What’s Wrong with CNN?
16 Jan 2019 – CNN presents itself as the most ‘trusted name in news’ available to the TV viewing public. Of course, this claim of integrity is to be greatly valued if the news channel lives up to such a standard when fairly scrutinized. Democracy, in the complex circumstances of modernity, depends on trust to remain viable. In an important sense CNN seems trustworthy. To the best of its ability it appears to search for and impart the truth with respect to its coverage. Unlike the American president, it does not lie or deliver ‘fake news.’ And for most issues it gives both sides of the story, and doesn’t keep shifting the goal posts to alter the narrative.
But is this record of honesty enough to make CNN trustworthy? I think not.
In recent months, and really ever since the 2016 presidential campaign, CNN, along with the rest of the mainstream media, has been Trump obsessed. At least, compared to Fox, CNN adopts a highly critical stance in evaluating the daily episodes in this ongoing cruel and dangerous Trump soap opera. Surely, such an irresponsible and unscrupulous leadership deserves probing criticism and extensive coverage, but not at the price of erasing the rest of the world as well as much of the news agenda on the home front. This is what CNN has done, at least on the coverage provided by its national channel. CNN International is more inclusive in its coverage, but for CNN in the United States, it has seemingly decided that this is ‘the Trump Century’ rather than ‘The American Century.’ Such an obsession is a travesty on the reality of our 21stcentury world, and a distorting service to its devoted watching audience.
It is quite astounding to tune into the nightly broadcasts on CNN featuring Anderson Cooper, Andrew Cuomo, and Don Lemon as successive anchors. They not only devote their entire coverage to the latest revelations of the Special Counsel regarding various aspects of the interaction between the Trump entourage and Russia, but they repeat one another, somewhat varying only the talking heads, most of whom are invited to make recurrent guest appearances. Not only this, but these news commentators seem in such an uncontainable self-congratulatory mood that they have initiated a new media trope. Instead of ending their program and proceeding to the next one, these familiar faces exchange lengthy and supportive comments with one another on the latest Trump maneuver, laughing with undisguised appreciation of each other’s ironic takes. I find this to be an increasingly tedious display of irrelevance. If this is what it means to be trusted, I might soon opt for some version of the untrustworthy. Indeed, allowing Trump to suck up all the oxygen is not so different over time than falling in line as Trumpsters would wish. This devotion to Trump may be the work of the market advisors that call the shots at CNN, which makes it both understandable, and in its way, even worse.
Erasure of all that is newsworthy but non-Trump is only part of the problem. Distortion and indoctrination are also present, especially when the Trump news touches on the Pentagon, CIA, Wall Street, and Israel. Here the celebrity anchors rely on experts who are loyalists of the ‘bipartisan consensus’ (what traditional Republicans and establishment Democrats agree about, except for tactical nuances) that has dominated American approach to the world ever since 1945. This has meant taking neoliberal post-Cold War capitalism, global militarism, and the special relationship with Israel off the table of responsible debate. Most of CNN’s experts are retirees from the upper echelons of the national security establishment, stalwarts of Washington think tanks, or senior advisors to recent presidents. Never do we hear from a single progressive voice, nor even from those that believe the crisis is structural, requiring thought and action outside the box. Alan Dershowitz is welcome to talk in defense of the Trump presidency or Israel, but never Noam Chomsky. It is this leaning to the right that most makes CNN untrustworthy in my eyes. It shuts out the light with respect to the most compelling issues facing the country and the world, and limits news coverage to fifty shades of gray.
In many respects, the New York Times shares this deference to this anachronistic bipartisan consensus. It is more useful than CNN because it realizes that ‘all the news fit to print’ includes happenings in the world other than the Trump escapades. The Times even occasionally gives space sometimes to left-leaning critics, and its own opinion writers include Michelle Goldberg and Paul Krugman, both of whom are ready to challenge some of those fixed orthodoxies that have imposed their discipline on American policy regardless of whether Democrats or Republicans are in control of the White House. Of course, the right is also amply represented by the generally thoughtful conservative musings of David Brooks and the more abrasive forays of Bret Stephens. Yet when it comes to Brexit, Syria, Yemen, and Latin America the news coverage of the Times is invaluably comprehensive and generally reliable except if it touches on such no-go zones as Venezuela or the BDS Campaign.
Also, CNN in America is treated as the poster child of the mainstream media. MSNBC, its main supposedly liberal competitor, is only marginally better. MSNBC also drones on and on while doing its version of ‘the daily Trump show,’ and invites the same sort of dreary guests who make their living inside the Beltway, and hence burn few bridges to the portals of power in Washington. We might have hoped that dissident TV as provided by Vice or Al Jazeera would fill the void, but somehow they have not so far risen to the challenge of offering a different slant on what transpires day by day.
What is at stake goes beyond trust. It concerns what we need to know if we are to act responsibly and effectively as engaged citizens. What we need to know goes to the roots, who we are collectively as a people, and what are the real threats to our security, and even our civilizational and biological survival. We should all know by now, or should know, that we live in a political system that is more accurately identified as a ‘plutocracy’ than a ‘democracy,’ especially when it comes to political parties and the electoral process. Many have long been aware that the TV and print media, along with publishing, is market driven, and corporatized. As a consequence, political discourse is limited to center/right dialogues.
The main trouble is that we need center/left thinking to challenge the bipartisan consensus that has always been center/right, incorporating market and ‘deep state’ bureaucratic forces. In part, the left has lost its voice after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was persuasively (mis)interpreted in the West in ways that designed to wipe socialism off the political map of societal option. At present, climate change, global inequality, emerging technologies of war, artificial intelligence, robotics, genetic engineering, and nuclear weaponry are posing unprecedented challenges that are global in scope and bioethical in depth. In view of this there exists a need for an untethered political, moral, and cultural imagination as never before. We find imaginative innovative responses in pockets of resistance scattered around the country and the world. The recent midterm American elections produced a few women winners with radical messages, which suggests that the national body politic is not yet readied.
Yet until CNN listens, most of the rest of us will not hear or heed what needs to be known and done. At best, we will take refuge in struggling for feasible change unaware that what is necessary is not feasible within existing political and economic structures. At worst, we will be herded by demagogues into death camps or maybe stay alive by some mixture of escapism and denialism.
What we urgently need is a politics freed from the constraints of the feasible, and energized by an awareness of the necessary and desirable.
Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, author, co-author or editor of 40 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies, and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is Achieving Human Rights (2009).
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