I recently found myself on CNN.com, looking for the original clip referenced by another article. When I got to the front page, I was genuinely shocked by how few of the “Featured” articles seemed to feature news. Some (“Teen kicked out of SCRABBLE tourney”) merely struck me as fluffy, interest pieces better suited for Yahoo! News. Others, however, bore no resemblance whatsoever to “news.” “How to deal with your kid’s weird friends”? “Check out guy’s jerk of a cat”? “The search for a shirtless Paul Ryan”? CNN seemed to have turned into a dumping ground for funny clips and stories from around the web.
By no means am I suggesting that the baffling set of articles above is the only thing that CNN can do. Too often, however, the news organization that prides itself on its non-biased approach shows its true bias: fluff. Some might criticize me for expecting anything more of one of the organizations that flubbed the announcement of the ACA Supreme Court Decision. Or for seeking news from an organization that just today “Featured” an article entitled “Is Taylor Swift a Stage 5 Clinger?” Beyond being outside the bounds of what many might consider news and far into the realm of gossip and speculation, the article relies on misuse of a phrase popularized by the movie Wedding Crashes. CNN appears to be falling victim to the oft-discussed creep of infotainment.
A recent episode of The Newsroom, a show that warrants criticism and consideration of its own, featured a heated debate about the value of featuring infotainment in the form of the 2011 Casey Anthony trial. When a failure to cover the trial results in a ratings drop, Reese Lansing yells at MacKenzie McHale (yes, affectedly cute), “You have an obligation to the advertisers.” This prompts her firey Sorkinese response, “No you have an obligation to the advertisers. I have an obligation to the viewers.”
With the 24-hour news cycle and the demands of Web 2.0 and all the other media catch phrases that exist, McHale’s retort begs the question “Where does the obligation lie?” Advertisers? Audiences? Truth? Many people point to “infotainment” as a way of fulfilling obligations to both audiences and advertisers: give people the entertainment they want disguised as news and they’ll keep coming back. What of truth? That’s a battle for another day.
Clearly this is an issue that goes far beyond CNN, but I pick on them because I fail to see where they put the “info” in their infotainment. The “jerk of a cat” video belongs to the world of casual Tweets and Facebook timelines. “How to deal with your kid’s weird friends” steps further away from the news into the realm of parenting blogs and internet advice. It seems that in the absence of real news CNN steps away from its news obligation and into the realm of internet scavenger. Should the organization fall into that trap too often it runs the risk of undermining what bit of credibility it has as a news provider.
It would seem that for now CNN will continue to populate its website with fluff articles and cat videos whenever the news seems slow. In the meantime it’s up to us to consider what it means when a major news organization is allowed to post so little real news. Is it because we put unreasonable demands on them for a constant stream of information? Or because we don’t expect any more of them? It’s time to hold news organizations responsible for moving away from infotainment and into, heaven forbid, the news.