Why CNN Should Be More Like The Atlantic

CNN is in trouble. Primetime viewers are down 40 percent in the last year. First quarter Nielsen ratings showed the network continuing to lose ground to Fox News and even falling behind MSNBC. How should the network shape up to compete in a world of partisan news and character-driven ratings?

It should be more like TheAtlantic.com.

After you've rolled your eyes and written this author off as utterly entrenched and prejudiced toward his employer, step back and think about what this suggestion would mean. As NYU's Jay Rosen wrote, a galvanizing alt-lineup for CNN primetime might include an 8PM show hosted by a liberal, a 9pm show hosted by a conservative, and a 10pm show with a libertarian. This sounds smart. It also sounds like Voices.

CNN should rebrand itself as "the voice from everywhere" rather than "the voice from nowhere." It should be analysis with attitude. Its hosts should strive for broadmindedness while approaching controversial news topics with disclosed and well-understood biases. In a nutshell, it should be more like TheAtlantic.com. What would that mean?

First, that would mean scrapping the painstaking centrism that Wolf Blitzer has turned into high art. Out with The Situation Room, Wolf's late-afternoon motley of chatty diffidence. In with something like Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish: Live! A televised Daily Dish would be a spicier stir fry of issues with a loud, idiosyncratic, hard-to-place-on-the-spectrum host who isn't afraid to clear his throat. You'd want someone with a reputation for skewering all-comers, but also someone who loves sharing the stage with a motley crew of commentators from wonky political scientists to tech futurists ... with some loopy mental health breaks along the way. Rather than a show that hopes to offend nobody, it would be a show that aims to entertain, no matter whom it offends.

Second, it would mean transforming a lineup of famously middle-of-the-road hosts into a ragtag roster of opinionated blokes who mouth off on big issues, and then open the forum up to comments. This isn't a new model for television. Bill O'Reilly often opens with a piquant sermon and then invites guests to scream at. CNN could protect its trademarked even-mindedness by finding hosts who are (or seem) open to dissent. But the important thing is to find a talking head who draws lines in the sand, stakes out turf on important topics, and defends that turf against criticism. That's how to make drama, and it's how to tell to partisan (all) cable news viewers: "make your home here." What's Megan's position on health care reform? Her readers know. That's why they read her. So what's Anderson Cooper's?

Finally Rosen is right that cable news is wrong to cede the valuable ground of peppery media fact checking to Comedy Central. Jon Stewart and his crack team are exceptional at taking a pol's or media personality's latest over-statement, finding an old quote that embarrasses that over-statement, and closing with a kicker. This is more than fact-checking. It's about finding an amusing and bemused host with his or her finger on the zeitgeist who can play gotcha without seeming petty. That cable news won't successfully recreate The Daily Show is not a good enough argument against trying.

CNN needs to look at itself and ask: Why should viewers be interested in following the opinions of hosts who don't really seem to have opinions? This is an age of loud mouths and transparency. It's an age of speak-your-mind and show-your-cards. Out with the old non-partisan bi-partisan post-partisan! model, where each side gets 30 seconds to make canned points to a disinterested host that evaporate at the commercial break. In with something more like a broadcast op-ed page, something more like this: of all parties and cliques.