Earlier this year, Jeff Zucker was given the controls to CNN, the original 24 hour news channel. Pioneering in the 80s, world-changing in the 90s, afterthought in the 2000s. Jeff’s solution – a race to the bottom. So here is my bitter concern – I have 300 channels that have found business models to make housewives, hairdressers, swamp hunters, pawn brokers, and even handball profitable in 24 hour cycles. But somehow, we can’t find a 24 hour news channel that makes international news profitable.
It’s a fundamental problem with America. We’ve always prided ourselves on being isolated from the issues facing the rest of the world. Occasionally, we get caught up in things and look outward, but that’s only when we are forced; and we tend to get bored with other people’s problems quickly.
But, perhaps, there’s a Jeff Zucker out there who can think more creatively. Maybe instead of assuming people want Nancy Grace screaming at them before bed, or mind-numbing morning shows like New Day dumbing up their mornings, people just want better reporting, delivered in more interesting ways. It’s not going to be that simple, Jeff would probably say. But if someone figured out how to make storage lockers interesting, can’t someone do the same with African elections?
When Jeff was hired, I thought maybe there was a chance he’d do something brave with CNN – they already have HLN for the tabloids, so he was freed up to really make CNN an awesome news channel. But he defaulted to the easy – ramping up the brightness, cutting the substance, and starting a long, slow decline into the many circles of talking head hell. When the Egypt coup was put in a small box at the bottom of the screen so live coverage of the Zimmerman trial could continue, I knew we were in for a bumpy ride.
So why does it really matter? Well, for starters, over the last decade we’ve fought in multiple wars, suffered through the worst recession/depression in the living memory of America, and have fallen way behind on far too many global indicators. All the while thinking Jodi Arias was the center of attention. We’ve been blinded and comforted by our lack of awareness of the world around us, and the consequences are real. Most of the world still follows our news, so that says we’re still relevant – but they follow so many more things, often more important than what we focus on (except for Cricket – I can’t fathom why so many people follow Cricket). How many Chinese know who the President of the US is? How many Americans know who Xi Jinping is? I’m guessing it’s a fairly lopsided result – and that’s a problem, I think. How can we be competitive with a country we don’t bother to understand at even a basic level? Multiply that times 200 plus countries, all paying attention to us, without us paying a lick of attention to them. For you sports fans, there’s a reason teams hire scouts. Knowledge is power, they say.
And beyond competiveness, there’s a strategic need too. Understanding other countries, their history, leadership, culture, and key issues isn’t just for a desk analyst over at the State Department – – but since the audience of this blog is mostly people at the Department, let me say how much we appreciate all you do! Policy often follows perception; and influencing those perceptions through more fully developed understanding is not a bad thing. Would America be more engaged with Pakistan if our population followed the elections and understood the new leadership’s inclination to have a more positive relationship with both the US and India? Probably. Has CNN, or Fox, or really anyone else in the US with a camera talked about that? Not that I’ve seen. Would we be more concerned about our fiscal state if we saw the European crisis as more than Greeks not paying their taxes? Probably. If we followed the histories, struggles, and suffering of Spain, Portugal, and Ireland, among others, would we give our leaders a little more slack to make hard decisions? Maybe. Leaders follow their constituents, and when the perspectives of those constituents are limited, policy suffers. That’s bad.
Go further down, look at any issue – energy, climate change, food security, terrorism. When was the last time you saw a major news network report on one of those issues without naval gazing? Point is, even when we do look globally, it’s usually out of self interest (Cuba) or novelty (North Korea).
I get it; 24 hour news in a global setting is expensive. But other countries have found ways to make it work. And they are better off for it. I see tons of people walking around reading the Economist, Foreign Policy, the New York Times…is there really no way to present televised news in a similar, interesting way? Even Apple added the Sky News Live Stream to a very limited Apple TV selection – doesn’t that say something? It seems the audience is there. If it’s just a space issue for the cable providers, I’m totally willing to let one of the existing channels go to make room for a world news channel.
All of this to say – Jeff Zucker, you’ve now been charged with saving American news. Use the same creativity that got you where you are to pioneer a new model. It’s actually pretty important.