Posted by: The moderator | April 2, 2010

Saving CNN

There’s an article over at the Atlantic arguing that CNN can cease its downward spiral in viewership by becoming more like the Atlantic. Derek Thompson argues that CNN should provide shows with opinionated hosts, each with their own clearly identifiable bias. A liberal show would be followed by a conservative one, followed in turn by a libertarian. That, he argues, would provide more balance and energetic debate than Wolf Blitzer’s futile attempts at sterilized centrism.

Here’s the problem… we’ve already got two other networks trying the same thing, except one side of the spectrum always reigns supreme. The Atlantic suggests CNN should just run an O’Reilly Factor clone back-to-back with a knockoff of Keith Olberman’s Countdown. But which one gets the better timeslot? What happens when one outshines the other? Will the ratings race ultimately decide a winner?

What if we tried putting opinionated hosts together, like two competing columns on the same page of a magazine? Fox tried a balanced show once, Hannity and Colmes. The problem with that show was that Colmes turned out to be just a token liberal for Hannity to dominate. Today, Hannity has his own show on Fox News while Colmes has been banished to radio. CNN even tried a balanced debate program for many years called Crossfire, but the opinionated hosts proved to be too much for each other to handle and the discussions often devolved into rehearsed partisan hackery with no real debate.

Opinion pieces are fine in moderation, but giving each side its own show (or megaphone) to shout their talking points even louder just sounds like more of the same polarized trash we can find elsewhere on basic cable.

Ultimately, I find it hard for the Atlantic to provide meaningful advice for CNN. The Atlantic was once the premier news and literary magazine in the country. Along with old competitors McClure’s and Harper’s, the Atlantic Monthly dominated policy debates and public opinion for most of the 19th Century. Then Time, Newsweek, and Foreign Affairs showed up, pushing the Atlantic to a niche market it shares with the New Republic and the American Spectator. While I recognize the prestige the Atlantic has built up for over 150 years, I can’t help thinking that the magazine’s best years are behind them, drawing an unsettling parallel to CNN.

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