody knows it.

    The Telegraph (Torygraph) and Daily Mail (Daily Heil) reliably support the Conservative Party. The Guardian (the smuggest newspaper in the world) can be expected to support Labour, The Independent (Indiscribably Boring) generally supports Lib-Dem.

    There’s nothing wrong with that so long as nobody pretends anything otherwise. It’s the pretensions of the U. S. news outlets to objectivity that are troublesome..

  21. Matt Bernius says:

    @Dave Schuler:
    Historically the party model was the prevalent model of US Journalism up until the 1920’s.

    It’s the pretensions of the U. S. news outlets to objectivity that are troublesome..

    As I’ve written before, that shift was part of the effort to make US journalism a legitimate professions during the first half of the twentieth century.

  22. @wr:

    Facts are facts. And the fact is that MSNBC’s ratings in general, and most importantly those of their flagship 9pm show with Rachel Maddow that Hayes’s show leads into, have sunk like a stone since he joined the prime time line up.

  23. @Franklin:

    I didn’t say I don’t watch it, I do. But given the fact that it is not grouped with the other news channels, or even the business news networks, on most cable lineups strongly suggests that most of my fellow Comcast subscribers are unaware its even there.

  24. wr says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    And calling Hayes and uber-hipster advocate “journalist,” complete with scare quotes around the word “journalist” counts as facts to you? Because working as the DC editor of The Nation, Senior Editor at In These Times and contributing regularly to the Chicago Reader doesn’t make him a real journalist, since he’s still an icky hipster?

    One thing I’ll say for Hayes — although he is strongly opinionated, he doesn’t let his beliefs blind him to the facts. It’s a good skill to adopt.

  25. Andre Kenji says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    And the fact is that MSNBC’s ratings in general, and most importantly those of their flagship 9pm show with Rachel Maddow that Hayes’s show leads into, have sunk like a stone since he joined the prime time line up.

    CNBC has lower ratings than MSNBC, and it´s extremely profitable. It´s not only a matter of how many people watches, but WHO watches. MSNBC´s first choice for the slot was Ezra Klein. Ed Schultz may had better ratings, but on long term he is a more controversitial pick for advertisers.

    Fox game is going to implode because their ratings in the demo are going down, and as the baby boomers get older that´s only going to get worse. No one wants to advertise to old people.

  26. al-Ameda says:

    Everyone now assumes that just about every media outlet is biased and in service to the Left or the Right – and it’s not not true. However because the Right has claimed for the better part of 3 decades that the Media is biased, everyone starts from that point.

    I’ve got to give Fox credit – they have an active motivated listener base.

    Most of my brothers and sisters watch FoxNews, and so does my dad, and all of them are incredibly agitated by … well, everything. They also watch the Fox opinion shows too – Sean Hannity and that whole line-up. It’s always the same – they’re angry and agitated when you talk politics or current issues with them, and their opinions are lifted whole from Fox. My father, a brother, and 3 sisters were absolutely shocked when Obama was re-elected – they thought Romney was a sure winner. It’s kind of fun being one of only 2 people out of 11 family members who is liberal, it makes for interesting “discussions” when the subject turns to any national issue.

  27. stonetools says:

    Its not really a matter of bias that Rosen is mad about. What he is concerned about is hard-news gathering and analysis (reporting on Egypt, investigation into white collar crime and environmental abuses, etc) versus tabloid journalism( murder trials, sex scandals, commentary etc). The problem is that hard-news reporting is hard and costly, whereas tabloid journalism is easy and profitable (draws more eyeballs).
    Rosen argues that there might be ways to make hard-news gathering and analysis interesting and therefore profitable , but admits that he doesn’t know how. I think we are going to have to admit that the juicy details of the Zimmerman trial are just more attractive to most members of the US public than the grievances of the Muslim Brotherhood. What’s more, to maintain a foreign bureau to report on those grievances is going to be more expensive than hiring some pundit to bloviate about the Muslim Brotherhood from the safety of a TV studio.
    The result is going to be pressure on CNN to do less hard news reporting and more coverage of murder trials and punditry, especially if such a shift in emphasis results in higher ratings, as it indeed did. So onward more Zimmerman and Crossfire, less reporting direct from Egypt, much less the Congo.

  28. David Crisp says:

    Not sure how much weight you are asking “tacitly” to carry here, but I’ve never heard Fox journalists “admit that they’re in the business of catering to a specific ideological subset of the news market.” It’s all “fair and balanced” and “we report, you decide” every time I turn it on.

    Only MSNBC is honest about its biases.

  29. Matt Bernius says:

    @stonetools:

    The problem is that hard-news reporting is hard and costly, whereas tabloid journalism is easy and profitable (draws more eyeballs).

    Look, again, your terminology is just not correct here.

    Hard journalism can be profitable, as in not running as in “paying all the bills and not running at a deficit.”

    The issue isn’t *profit* but *scale of profit*.

    Talking heads punditry is, unfortunately, (far) *more profitable* than “real journalism” work. But that *doesn’t mean* real journalism isn’t profitable.

    At least in the case of CNN and other news organizations held by large corporations, this isn’t an issue of “is it profitable” but “is it profitable ENOUGH.”

    This is a critical turn in the last twenty to thirty years of broadcast and newspaper news in the US. Prior to that, at least in broadcast, the goal of news departments *was not to make a profit.*

    Things changed in the 70’s, in part to the beginnings of the concept of diversified holdings and growth through acquisition. The fact is that news in recent years has truly begun to suffer because of these models.

    Yes, doing “real journalism” (i.e. multi-bureau, investigative work) is expensive. And the scale that was achievable during the mid 20th century isn’t viable any more (for a variety of reasons). But again, the fact is that news is (generally speaking) still profitable. It’s just that the nature of the market has changed to the point where corporations are expected to squeeze ever ounce of profit out of their holdings in order to show “growth” (note the very intentional scare quotes there as much of the “growth” we are talking about is purely illusory).

    Again, let me be clear, news is profitable. The problem is and continues to be that it is not profitable enough to meet the needs of Investors — especially when other holdings of media companies really go south and news organizations (in particular newspapers, which for a long period, appeared to be printing money) were expected to make up the difference.

  30. lou says:

    What Matt Bernius said. In the 70s, 60 Minutes was consistently one of the top rated shows in the country. But it’s a lot cheaper to be infotainment and wrack up a 25% profit margin instead of a 15% one.

    True story: I used to be a reporter in the 90s. I knew it was time to get out when the paper froze open positions because the company hadn’t made its profit margin for the year — a 23% target. News organizations keep cutting back — and not giving people the news. Then people stop watching or reading and news organizations, and the death spiral continues.