The Wrong Medicine

Tuning in to CNN these days feels like visiting the hospital room of an old friend dying a slow, painful death. You linger for a bit, motivated by both a vague sense of loyalty and—let's face it—a sick fascination at the horror of it all.

The good times come rushing back. Watching missiles rain on Baghdad from Room 906 of the Al-Rashid Hotel. Crazy Ross telling Larry King he'll run for President. Wolf Blitzer, breathless again, on the lawn at 1600. All gone. What was once a vital force is now just a pair of desperate, dark-circled eyes staring out from a mess of tubes and machinery.

Soon the pain and pathos are too much to take—no sentient person can be expected to watch Burden of Proof straight through—and you have to get out of there. Click, and you're back in the land of the living, of network news (also terminal, but the picture of health next to CNN) and the new cable kings, go-go MSNBC and scalding-hot Fox News.

Inside the media sweat lodge, one hears two reactions to the decline of CNN. The first is pure schadenfreude. Last month, CNN employees received a memo from the company's chief news executive, Eason Jordan, explaining that 400 of them would soon be unemployed. Within hours, the text was flying around the Net, and the savage giggles were audible.

CNN's rivals had a wingding. The New York Post, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch, the archenemy of CNN founder Ted Turner, ran such gleeful headlines as: CNN's INHUMAN RESOURCES—NEWLY LAID-OFF ARE TREATED LIKE CRIMINALS. ABC invited one pink-slipped CNNer, on-air talent Laura Rowley, to appear on Good Morning America to share the gory details. Rowley dutifully described how, after she was called in and fired, her superiors told her she would now be escorted out of the building. "Escort you out, like, summarily?" asked Diane Sawyer, barely concealing her enchantment.

Schadenfreude is a natural, even therapeutic, response to wrack and ruin in one's peer group. But there's another common reaction to CNN's illness, and it's not so benign. In media circles, there's a widely held belief that during the 1990s, CNN simply lost its way, and all it needs to do now is return to its original self. That would be the bare-bones, seat-of-the-pants hard-news operation that won the world over in the 1980s and early '90s. "CNN Hopes Changes Revive Original Spirit," was the headline on a recent Cox News wire story, which explained that CNN's problem is that it's "no longer a lean, mean Ted machine." When Ted Turner himself told a gathering of employees this week that he was not retiring but staying on with CNN's new parent company, AOL Time Warner, he got louder cheers than either of AOL Time Warner's top dogs, Steve Case and Gerald Levin, who addressed the same gathering. The obvious implication was that the ghost of CNN's past could save its future, even as the network becomes an ever-smaller part of an ever-larger corporate machine.

The problem with this theory is that it's all about nostalgia, not reality. The qualities that made CNN shine back in 1980—24-hour service, news over glitz, a dedication to audiences beyond the United States—are no longer special. Cable news is now round-the-clock by definition. C-SPAN thrives on glitzlessness. Mini-CNNs have been founded to serve those foreign audiences on their own turf. And competition is fierce everywhere, but especially in hard news, the forte of the old CNN.

During the Florida recount, CNN was ignominiously bested by upstarts Fox and MSNBC. Among households receiving all three networks, CNN dramatically lost viewers during those five weeks, while the other two gained.

CNN can try to restore itself by trying to do what the other guys do. But that's a tall order. Both MSNBC (with which National Journal Group has a cooperative agreement) and Fox have in spades what it really takes to thrive in today's media market: identity. MSNBC's identity is increasingly defined by the Brian Williams/Chris Matthews/Tim Russert/Mike Barnicle strain of broadcast journalism, which is verbose, combative, and winsome in a certain Irish-American way (all four men have the requisite genes). It's the shamrock network.

Fox's identity is less stylistic, more ideological. It has a devoted constituency of conservatives who are ecstatic to finally have a network of their own. These are the people who have made Fox anchor Bill O'Reilly's book, The O'Reilly Factor, a national best-seller (further evidence of the Irish takeover).

The closest CNN ever comes to having an identity is when Headline News anchor Lynne Russell is on. Russell, who has had a cult following for years, stands out because she delivers the news like no one else. She pauses and smiles at odd moments, and rather than adopting the synthetically grave mien of most anchors, she seems to be actually having a good time up there. In short, she's a little weird.

And come to think of it, over the years CNN's most interesting people have been offbeat, not at all in the mold of the network smoothies. Think Bernie Shaw with his abrupt interview style. Or Christiane Amanpour with her posh-accented fierceness. Or Michael Kinsley in the vein-bulging apoplexies of his old Crossfire days. All those newsreaders who seemed deliberately neither young nor slick. Then there's Larry King, whose oddness needs no introduction. Curious ducks, every one, and all the more memorable for it.

Maybe, rather than resurrecting the old and tired, CNN should do something totally bold and new, create an identity that draws on its real strength. Maybe the time has come for The Weird Network. I'd definitely watch. Wouldn't you?