Monday, April 16, 2007

Christiane, CNN and Calamity

It was strangely comforting, on a day of such national tragedy, to accidentally find myself watching CNN's Christiane Amanpour collect a high honor and admonish the TV news industry to take itself more seriously. Too bad nobody at CNN evidently listens to her. But I'll get to that in a moment.

As the bodies were being counted on the bloodsoaked campus of Virginia Tech, Amanpour, probably the best television journalist of our age, was in Las Vegas to receive the Paul White Award for lifetime achievement at the Radio and TV News Directors Association (RTNDA) convention. The RTNDA is the journalism component of the mammoth National Association of Broadcasters convention that is occupying the entire 3 million square foot Las Vegas Convention Center as well as parts of the neighboring Las Vegas Hilton. I had been at NAB to do some interviews for a forthcoming New York Times piece that has nothing at all to do with Las Vegas, and I was about to leave when I saw the notice about Amanpour's honor, which had gone in the past to Edward R. Morrow, Walter Cronkite and others. So I stayed.

Amanpour gets most of her airtime on CNN International, where I first fell in love with her and her British brogue and severe bangs while living in Beijing and writing for USA Today in 2001. She's on often enough on CNN Domestic and her "In The Footsteps Of Bin Laden" is her latest brilliant output, but she's not on even enough for her to be a household name in America and that's a shame.

Amanpour railed tonight against the sort of journalism that caters to the lowest common denominator, insisting that the public hungers for higher-brow fare and exhorting her colleagues to do better. I don't believe that; I think our sated, overly secure and frivilous culture gets exactly what it "hungers" for, but it was nonetheless especially delightful to hear her toss off clever chestnuts like "Do we really want our generation ot be defined by the travails of the likes of Anna Nicole Smith?" or "Is our great debate going to be about Britney Spears' pate?"

What was strange was that at the very same time Amanpour was beating this drum, her colleagues were on the air churning out some of the most embarrassing and shallow coverage on the Virginia Tech campus. I caught about an hour shortly after the speech and what I found was Jon King trying to keep the wall-to-wall coverage going by standing on a deserted, dark campus grabbing random people to ask that idiotic "how's this feel?" question. He also announced the name of one dead student -- even as he admitted the police weren't disclosing it. Now, what the hell is that about? If the cops aren't saying, could it be the family hasn't been notified yet? Why would CNN need to give out a dead man's name -- just because they had it? Is the public that desperate for names of people they've never met? Would you as a viewer think, 'Ooh, they're the best! They gave out a dead guy's name! I better stick with them so I can find out the other dead people's names?"

CNN's coverage of this horror was Exhibit A of the sort of journalism Amanpour was rightly attacking. There was this extended piece where they interviewed some creepy criminologist named James Alan Fox (that's him to the left) with bad hair and crooked glasses who actually tried to imagine why the gunman killed 32 people today. He has no clue, we don't even know the killer's name, and CNN is happily pretending they have an "expert" who can divine the motive for this disaster.

Oh, and one more thing. Amanpour spoke to a crowd of mostly news directors of local TV stations. They weren't the ones who overplayed Anna Nicole. Sure, they may get into the crime and weather to excess, but Christiane need only turn to her own bosses if she wants to take on the dumbing down of TV journalism.