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Saturday, July 09, 2005

 

CNN is rubbish

Yesterday I read that 1,500 people had blogged about Thursday's terrorist attacks in London. I felt no desire to be the 1,501st.

What can one say? One can add either to the emotion or to the facts. The former would be fatuous. In the highly unlikely event one is capable of the latter, one's first duty would be to call the police, not write a new blog posting.

So I'll add nothing about the events themselves. CNN's piss-poor TV news coverage is another matter.

Despite its claim to be a 'global' news service, CNN has a tin ear for non-American cultures. This was already evident within an hour of the explosions in London, when a scrolling banner across the foot of the TV screen reported that one of the affected tube stations in central London was "Margate subway station".

Since Thursday morning, CNN International has reoriented its whole coverage around the London bombs, to an extent that no British TV station has deemed necessary. Even now, 60 hours after the bombs went off, CNN regularly splashes the legend "TERROR IN LONDON" across the screen, accompanied by one of its comically sombre orchestral jingles.

Well, it's the biggest global event of the week, so one can hardly complain if it dominates the news. Where CNN has misfired is in its complete misreading of the mood in London.

Anyone who has ever lived in London would have grasped the culture of phlegmatism and stoicism that customarily accompanies terrorist attacks. Instead, CNN has been trying to project an Oprah Winfrey-style culture of gushing and ostentatious 'emoting' onto Londoners. It is a picture of London that no Londoner would recognise.

The mood of London was caught far more accurately by
Simon Hoggart in today's Guardian:

It's become a cliche, but what was most startling about Thursday in London was the lack of alarm. There was much resigned tongue clicking, and some anxious expressions, but even within earshot of the explosions nobody seemed too troubled. One of the gloating claims from a group that may have carried out the bombings announced that "Britain is now burning with fear, terror and panic". Well, it didn't look like that. "London is now a bit fretful about how it's going to get home," would have been closer.
The British are frequently criticised for their emotional constipation but, in this instance, CNN's problem is that Americans suffer from emotional diarrhoea. Also, the attacks of '9/11' were a genuinely shocking event for a people largely isolated from the rest of the world, who had imagined themselves to be immune from global problems. In contrast, Londoners are rather more seasoned than most American observers imagine.

It would be understandable if a local newspaper deep in the USA's Midwest had misread events in London. A TV news outfit with pretensions to a 'global' culture has no excuses.

Gratuitous emoting was not CNN's only problem. The London bombings have led the news throughout continental Europe. TV reporters from French, German, Belgian, Dutch and Spanish stations were, like their British counterparts, being filmed in locations close to the scene of the bomb incidents. Not so CNN.

In case any of its viewers were unsure where London was, CNN decided to set up shop in front of Tower Bridge. I half expected Dick Van Dyke, dressed as a 'chimbleysweep', to wander onto the screen and bring us the latest news delivered in Hollywood Cockney.

To anyone who knows London or the rest of Britain, CNN's whole approach is simply not credible and no British person would take it seriously. Indeed, its ham-fisted, cliché-ridden and culturally insensitive portrayal casts doubt on the credibility of its news coverage from anywhere else.

A few years ago, I was in Washington DC and delivered a presentation to some American PR colleagues about the European media landscape. Their jaws hit the floor when I told them that CNN's audience share in the UK was less than 0.01%. This statistic would have come as no surprise to anyone in Britain, where the reputation of CNN is - at best - as the foreign hotel bedroom TV station of last resort.

CNN originally won a high reputation by being the first international 24-hour TV news channel, in particular because of its coverage of the first Gulf War. Back in 1991, it had no competition. Now it has plenty.

Culture, language and perceptions are highly diverse and it is doubtful that anyone can produce a news service with genuinely global relevance (the BBC's World Service radio station perhaps comes closest). In 1991, an international 24-hour TV news station was a novelty. Nowadays, most speakers of major languages can find an equivalent international news service in their own language, produced by people who understand their culture better than does CNN.

Most media produce their messages with an imaginary stereotypical audience member in mind. In CNN International's case, such a stereotypical viewer would seem to be a travelling American businessman with little knowledge of the outside world, stuck in a foreign hotel bedroom and needing a basic primer on world events. This is a real and legitimate audience. CNN's mistake is to assume that the rest of the English-speaking world is in the same cultural boat.

Comments:
The BBC world service is a brilliant outfit. The UK’s best and most important export. All over the world the World Service leads the way. Before a press conference you often hear, "are the BBC here?" some people/organisations go even further, giving interviews only to the BBC as they feel that is the only outfit that would treat them fairly.
On CNN: just how crazy do these right wing nutters have to be to believe that CNN is anti American? As your observations show, it is anything but anti American!

First time here, BTW, brilliant blog. Will be back.
 
Thanks for your kind praise!
 
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