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In Praise of New Media: Let Tabloid TV Off the Hook

Watching the back and forth of media critics turning on CNN is better than a tennis match. The cable network got in trouble last week for covering the Zimmerman trial and relegating the events in Egypt to a sidebar. Media critic Jay Rosen was taken to task by Jack Shafer in Reuters who praised CNN’s tabloid television, noting that we shouldn’t blame CNN for finally having a strategy, that tabloid television serves the networks ratings, and also stands in for civics lessons:

 To be fair, the best tabloid TV contains more nourishment than any burger and fries platter, even if it will always be déclassé… Most of what a layman needs to know about police investigations, police interrogations, witness rights, evidentiary standards, jury selection, and courtroom strategy can be found in Grace’s shriekings and those of her commentators. A week’s worth of her Zimmerman coverage probably contains as much civic education as any half-dozen Frontline documentaries on PBS.

 

I usually stand in Rosen’s corner when he takes journalists to task, but in the case of CNN, I’m leaning the other way. But not because I think tabloid television in any way serves the public. It’s more because I’m excited to watch cable news networks hang themselves. They don’t do breaking news very well anymore — watching the manhunt after the Boston Marathon bombings was painful — so let them play with ‘if it bleeds, it leads.” Yes, CNN used to be something better, maybe, but now it’s not.

I was playing with the idea that when it comes to breaking news, I think you can find more information, up to the minute, and accurate to boot, online. Following various correspondents on Twitter from the ground, reading long form analysis on any number of news magazines that excel in reporting on complicated politics. But then Buzzfeed went ahead and tried to explain the whole thing in gifs. There’s very little difference between CNN’s yearning for our eyeballs and Buzzfeed’s need to be shared.
Of course, this is all happening while Gannett and Tribune Co. worked out deals to acquire local broadcasting outlets. This is interesting only because the two conversations — old and new media journalistic standards and print behemoths moving toward broadcasting — seem to be about the short term. There’s a whole future of smart televisions saturating the market and increasingly disaggregated audiences looming before us. That’s why media critics like Rosen, and thousands of people in Cairo, need to be heard when they ask outlets that claim to be of a journalistic nature step up, ratings and click-thrus be damned.

Media outlets that value the act of journalism, are open to innovation, and perfect their schtick in the name of engagement, will come out on top no matter the platform. Let CNN, and cable news in general, spend their last days as they wish, even if that means watching a jury trial, in full, no breaks. They’re not long for this world.

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