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Dead Tree Alert: CNN Feels the Squeeze

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Illustration by Francisco Caceres for TIME

And speaking of when media companies attack (themselves), my print column this week looks not at TIME but another unit of Time Warner: CNN, its nosedive in the primetime ratings and its plight as cable-news viewers increasingly turn to more-partisan hosts on Fox News and MSNBC. I’d like the channel to focus less on being a vanilla neutral ground—what I called in another column “moderate bias”—and focus more on being an aggressive advocate for viewers, by calling shots and fouls in partisan arguments.

As Jay Rosen has often written, it’s not enough to interview two sides, then shrug and let the viewers do their own fact-checking; if you know one side to be demonstrably full of it, then say so. Back in 1980, viewers looked to CNN as the only source of 24-hour TV news. Now, with a multiplicity of sources, and a raft of interested parties kicking up dust around the facts, viewers are more likely to want CNN (or someone else) as a referee of contested issues.

Put another way, it’s possible to take a side (i.e., call b.s. for what it is) without being predictably partisan (i.e., calling out the b.s. of one side only) or falsely “balanced” (i.e., straining to show that both sides are always equally full of b.s., even on issues where they’re not). One good, if fledgling, example of this is Jake Tapper’s partnering with Polifact to fact-check guests on ABC’s This Week. (I’d discussed this in the column and had to cut it for space, so maybe that’ll be another column at some point.)

Yes, it’s another “What Should CNN Do?” column. Although as I say here, I don’t pretend my suggestions will increase CNN’s ratings. The implicit lie in all such columns is that people like me pretend that the kind of news we’d like to see will also produce the best ratings; but that’s not true, any more than American Idol is the best show on television. But if—as CNN likes to say, citing its profits and its international reach—it doesn’t really care so much about primetime ratings, then I’d like to see it act like it doesn’t care, and use its authority with more guts.

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