The mystery of CNN 2014

How does CNN’s new ‘infotainment’ strategy affect journalism?

CNN's coverage of the missing aircraft has propelled ratings upward [EPA]

CNN took off with the Malaysian airliner’s disappearance, and still hasn’t landed. It has been flying high in the ratings for its unrelenting coverage of the mystery of “Malaysia Airlines Flight 370”.

Even when it became known that the plane wasn’t lost, hijacked, let alone snatched by extra terrestrial powers – but that unfortunately, it had crashed into the sea – CNN continued to lead with the search for the plane’s debris and inquiries into the causes of the crash. It has been the top story day in and day out.  

When it became known that all 239 passengers are believed dead, CNN didn’t lower the flag and didn’t lower its guard. Its top guns continued to lead, soliciting experts’ opinions, conducting flight simulations, deciphering satellite imagery – anything to keep its viewers glued to their TV sets.

And it has been widely ridiculed for it. But before you laugh, it’s worth considering if CNN is onto something here. At least commercially.

According to the rating group Nielsen, CNN’s viewership in the weeks after the plane went missing was up 84 percent. (During that same period, Fox News has seen an uptick of only two percent, while MSNBC is down 11 percent.)

So what is the vanguard of cable news up to? Is this a watershed moment in its short history similar to the iconic live coverage of the US bombings at the break of the first Iraq in 1991, with Peter Arnett reporting: “The skies over Baghdad have been illuminated”? 

Is it a coverage by default or by design? The culmination of calculated strategy to steer the network away from hard news? Many questions beg for answers.

Reporting fact-based fiction

This is not the first time a news network takes ownership of a story that’s not hard (political) news. The OJ Simpson murder trial became an obsession for many outlets, just as the recent South Africa murder trial was gathering steam before the airliner disappeared.

But unlike these other mysteries that involved covering real trials featuring forensic evidence, witnesses etc, the airliner coverage has been primarily based on speculations, guessing and outright fiction rather than actual or real news.

And when facts were reported, all too often they had very little to do with the actual resolution of the mystery – the whereabouts of the airliner. 

In short, once the main event was established – ie, the airliner’s disappearance from the radar – countless irrelevant facts were presented to support fictional scenarios. Anything goes, from the airliner’s size to the ocean’s size were made available. 

So for example, the network reported satellite finding of objects floating in the ocean – 122 to be precise – but had absolutely no way of knowing whether these were indeed from the airliner. They staged their own flight simulation of the flight, to no avail.

But 25 days later, there was nothing new to report other than the airliner most likely crashed. 

Meanwhile, the coverage was interwoven with dramatic stories of the passengers and the tragedies that have befallen their families to keep the story real… and interesting!

The mystery continued with new emphasis on causes, responsibilities, etc.

Genius or ingenious

The man behind the bold and strategic decision to embrace the airliner’s story and go all out, full wall-to-wall coverage, is CNN president Jeff Zucker.

He’s been all-smiles since the release of the new ratings showing “a record-setting month for CNN’s digital platforms, including record-high page views, video streams and mobile traffic”.

Under Zucker, the digital part of the CNN operation has expanded like no other in 2013, the best year in its history. Its website “commands more traffic than almost any other legacy media organisation”, like NBC, Fox or The New York Times.

“It had an average of 2.4 billion total global page views per month and more than 150 million monthly video starts,” according to Politico.

Zucker was brought in to turn CNN around after its ratings hit a 20-year low. He’s been recognised as the TV executive who succeeded in introducing “infotainment” – information fused with entertainment – through the “Today” show, making it the most watched morning-infotainment series and, wildly profitable for NBC. 

And he wasn’t going to disappoint. As soon as Zucker stepped in to lead at the end of 2012, he pledged to “remain true to the journalistic values that have always been the hallmark of CNN, and continue to broaden the definition of what news is”.

He later added: “We live in a world where nonfiction programming comes in many forms… News is not just about politics and war and I think that’s something you’ll see us think a lot about as well.”

Clearly, they have thought about it. Embraced it. And executed it.

Media vs journalism

In a world swamped with new and social media, where people have instant access to news, hard and soft, the “airliner mystery” coverage demonstrates how CNN under Zucker’s leadership is trying to survive the “cable news” era that it once spearheaded, through a combination of information and drama, or “infodrama”, in addition to its infotainment.

And it’s working. It’s wreaking havoc in the ratings, attracting advertisers and dollars. But how does this new media strategy by Zucker & Co affect journalism? It’s one thing to expand the definition of news; but it’s another thing to transform (deform?) journalism.

Perhaps the most intriguing, not to say annoying thing about the whole affair, is what appears to be CNN journalists’ acquiescence to the new marching orders. I mean, it’s not like they all wake up every morning thinking: I must cover the Malaysia Airlines story today any which way and try my best to ignore the rest of the world. 

These seasoned journalists know all too well, that “Malaysia, Truly Asia” is only a slogan used by Malaysia Tourism. They know that there’s a whole world beyond Malaysia, a world full of tragedies and mysteries to report.

PS, I/we are indebted to those in CNN and other networks who’ve taken the time to show solidarity with our imprisoned colleagues in Egypt.

Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera.