Monday, June 1, 2020
June 1, 2020: Mass MediaStudying: CNN and Cable News
[On June 1st, 1980, the Cable News Network (CNN) aired its first broadcast. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy cable news and four other significant evolutions in American mass media, leading up to a special post on one of the best scholarly studies of media and the Revolution!]
On how CNN’s turning point reflects both what 24-hour cable news can offer and one of the medium’s central flaws.
CNN launched at 5pm Eastern Time on June 1st, 1980, but it was just over a decade later that the 24-hour cable news network truly became a dominant force in news media and global society. On January 16th, 1991, Bernard Shaw (who had been CNN’s first news anchor in June 1980 and remained one of its most prominent figures in 1991) announced live on air, from Baghdad’s al-Rashid Hotel, the moment when U.S. and coalition forces began the bombings that would launch the First Gulf War. As Shaw narrated that momentous occasion, “This is Bernie Shaw. Something is happening outside. ... Peter Arnett [a reporter also stationed at the hotel], join me here. Let's describe to our viewers what we're seeing... The skies over Baghdad have been illuminated. ... We're seeing bright flashes going off all over the sky.” Although the network was not able to broadcast pictures of those earliest moments of the war, the live audio reports from Shaw, Arnett, and their colleagues were carried by TV networks around the world, resulting in a ground-breaking audience of more than a billion global viewers over the course of CNN’s Gulf War coverage.
Of course this was not the first war where media coverage played a significant role—Walter Cronkite’s nightly broadcasts and shifting perspective during the Vietnam War have often been credited with changing both public opinion and the U.S. government’s own choices, after all. But those broadcasts (like most TV news prior to the cable era) had entered viewer’s homes and consciousnesses once a day, making them parallel to daily newspapers and other traditional forms of news and media. In contrast, CNN’s most significant innovation was that it reported and covered the news 24 hours a day; and while that innovation had been present since June 1980, it was with the Gulf War that its possibilities and effects truly began to be visible. No longer did American (or global) audiences have to wait for a daily newspaper delivery of a 5pm broadcast to learn what was happening in this unfolding war; now any time they wanted they could turn on their televisions and get a sense of those events from reporters who were on the ground in the center of the affected region. The internet (on which more later in the week) is often seen as a game-changer when it comes to global immediacy and interconnectedness, but cable news was pushing us in that direction a couple decades earlier.
That same ground-breaking 24-hour availability and immediacy, however, has to my mind proven to be one of cable news’ most significant flaws. Perhaps during the Gulf War and related extreme historical moments there is enough news to fill all that time (although even then my guess is that there wasn’t), but at most other moments it seems to me that there is something like a total hour or two of truly meaningful news to be broken and analyzed in a given day. Partly that has meant that the cable news networks spend a lot of time talking about and around the same topics, as well as creating (often troubling) original content like MSNBC’s fondness for prison shows. But I believe that the need for 24 hours of “news” has also led to the news networks turning every.single.minor.moment into “breaking news” or the like, which has increasingly dulled our collective sense of actual significance and potential outrage at a time when we desperately need those perspectives for particular stories. Moreover, because that news can’t be “breaking” constantly, this trend has contributed greatly to our 24-hour news cycle culture, making it even harder to sustain attention and outrage for those stories which genuinely deserve it. Everything all the time can, sometimes, be nothing at all, a contradictory but crucial lesson of CNN and its cable news heirs.
Next mass media post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other mass media moments or movements you’d highlight?