Sunday, May 20, 2012

A Tree Grows at CNN: Fareed Zakaria and the quest for journalistic integrity

Those of you who have followed my blog over the years – yes, all seven of you – no doubt are aware of my utter contempt for Ted Turner’s love child to the cable industry. Next to Fox News, I can’t think of any other network that has been so utterly disappointing and unworthy of even being called a news outlet, so lame have they been.  I once referred to CNN as the place where news goes to die.  For the most part I have seen nothing that would change my overall opinion.

That is until quite recently.  Not that long ago, while standing on line at a local bagel shop, I happened to look up at the flat-panel TV, which on this particular Sunday morning was tuned into CNN.  It was a round-panel discussion of various guests, some conservative, some liberal (you know the usual Meet the Press and Face the Nation entourage where everybody has their two to three minutes and the “moderator” pretends to be “fair and balanced”).  I don’t remember what the particular discussion was about – it does tend to get quite loud in a bagel store at 10:00 A.M. – but I was intrigued enough to tune in when I returned home.

It was then that I noticed something rather unusual and, sadly, unique.  Far from just asking the typical pointless questions, the moderator, Fareed Zakaria, was attempting to get a dialogue of ideas flowing between the guests.  While the discussion was passionate, it never devolved into what passes for the typical “I’m right, you’re wrong” diatribe.  And that’s because Zakaria never allowed it to devolve.  Whenever the train seemed on the verge of jumping the tracks he would step in and steer it back on course like a good moderator is supposed to do – hello, David Gregory.

But the best part of his hour show – GPS – ironically comes after the panel discussion.  That’s when Zakaria interviews a guest at great length about important topics of the day.  His questions are intelligent, well thought out and allow the guest an opportunity to present a coherent, cogent argument.  Unlike the other Sunday-morning hosts, Zakarie eschews political candidates and pundits.  Instead he opts for a more diverse and broader assortment of guests, from heads of state like China’s Premier Wen Jiabao, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Israeli President Shimon Peres to heads of corporations like George Soros, Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein.  The result is a truly dynamic, stimulating half hour in which the viewer is left more informed about a subject after the program than before. 

That’s because Fareed Zakaria is an actual journalist.  He is both editor-at-large and a columnist for Time magazine, as well as The Washington Post.  As recently as 2010, he was a columnist for Newsweek and editor of its international division.  He is no stranger to the field, even if, after all these years, he is still not a household name.

In all the time I have watched Meet the Press or Face the Nation, not once have I ever felt as though I learned something new.  And that’s because the modus operandi of these shows is not – contrary to their stated purpose – to inform their viewers but to reinforce narratives of right / left to perpetuate a sense of fair play.  In other words there is no right or wrong; there’s just opinion / conjecture.  I can hear Edward R. Murrow screaming from the grave, “Pinch me, I must be dreaming.”  When there is no absolute right or wrong, when the only thing left is an opinion, there is no journalism taking place.  What you’re left with is an hour-long infomercial.  This, sadly, is the state of cable and network news today.  It’s all about titillating certain demographics that need their allotment of fresh meat to chew on.

And that’s what makes Fareed Zakaria’s GPS program so special.  It avoids that pitfall and instead looks to generate an exchange of real ideas; ideas that can challenge accepted norms and maybe even reach new conclusions, and, above all else, educate the viewer.  Next to watching the News Hour on PBS, I can think of no other news program that both informs and entertains at the same time.  Over the last few weeks, it has become the best part of my Sunday morning.  The other aforementioned “news” programs pale in comparison.

CNN has captured lightning in a bottle here, albeit quite by accident.  The hope is that they don’t screw it up like everything else they touch.  Given what passes for news journalism these days, Fareed Zakaria is the perfect tonic for an ailing profession.  Not since the days of Huntley and Brinkley has a news program ventured out of the comfort zone of an industry that professes to want integrity, yet more often than not opts for ratings.

Back in the 1960s the networks knew their news divisions were loss leaders.   They viewed it as their solemn duty to keep those divisions separate from the rest of the network as a public trust to the nation.  Nowadays, the networks are owned by entertainment companies whose only goal is profit, pure and simple. The problem is they want their cake and eat it too.  It’s clear that in a medium that bows to shows like American Idol and Celebrity Apprentice, substance is a quality in short supply.

Only time will tell if CNN will succumb to the above tenet and pull GPS off the air for a more “entertaining” and predictably lame show.  History clearly suggests this will be the case.  For now, I intend on enjoying the moment while it lasts.



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