Produced by CNN
Reviewed by Lindsey Eck
Wednesday, September 5 2001, 2:45 PM
Like a Jenny Jones guest, CNN's Headline News received a complete makeover at the beginning of August. The result is a cheap dye job that only accents an increasingly obvious lack of substance.
By "the job," I mean the garish blue background with swatches of black and green that makes it appear as though CNN has relocated from Atlanta to Las Vegas. But it isn't the colors that give Headline News its peculiar appearance. It's the division of the TV screen into rectangular zones that throw factoids, maps, graphics, and one-liners at the viewer, several at once, while the announcer continues her or his (usually her) jovial narration from a screen-within-the-screen.
The talking head is rendered diminutive; call it Shrunken Head-line News. Or perhaps the effect is a ventriloquist's dummy. And here form follows content, as today's CNN is essentially a wooden puppet mouthing the voice of its corporate parent, AOL/TimeWarner.
The network's current owners dispatched TIME magazine czar Walter Isaacson to undo the vision of founding mogul Ted Turner. Gone is any story longer than a few seconds on Headline News. The tendency is tabloid -- Gary Condit, fires, shark attacks with little attention to, say, the budget deficit. Whereas Turner's Headline News reflected his internationalism (such as his support for the UN,) Isaacson's version plays down global coverage as apparently not appealing to the younger demographic to which CNN aims to pander. The busy, desktop-like layout is supposed to entice the video-game generation, but is Tomb Raider really a better model for a half-hour news show than it was for a feature film? Stories and snippets flash across the screen in such bustling, blooming confusion that even the Gen X viewer will soon be reaching for the Ritalin.
True, CNN always had its venal moments and Turner had his blind spots. And, compared to CNN's eponymous channel, Headline Newswas always superficial news-on-the-fly. But it was also on Headline News that we watched the destruction of Sarajevo via its view of the city's skyline, its single tall building defenestrated and ruined, hour by hour, chunk by chunk. Today's CNN embarrassingly revealed its inadequacy at covering the Hainan spy plane incident because it lacks a Beijing bureau. All of AOL's billions, it seems, cannot maintain key overseas bureaus or a staff of investigative reporters.
While several critics have seen fit to ridicule the new look of Headline News, none to my knowledge has noted that the look isn't really new at all. It's little more than a pastiche of Bloomberg's crawling infowindow -- with fewer typos, even more quickie headlines, and added psychedelic colors. Bloomberg's finance-oriented service for years has featured homunculi in the corner and snappy one-liners at the bottom of the screen. The one-liners, in turn, are derivative of the state-by-state wrapup of USA Today. The "new" Headline News is so, shall we say, Second Millennium?
If the format of Headline News copies Bloomberg, CNN's emulation of Fox shows in its hiring of NYPD Blue hottie Andrea Thompson as a news anchor. Fox News fields a cheerleading squad of mostly blonde anchorettes but pretends they are "journalists" and "analysts." CNN drops the pretense. If the job of anchor consists of little more than reading someone else's script, why not hire a sexy actress to do it? Again this is not 21st-century thinking, but television's old soft sell. The alluring spokesbabe retails information as if it were beer or a new SUV.
Isaacson is said to be running scared in the face of growing competition from Fox and the CNBC/MSNBC (that is, GE-Dow Jones-Microsoft) colossus, though it is hard to show that Fox is actually taking viewers from CNN. Isaacson raised eyebrows by traveling to Capitol Hill to quiz right-wing pols on how CNN could attract more conservative viewers. Again, Isaacson appears ready to out-Fox Fox: While Murdoch's pet propagandists make "fair and balanced" their specious slogan, Isaacson is obvious in his plan to tack right. In a move certain to rile many, CNN has admitted to negotiations to bring propagandist Rush Limbaugh back to the tube. In ignoring the lesson of Limbaugh's previous failure on the small screen, magazine-guy Isaacson shows his lack of understanding of television as a "hot" medium, to quote Marshall McLuhan. Viewers won't tolerate an angry, threatening liar foaming up their living room whom they might allow on a "cool" medium like radio. In reality, even AOL probably can't afford Limbaugh, but Laura Schlessinger failed on television and Limbaugh would fail again.
The history of popular media suggests that CNN's attempt to gain market share by tempting away Fox's or NBC's right-wing cable viewers will backfire. CNN will at best be half-hearted in spewing one-sided pro-business propaganda; it has done too much actual news for too long to be good at dressing up hype and disinformation as news. And the diversion of Headline News to trivia about lottery winners and plane crashes leaves the thinking viewer -- oe one that would rather hear about the Macedonian civil war than about Chandra Levy's disappearance -- where to turn on cable. Isaacson's gambit is likely to gain few right-wing believers while losing long-time viewers as the network shrugs off its hard-won illusion of objectivity.
Even within the narrow view of Wall Street, imitating Fox might be a poor move right now, since News Corp. recently reported disappointing earnings for its Fox TV operations.
CNN may choose to play Burger King to Fox News' McDonald's (or Bloomberg in the Box) but the E. coli contaminating the national discourse is all of the same strain.