CNN - America's Pravda by Geoff Bowie
It's truly fantastic that the western media can speak so disparagingly and self-righteously about the censorship of the media in totalitarian or 'rogue' states. And it's fascinating that it manages to present itself as the standard bearer of freedom of the press and a keystone of democracy - all this when the western media has to be the greatest ideological noise machine of all time. CNN is a standout example of the media Gordian knot throttling progress toward any form of broader-based participatory democracy.
Like core sampling in the mining industry, we recently 'core sampled' CNN's signal on the day of President Bush's Iraq speech to see what it was made of. On Monday, October 7th 2002, we recorded an hour of programming in the morning from 10:00 - 11:00, an hour in the afternoon from 13:00 - 14:00, and two hours in the evening from 20:00 - 22:00 that includes the President's speech in Cincinnati and its immediate aftermath.
The Monday morning sample was taken up with Live 'Breaking News' coverage of the sniper story - "Sniper hits teenager outside school in Bowie, Maryland". There was primarily one camera shot - a high angle from a helicopter -- that zooms in and out repeatedly from Extreme Long Shot to Medium Shot, closing in on various parts of the school grounds wherever something was moving. There were several jerky pans, which like the camera zooming in and out, is very rarely seen on television. This is a deliberate style of shooting, a mise en scene of the news. It is literally an unsettling technique to underline the panic and urgency of the situation. The camera itself seemed to be searching for the sniper or else suggesting the sniper's point of view for the viewer. We can imagine him looking for his next victim through the camera's crosshairs. A mother, heard in a telephone interview was almost the only non-official, non-media person to speak. She said, "it makes you afraid to step outside your front door". The high angle sweeping, zooming and panning shot was interminable and so it soon became boring. We heard new terms added to the media lexicon, like "geographic profiling", "a target rich environment", "code blue" and "schools in lockdown".
A feeling of low level, grinding fear and boredom built up over the hour. The boredom in a way helps acclimatize viewers to the new crisis and also provides reassurance. We recognize the event coming immediately under media control and so we can assume police control will undoubtedly follow. Boredom domesticates the sniper story, making it homogeneous with the endless line of other exciting news story that have come and gone.
When the story lags, many other diversions on the CNN screen appeal for viewer attention. There are banner headlines, changing sub-headlines, cycling time and stock market information, and Headline News ticker tape scrolling along the bottom of the screen just slowly enough to be read. If CNN is not assuming an attention deficit syndrome of mammoth proportions among viewers, then it wants to create the same with the perpetual distraction of these information fragments. If you're not interested in forecasts about the President's upcoming speech, well how about the baseball scores, or the sniper story, or Kashmir, or Britney Spears make over or the Nasdaq's performance today? Distraction appears to play an important role in CNN's formula for viewer comfort. The station makes every effort to guarantee no moment when a viewer might make the effort to think.
Commercial breaks provide additional kinetic mental relief from what programmers must regard as the slow pace of the news. The ads (geared mostly to an affluent male, business audience -- holidays in the bikini-clad Caribbean, Fedex, Mac, Nasdaq) and especially the promotions for CNN's programming use an especially rapid editing rate usually reserved for music videos. A 15 second 'CNN Weekdays' spot had 20 shot changes. In a CNN promotion of its election coverage and other programming there were 67 shots in a 60 second spot. Added to this image barrage is a dense sound track of driving music, intense voice over and sound effects. CNN's aim must be to revive even the most bleary-eyed heroin user who might be watching.
The network also resorts to a bit of coarse ideological manipulation. One spot features an image of Saddam Hussein wearing a black suit and hat, and with one hand firing a rifle into the air. Frame by frame examination indicates that CNN 'doctored' this shot. If Saddam even fired the rifle, it must not have had the punch CNN was looking for. In this shot a few frames, before the 'firing' of the rifle have been tinted and a fade to white was inserted for 3 frames to enhance (or invent) the gun's explosion.
This kind of blunt treatment of an image of a political enemy would once have been considered the worst kind of propaganda. Now, it's probably accepted humorously as an example of CNN's Hollywood showmanship and corporate chutzpah. In our media cynical society we're on a first name basis with a character called 'Saddam' in the latest version of an "Axis of Evil" video game.
The hollywoodization of the news on CNN goes beyond fictionalizing the Iraqi leader. It includes type casting of the network's journalists and hosts. Larry King, with his suspenders, big raspy voice and avuncular manners, Aaron Brown's mellifluous warmth, Connie Chung's razor-edged beauty, Tucker Carlson's New England debating class brash, Lou Dobbs, Wolf Blitzer and company are like references from pop culture that run from Norman Rockwell, to Citizen Kane, to Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington, to Neuromancer and some comic books. 'Reporters as characters' is an essential element of CNN's 'branding' strategy.
The afternoon sample of CNN's programming is particularly supportive of the US administration's view of the world. There is what amounts to a 20 minute free-time political broadcast from the Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld speaking at his daily Pentagon briefing (with no alternative points of view presented afterwards); a report from two CNN correspondents about the authenticity of a recent Bin Laden tape from inside Al Jazeera's TV studios; and a mini-documentary called "The Soldiers of 9/11" filmed at Fort Huachuca, Arizona Military Intelligence Corps training camp.
In the Bin Laden story CNN correspondent Martin Savidge and "Arab affairs expert" Octavia Nasser discuss the Bin Laden tape only between themselves. Nasser states the tape contains a direct message to the American people but neither she nor Martin Savidge tell viewers what that message is nor do they feel compelled to explain why they have chosen to keep it secret. The report via videophone with its poor quality image and sound also conveys a message. With the dark Al Jazeera studio in the background, CNN is obviously deep in foreign territory here. While Savidge does not finish his piece with " . from Ali Baba's cave this is Martin Savidge", his use of 'street' English is a subtle form of editorializing to discredit the "Arabs" in his midst. Savidge says, "The people here at Al Jazeera believe it's the real deal. They also think it was made in the last two to three weeks. There are others who say 'well, an audio tape with a vague message doesn't prove anything as far as Osama Bin Laden'."
"The Soldiers of 9/11", a fast paced, tightly formatted 4 minute documentary, is militaristic and patriotic. We see the burning towers footage again as the mini-doc tells the story of two young New Yorkers after '9/11'deciding to give up the easy life with enviable jobs in the big city for the hard life of military service to their country. One is a young male actor and the second, a woman of 24 (barely articulate) who had been pursuing a career in the fashion business. Standard 'wall-to-wall' narration leaves room for a few, very short, on camera sound bites from the interview subjects.
In the evening's production of the President's speech, CNN appears to be more or less a partner with the White House. Early in the afternoon CNN's reports indicate the network has detailed advance information about the content of the speech. In early reports and promotions, journalists demonstrate their awareness of what the President will be saying. CNN has to prepare the location technically and its journalists have to plan their follow up reactions and comments. The director has to know where the President will enter and exit and determine the best opportunities to plan reaction shots of invited guests listening to his speech. But this high degree of cooperation and coordination between the White House and CNN is minimized or elided for the viewer.
The production of the speech seems very tightly scripted. Even the President's walk, as he enters the auditorium, gives the impression it has been studied and adjusted for its 'message'. The only spontaneous moment occurs when President Bush forgets where he's supposed to exit. He heads off stage and then suddenly turns back to walk, as scripted, through the appreciative audience shaking hands. This scene gives host Aaron Brown a chance to deliver his prepared summary of the President's speech that helps to key viewers to the 'proper' reaction to the speech. John King too, CNN Senior White House correspondent is instantly ready outside the Museum with his primed remarks that he presents as if they were off the top of his head: "The President, as promised by the White House, was methodically, calmly going through every question he could think of . anyway, that the American people might ask."
Neither can CNN it seems, think of any other questions to ask. No guest or host or journalist on CNN talks for instance, about the lethal manipulation by the US of economic sanctions against Iraq said to be responsible for the death of an estimated 500,000 children under the age of five since 1991? Instead we hear the opinion about how unfortunate it is that the people of Iraq will not likely hear Bush's (totally outrageous) statement that "America is a friend to the people of Iraq" because Iraq's media is censored by government. It is difficult to imagine any media system in the world more effectively supportive of their government than CNN is of theirs.
"Larry King Live" after the President's speech, carries out a hollow and manipulative exercise in objectivity and democracy as he interviews an equal number of Democratic and Republican Senators and Congressmen to assess their reaction to the speech. The entire friendly debate revolves around whether or not UN involvement is necessary to bring about regime change and/or Iraq's disarmament. No one raises more fundamentally critical questions about American foreign policy.
Aaron Brown closes our sample just before the CNN News at 10 in MCU looking directly to camera. He says, "The President as you know, laid out his case against Iraq. To our ears he was like a prosecutor closing a murder case. His tone was low key, his words stern -- Saddam a murderous tyrant, a homicidal dictator addicted to weapons of mass destruction." By the time Aaron reaches his last sentence, a subtle switch has occurred. The close-up shot size, his direct gaze into the lens, his use of the phrase "to our ears" in an earlier sentence, his particular inflection and tone, combine to transfer these thoughts as Aaron Brown's own on Saddam Hussein. He's no longer simply reporting the President's views. This has implications for the viewer who is more likely to identify with Aaron Brown than directly with the President.
The shoddy journalism, the uncritical stance to US government policy, the contempt for reality, understanding, and the consciousness of the viewer expressed in CNN's packaging of the news as another kind of entertainment genre, might be interpreted as a government/media conspiracy to keep the public dazed and confused. But the feeling watching CNN suggests something closer to what Harper's magazine editor Lewis Lapham states when he describes America as " . a country that possesses the power to poison the earth without possessing either the means or the desire to know itself." CNN's well-heeled executives and network staff feel so much on the same side as the government, and share so strongly a 'we're-all-in-this-together' unity, the station simply doesn't see any need to be too strenuous about an 'arm's length relationship' to government. And they would probably consider it artificial and bad for business too, if CNN bothered too much with objectivity, disinterested inquiry, and critical analysis from diverse points of view.
 Joy Gordon, "Cool War", (Harpers, Nov/02)
 Lewis Lapham, "Audible Silence", Harpers, November/02)
FACTS & FIGURES
CNN is part of the largest media conglomerate in the world, AOL Time Warner. CNN International is the dominant global TV news channel, broadcasting in several languages to some 200 nations (Anderson, 1997.)
Here are some of Time Warner's holdings:
- majority interest in the U.S. WB television network;
- largest cable broadcasting system operator in U.S., controlling 22 of 100 largest markets;
- controlling interest in cable TV channels CNN, Headline News, CNNfn, CNN International, TNT, TBS, Turner Classic Movies, CNNSI, The Cartoon Network, Court TV, HBO, HBO International, Cinemax;
- partial interest in cable TV channel Comedy Central;
- minority stake in U.S. satellite TV service PrimeStar;
- Warner Brothers film studios, one of the half-dozen studios that dominated the global market;
- Warner Brothers TV production studios, one of largest TV show production companies in the world;
- New Line film studios;
- the largest U.S. magazine publishing group, including Time, People, Sports Illustrated and Fortune;
- Warner Music Group, one of the six firms that dominate the global recorded music industry;
- 2nd largest book publisher in the world, with 42 percent of sales outside the U.S.;
- 150 Warner Bros. retail stores;
- Six Flags theme park chain;
- The Atlanta Hawks and Atlanta Braves U.S. professional sports teams;
- Hanna-Barbera animation studios;
- 10 percent stake in France's Canalsatellite, a digital TV service.
- one of largest movie theatre owning companies in the world, with over 1,000 screens, all outside the U.S.
- 23 percent stake in Atari
- 14 percent stake in Hasbro
- minority stakes in the following non-U.S. broadcasting joint ventures: Germany's N-TV, New Zealand's Sky Network Television, European music channel VIVA, and Asian music channel Classic V.
Time Warner is connected to several of the U.S. regional Bells telephone giants, as well as AT&T and Oracle. It has a major joint venture with U.S. West.
Compiled by Robert W. McChesney, Associate Professor, School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Wisconsin-Madison