I watch 24 hour cable news networks solely for comedy value at this point. They serve no other purpose. Fox News is and forever shall be the king of journalism as unintentional comedy, of course. Their daily exercise in self-parody must be seen to be believed. However, over the past year CNN has been nearly as fun to watch. The network's disintegration – economic, professional, and psychological – has been a thing of absolute wonder to watch. They managed to finish fifth in the ratings this month, behind Fox, MSNBC (not exactly a ratings juggernaut itself over the years), its sister network HLN, and, somehow, CNBC. Every new ratings stumble sends them into greater paroxysms of desperation. And thus the viewers will never come back; we all know that desperation is a big turn-off, and CNN has it in spades.
Its mission to re-brand itself as the bland, centrist, Beltway consensus alternative to Fox and MSNBC at the outset of the 2012 election succeeded – CNN is now an inoffensive dish of lukewarm water between the fire and ice of its more partisan rivals. This hasn't helped the ratings one bit, as it turns out that no one wants to watch mushy nonsense delivered with no position or perspective. It appears that their current mission, perhaps inspired by their ratings boost from saturation coverage of the Haitian earthquake in 2010, is to brand themselves the Breaking News network. If it's sudden and sensational and absolutely needs to be covered to death for weeks on end, CNN is your huckleberry.
This emphasis on sensational breaking news stories, and the concomitant need to Be First in breaking all the Big News, played out to hilarious effect during the Boston marathon bombing. The network provided one of the most jaw-droppingly awful spectacles in the history of journalism as producers argued, I assume, over ordering Wolf Blitzer to commit seppuku live via satellite. This failure only motivated the network to redouble its efforts. Whenever disaster strikes – particularly natural disasters and school shootings – they beat the drum louder and longer than any of their competitors.
And that is why all of their coverage, such as the recent hysterical coverage of the Philippine typhoon, feels so goddamn tacky = they seem like they're excited by disasters. To see this coverage is to wonder if network policy forbids filming their field reporters from the waist down so as not to reveal their massive hard-ons. It is plausible to argue that the news media play an important role in the early stages of disasters. But CNN's coverage is more Debris Porn than Information Clearinghouse. No sooner did the storm strike than Anderson Cooper was parachuted in to show us rubble, rubble, more rubble, and some corpses. They're giving this story the full court press not because it is important to their American audience but to exploit the suffering for the kinds of lurid images of death and destruction that they hope will capture viewers' attention for a few days. They will argue that they are doing it to help the victims, perhaps not even aware that whatever line exists between public-minded journalism and exploitation has been obliterated. Unfortunately for CNN, too many of us recognize the difference between voyeurism / disaster porn and a sincere concern for the well being of the victims. Hint: The blaring DEATH TOLL counter on the screen kinda gives it away.