copious notes

Rich Copley: Latest blunder is more evidence that CNN isn't what it once was

Being first is no good if you get news wrong

Herald-Leader Culture ColumnistApril 19, 2013 

A reminder of what CNN used to be came Thursday morning from, of all places, contemplating that night's Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame inductions.

Among the 2013 inductees was the ground-breaking hip-hop group Public Enemy. Having a little 1980s and '90s flashback listening to Fear of a Black Planet reminded me that frontman Chuck D said in a 1992 Newsweek article that rap was "black America's CNN."

That was a compliment to the original cable news network, which was the go-to place for information and seemed a serious threat to network and other news sources for its thoroughness and constant stream of information.

I'll never forget the start of the Gulf War in 1991, when America going to war was a foreign concept for me and most of my twenty- something friends. We huddled around CNN to find out what was happening. Moments of levity included Wayne (Mike Myers) and Garth (Dana Carvey) on Saturday Night Live needling CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer about his name.

Garth: It's so obvious the guy made it up for the war!

Wayne: Yeah! I know, it's like, "Hi, we now take you to our war correspondent, Howitzer Explosion Guy."

At the time, with cable TV still growing, it was a huge spotlight for CNN on network TV — and an affirmation of its relevance.

But Wednesday afternoon, it was a much more humble Blitzer on CNN, live from Boston, trying to navigate the network's latest journalistic blunder, assuring viewers that an arrest had been made in the Boston Marathon bombing case.

For a time, the story ruled the afternoon, and media gathered at a Boston courthouse to await the arrival of a suspect who CNN, and subsequently other news outlets, said was on the way.

Except he or she wasn't — and never was — in custody.

The TV and Twitter tick-tock was all too easy to mock. Watching Wednesday night's episode of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, it seemed maybe CNN and Fox News should get the writing fees for the evening. A string of clips and a little knowledge of very recent history were all you needed for big laughs.

For more guffaws, there were some zingers. Included was a segment titled "The Most Busted Name in News," a riff on CNN's slogan of "Most Trusted Name in News." And then the show ran a clip of CNN's John King, less than an hour after he reported the suspect was in custody, saying he was told by an FBI source, "Anyone who says an 'arrest' is ahead of themselves."

Stewart replied, in an exaggerated whisper, "I think they're talking about you."

CNN's big blunder came less than a year after another high-profile stumble: when the network erroneously reported that the Supreme Court had struck down a key provision of the Affordable Care Act — when it actually had upheld it.

It also came after a dizzying series of programming mistakes, controversies and a steady decline in ratings that has it at No. 3 among cable news networks, the business it invented.

But still, when news such as the Boston bombing breaks, viewers tend to tune in to CNN reflexively, a fact borne out Monday as the network stayed with, and eventually passed, dominator Fox News' ratings for the day, according to pop culture website The Wrap.

But you can get it completely wrong only so often and maintain that hallowed status. The next time CNN "breaks" a story, how many of us will go looking for a second opinion before we buy it?

Maybe the break isn't what CNN needs to be going for these days. At the risk of speaking journalistic heresy, getting the scoop can be overrated. It is much more impressive when a news outlet breaks a story no one else was working on, rather than the one everyone will know in about 15 minutes.

Had an arrest been made Wednesday, I doubt many would have remembered who had that news first. I would be more inclined to remember the news outlet that developed the most thorough, accurate and informative story about the arrest and the suspect.

That's the sort of reporting that made people trust and respect CNN in the '80s and '90s.

Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Email: rcopley@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @copiousnotes.

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