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Thursday, April 18, 2013

Alas, CNN

Yesterday CNN erred in reporting that an arrest had been made in Boston for the bombing. It's not the first such error from CNN, and it's sad.

Twenty years ago CNN was considered a paragon of journalism by almost everyone other than the fringe left and the fringe right. When I heard the voice of James Earl Jones introducing Bernard Shaw, I had high confidence in what I was about to see and hear. In a similar manner CNN2 a/k/a CNN Headline News was a respectable if superficial source of news. Although CNN ran some programs like Larry King Live that were not hard news, the self-styled "network" -- actually, just a channel of programming -- was mostly hard news and almost always got their facts right, which is Job 1 in journalism.

Do you remember Frank Reynolds, anchor at ABC News, during live coverage of the Reagan assassination attempt in 1981? Being fed with poor-quality information, the frustrated Reynolds said on the air "Let's get it nailed down... somebody... let's find out! Let's get it straight so we can report this thing accurately!" Even when I wrote for newspapers in high school and college, there was an emphasis on getting the facts right. Steve Wildstrom, a former columnist for Business Week magazine, twittered yesterday "I hate to sound like an old fart, but when I worked for AP many years ago, we had sourcing rules and breaking them got you fired."

Instead, CNN engaged in a reckless race to be first yesterday. It's a good thing that we are served by a competitive market for news, compared to Pravda in the days of the Soviet Union. Reporters like to be first -- or in old language, to get a scoop. But an attempt to be first does not provide a license to be inaccurate.

How did it happen? I think CNN has been in decline for quite some time. Budgets have been cut, compared to carte blanche when Ted Turner was trying to establish CNN as a credible source of news. Competitors have emerged -- not merely MSNBC and Fox News on cable, but websites and Twitter. It's a tough business and I'm not claiming that I could do any better if I were in charge. But I will say that I just don't know what CNN stands for these days. I do know that CNN2 has degraded into the unfortunate HLN. Lynne Russell, yes; Joy Behar, no.

NBC News was one of the few organizations to get it right yesterday. I will watch them more often. More thoughts about NBC News in a forthcoming blog.