advice to cnn

I try hard not to write about my business, tv news. There is already an abundance of writers working the territory, and my theory – treat tv like you’re Bob Dylan or Duke Ellington – is so far from any reference point tv news people have that it’s, well, useless as a conversation starter.

But tonight, let me be direct: CNN, don’t try to do outrage. Leave it to Fox, which is the acknowledged master of stirring the pot.

I note this because of the unpleasant time I spent this evening watching Erin Burnett’s ‘Out Front,’ the latest attempt by CNN to get something, anything going in prime time. Burnett came over from CNBC, where she was one of that network’s bright young stars. Her transition to carrying a full, general interest news show has been strange; even though she’s definitely from the young and hip side of things in affect, the show feels like some 60 year old’s vision of what’s cool.

So tonight we got a run at populist outrage because the Congressional super-committee failed to reach a deal over the nation’s debt. The gist of Burnett and company’s message was ‘This is awful. These people just need to work together and get it done.’ There was also some vague handwaving about how bad the faIlure will be for America.

Unfortunately, the unfocused outrage, by definition, extends a premise that is unexamined – that everyone’s at fault, and needs to sack up in equal measure.

There are lots of reasons in the current debate to believe that’s not the case, and that Republicans are largely responsible for the mess. But even if you don’t believe that, it’s the job of journalism to subject assumptions to critical tests. In other words, don’t let facts turn into opinions.

So the Burnett show had no digging from a neutral party – say, a reporter – on what failed. It also didn’t address in any serious way what happens now. Finally, there was no attempt to lay out any alternatives, to say, ‘Well, they could have agreed to this, with this likely consequence, or that, with that consequence, or…”

And worst of all, there was an attempt to route around reality. Burnett warned of the potential for massive inflation – I think at one point she said something about 18% borrowing costs – and had a guest on to toss the apocalypse ball back and forth. Unfortunately, they couldn’t avoid the truth, which is that there is no inflation now, hasn’t been, and U.S. bonds are more in demand, at cheaper rates, than ever.

The explanation? We’re more desirable than anyone else because Europe’s a mess. But boy, wait until Europe settles down. Then we’re gonna get it.

This goes beyond glossing over unpleasant truths and runs dangerously close to outright deception. Fact is, our bond prices haven’t gone anywhere since 2008, (except down, a bit) long before Europe had a giant, blinking emergency sign over it. Burnett knows this. That she didn’t challenge the narrative, didn’t disrupt the outrage train to take a clear-eyed look at the problems and consequences of Monday’s inaction is a loss. We have three cable news nets – can’t one of them be the adult in the room?

(Edit – Once again, Paul Krugman nails it, here and here.)


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