Does “Somewhere in Between” Mean “Ideologically Neutral”?


At Politico.com, Michael Calderon has a piece assessing the significance of the drop in viewership at CNN—“CNN fades in prime-time picture.” The brief article is mostly just straight reporting.

  1. Viewers seem to rely on CNN the most at election time, while turning to other cable networks during the long intervals between elections.
  2. CNN just won a Peabody Award.
  3. Doubts have been raised about whether CNN will be able to compete with MSNBC and FOX.
  4. CNN president Jon Klein says yes and that he can explain evidence to the contrary.
  5. Anderson Cooper is CNN’s most valued trick pony, followed by Campbell Brown (who’s about to return from maternity leave).
  6. Cooper’s ratings have fallen off dramatically in recent months, and it’s expected that this will continue.
  7. CNN staffers and former staffers report that concerns within the ranks are greater than reported by Klein.
  8. The critical demographic is viewers ages 25-54.

These are the “facts”—except for the part about the trick ponies, which I slipped in. And there’s a reason why I use the term “trick pony” to refer to cable TV “news” anchors. To begin, the persona of an anchor is crucial to nabbing and keeping viewers. Everyone acknowledges that. But we should wonder why.

The answer may seem obvious. Take CNN, for example. They claim to be “the most trusted news . . .” Leave aside the question whether the tag captures the truth. Why would they be trusted more than the other networks? Remember, the answer has to have something to do with persona. So why would Anderson Cooper, the leading news anchor for CNN, be, in effect, the most trusted news reporter, period?

The answer we’re supposed to come up with is that CNN is ideologically neutral, and Anderson Cooper is the embodiment of that neutrality. And, we must remember, ideological neutrality is good . . . if it’s news you want.

Calderon begins to reveal this outlook early on, when he contrasts the CNN strategy with the “more opinionated programming” at FOX and MSNBC. Notice that—FOX and MSNBC are “more opinionated” in their programming. Maybe that’s true. But what does it mean, and why believe it?

Well, a network can be more or less opinionated. FOX and MSNBC are “more.” So CNN is “less.” Thus, it follows that CNN may also be airing “opinionated programming,” but just not as much as FOX and MSNBC. But then, what is this more or less of opinionated programming? And are viewers supposed to be able to tell when it’s happening and when it isn’t?

Surely things aren’t that simple.

I think we can agree that Keith Olberman is an opinionated guy, and that he unleashes his opinions pretty regularly on his show at MSNBC. Sean Hannity comes to mind when thinking of FOX. So does Bill O’Reilly, who has created a whole new meaning for the phrase “I’ll let you have the last word.” (If you’re a guest with whom he disagrees, he will, indeed, “let you have it.”)

We agree in thinking that prominent anchors at MSNBC and FOX are “opinionated” because it’s obvious. But here’s the significant point: what’s obvious is what their opinion is. That is, they make it obvious that they are presenting an “opinion” because they tell us when they are giving us their opinion.

Why is this so significant? Because opinions don’t always come flying at us with banners telling us that we’re in the trajectory of an opinion. Often they sneak up on us, clothed with disclaimers that their message is completely “objective.”

Calderon is mistaken in suggesting that CNN is ideologically neutral on the grounds presented by him in his piece. Being neither overtly conservative nor overtly liberal, in the style of FOX and MSNBC, respectively, does not mean that CNN is “in the middle” or “neutral.” It has been convincingly argued that they are not neutral but considerably left of center.

Viewers need skills in detecting the ideological commitments of media outlets, the more so when their commitments are more subtly packaged and publicly advertised as “neutral.”

Jack Bauer’s Creators, We Need You—Mid-season Ruminations on 24


24-philosphyIf you’re a 24 fan and you haven’t yet seen tonight’s episode, you better save this post for later. It might reveal more than you want to know, which is ironic, given what I’m about to say.

This has been a remarkably engaging season, given the challenge its writers have faced to be fresh and unpredictable. Even more so given some other challenges it has set for itself. Some of these have to do with the writing, some have to do with the marketing.

The writing. Is the FBI really as inept as it’s portrayed here? Tactical differences between Jack Bauer and FBI personnel have made sense. Larry fits the stereotype. His objectivity is fogged by his interest in an admittedly attractive agent who’s working a little too closely with Bauer, but he hangs in there pretty well. His capacity for rage hints that he’s not altogether unlike Bauer, whom he so patently loathes. Tonight, though, I think the script may have dropped a couple of points on the credibility score. Larry’s real life counterpart wouldn’t have been so clumsy about tightening the net on FBI infiltrators . . . would he? Wouldn’t that seedy-looking Shawn—or Sean—chap have been a possible? You would think. But not Larry. At least not soon enough. Even for the FBI. I hope.

Next, Rosa’s death. This was predictable. How it would happen wasn’t. That was a good story thread. We’ve known of innocent, uncomplicated civilians acting with valor at personal risk to thwart terrorism. Rosa’s desperate attack on the driver, causing a fatal accident, is believable. Remember 9/11? But is she the completely sympathetic character she needs to be for us, the viewers, to relate vitally to the angst played out so elaborately by agent what’s-her-name (the one who looks like she could be Jaclyn Smith redivivus, . . . or Jaclyn Smith’s daughter)? The pretty and gritty agent’s sentiments are realistic enough. But what do they do to advance the plot? Isn’t it a little smarmy?

Finally, why the silly stock antics by Tony when he appears on the steps next to Jack at the end of tonight’s episode? He steps down, removes his shades, and tells Jack that “it’s not over.” Once he’s satisfied that he’s nearly convinced Jack, he dons the glasses and says, “I need you, Jack.” Very original.

Point being—the writers are much too clever to settle for these derivatives. The sensational TV series still works for me. I’ll be tuning in next week. But something’s crept in here that has nothing to do with exhausting the storyline potential of the show.

The marketing. Here I’m talking about the way the series is played up by the show’s engineers between episodes. Tonight we were told to expect, before the episode began, that this hour would provide some significant closure. This was risky. And it worked, I think. There was closure, which is unusual for the series. But it didn’t ruin the effect. Let’s hope it doesn’t happen often. But it was refreshing to experience it on this segment. Did it have to be pre-announced? I think it may have been constructive, since most of us probably watched with wariness about that prospect, and thus experienced a heightened sense of tension.

So what’s the problem? After watching a fully riveting episode, the producers think we have to be told virtually everything that will happen next week to get us to come back. I don’t care what happens in the next episode—I know they revealed too much at the conclusion of tonight’s show. It’s anticlimactic—unless you have short-term memory loss, in which case you probably aren’t sure what’s going on from one week to the next and aren’t tuning in for that reason.

It’s been rumored, maybe for marketing effect, that the writers work inside the series close to the release of each episode, not knowing all that much about where they’re headed from episode to episode. Their spectacular series 24 is more believable than that. But let’s pretend there’s still time for tinkering. I have a selfish request—ligthen up on the shibboleths and can the forecasting. Your program has attracted an intelligent audience. They’re your core. Don’t let them down.

In case you couldn’t resist reading this post before seeing tonight’s episode, awaiting playback on your Tivo, here’s my advice: stop watching immediately after Tony walks away toward Constitution and First. I think you’ll enjoy the next week’s installment more than I will.

Note: Evidence of my enthusiasm for 24 can be found in my chapter in the book 24 and Philosophy.

Unbox—The Online Movie Rental Source


Image representing Amazon Unbox as depicted in...

Image via CrunchBase

If you haven’t tried Unbox yet, you really should. This is the first place I go to rent a movie or popular TV series or series episode. The price is right. And if you use Windows on your computer or have TiVo, it’s an immediate download. You can also purchase items and play them on TiVo or Windows.

To check it out, click here: Unbox Video Downloads

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