Reflecting On News As CNN Turns 41

by Kevin Burton

    CNN first hit the airwaves 41 years ago yesterday. But you wouldn’t be wrong to say it really started in 1991.

   Any way you slice it, news has never been the same since Ted Turner’s brainchild went live.  That’s when changes in the way news is gathered and consumed began. A myriad of factors caused these changes to accelerate to the place where now untrained zealots with various political bents dispense propaganda as alleged news.

   What was at first called spin, has given a once literate nation intellectual vertigo. 

   God only knows what the future holds. But it all started with CNN, right around the time I took my first tentative steps into print media, which I thought was the place to be.

   Here is a recounting of events from the Stanford University website, under the headline, “Journalism in the digital age.”

“Newspapers reached a theoretical height of excellence in the early 1970s. Never before had a president of the United States resigned in scandal, and the investigation was conducted almost entirely by newspaper journalists.”

“However, the velocity of news would increase dramatically with the development of new mediums including cable news and the internet, and newspapers faced increasingly stiff competition in their basic business.”

“The Cable News Network was first broadcast in 1980, and provided a 24-hour medium for constant news. The channel suffered from credibility issues throughout its first decade of operations, and proved to be mostly insignificant against the already established evening news television broadcasts and newspapers,” reads the Stanford article.

“That dynamic changed in January of 1991 with the First Gulf War. When the bombing of Baghdad by coalition forces first began, CNN had the only reporters in the city and broadcast the bombing live. The vivid coverage drew wide attention among the public, and put CNN on the map.”

   By some measure, CNN along with its imitators, now is the map.

   The new immediacy of news and the way governments reacted to it eventually became known as “The CNN effect.”   Here’s an explanation of this from Wikipedia:

   “The CNN effect is a theory in political science and media studies which states that global television networks play a significant role in determining the actions policymakers take and the outcomes of events.”

   “By focusing instantaneous and ongoing media coverage on a particular conflict, international incident, or diplomatic initiative, the news cycle effectively demands political attention, as governing politicians attempt to demonstrate that they are on top of current issues,” Wikipedia says. “The effect has been, according to Margaret Belknap, that ‘the advent of real time news coverage has led to immediate public awareness and scrutiny of strategic decisions and military operations as they unfold.’”

   “Former Secretary of State James Baker said of the CNN effect: ‘The one thing it does, is to drive policymakers to have a policy position. I would have to articulate it very quickly. You are in real-time mode. You don’t have time to reflect.’ His former press secretary Margaret Tutwiler agreed, saying ‘Time for reaction is compressed. Analysis and intelligence gathering is out.’”

   That was revolutionary enough. But then the development of the internet fundamentally changed what we think of as news.  The net was opened to commercial traffic in 1995, but according to the Stanford article, its effect on news wasn’t fully realized until the Monica Lewinsky scandal in 1998. 

   “The story was first investigated by Newsweek, which had learned that Lewinsky owned a blue dress with the stain of the president on it. While reporters for the magazine waited for further sourcing, the news of the dress was scooped by Matt Drudge of the Drudge Report, an online clearinghouse of news headlines with a conservative slant,” the Stanford story reads. “Journalists of all stripes learned that methodical sourcing and getting the story right was no longer the dominant ethos of the industry.”

    Then blogs became a popular way for everyday citizens to become reporters of sorts. Add to that the development of Twitter and Facebook and you have a fundamental change in the way news is presented and perceived.

   Now, where once stood Walter Cronkite on CBS News and the work of great American daily newspapers, is, what exactly?

  In 2019, the Pew Research Center found that 54 percent of Americans either got their news “sometimes” or “often” from social media, and Facebook was the most popular social media site.

   Facebook is an excellent source for pictures of cute kittens.  It’s not a place to find consistently creditable news.

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