Tuned In

Two Cheers for CNN

Things haven't been pretty at CNN lately, but Anthony Bourdain and Jake Tapper suggest two ways the network can get interesting without getting dumb.

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It has not been a good week for CNN. Or month or year or–you get the point. True, the network got huge ratings with the coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing, as CNN does with big breaking news. But the way it got there was not pretty, with a colossal live misreport about a nonexistent arrest a week ago. Before that, there was a misbegotten primetime chat experiement, the on-air commenters sympathizing with the Steubenville rapists, the saturation coverage (so to speak) of the Carnival poop cruise, and last year’s unforced error on the Supreme Court Obamacare decision.

CNN’s taken a beating, on this blog and elsewhere, and rightfully so. But in the interest of positive reinforcement (and a change of pace), there are two recent improvements at the network that suggest it could implement new boss Jeff Zucker’s mandate–to become less dull and “broaden the definition of news”–without becoming a gift in perpetuity to Jon Stewart.

[Disclosure: TIME and CNN are both part of Time Warner–or will be until Time Inc. is spun off from the larger company. That said, you can find critical things I’ve written about CNN lately here and here and here. If you can find much praise I’ve given the network recently, let me know.]

The first is a hire that predates Zucker: poaching chef / travel essayist Anthony Bourdain from Travel Channel to host Parts Unknown on Sunday nights. On his old show, No Reservations, Bourdain took a world tour to explore international cultures and subcultures through their food, chatting up chefs and locals as a way into the history and culture of a place. At its best, it was a potent stew of current news and world history.

On Parts Unknown, Bourdain–well, does pretty much exactly the same thing. Which is just fine. Last Sunday’s episode, in Los Angeles‘ Koreatown, blended the story of the 1992 L.A. riots and today’s hyperfusion food culture (Korean tacos, anyone?) into a rumination on the immigrant experience in America today. It was also just good fun: sampling the psychedelic pileup that is the dessert halo-halo at Filipino fast-food chain Jollibee’s, Bourdain exclaimed: “It makes no goddamn sense at all. I love it.” (Bourdain has already substantially stretched CNN’s standards for profanity, leading competitor Fox News to tsk-tsk over Bourdain’s “potty mouth.”)

Bourdain’s show isn’t breaking news, but it offers some hope that the channel can “expand” its nonfiction TV without getting dumb. It’s the equivalent of an in-depth feature section in a newspaper written for adults, which assumes that its audience is capable of being entertained and educated at the same time. Food and travel journalism don’t have to be “soft,” mindless, or without intellectual grounding. If CNN could apply the same thinking to, say, entertainment and sports programming, that could be a strategy.

The second encouraging sign, albeit a work in progress, is Zucker’s hire of Jake Tapper from ABC to host The Lead in the late afternoon. [Second disclosure: Tapper and I overlapped for a while as writers at Salon.com; I think I’ve met him in person once.] Part of Zucker’s strategy at CNN seems to be to go on a hiring spree of stars from other outlets, which is rarely a good enough idea in and of itself. Chris Cuomo of Good Morning America was a recognizable name, but he’s yet to display much wattage, celebrity or otherwise, at CNN.

Tapper, however, is potentially one solution to a problem Zucker has accurately diagnosed at CNN: it needs to have a voice, which is to say, it needs to be not boring. (When Wolf Blitzer comes on screen now, it’s as if the very atomic particles of the universe slow down.) Voice comes easier to Fox and MSNBC, which have thrown in with conservative and liberal primetime hosts respectively. But Tapper shows you can be engaged, combative, lively, and even opinionated without being partisan or polemical.

And The Lead so far has let Tapper show more range than he was able to as ABC’s White House correspondence (a range and voice familiar to those who had followed his active Twitter account). It’s not surprising he’s showed himself able to handle hard news; last week, he pursued the Boston story while largely staying on the right side of the speculation-fest. But Tapper–whose experience also includes producing documentaries for VH1–also covers pop culture with smarts and a sense of humor. Brad Paisley and LL Cool J’s “Accidental Racist,” he said, is “one bong hit away from a South Park parody.” Like Anderson Cooper, globetrotting former host of The Mole, he has broad enough interests and an active enough mind to know hard news doesn’t need to be staid, and feature coverage doesn’t need to be insipid.

Of course, long before the Zucker era, Cooper brought CNN praise and not so much in the way of ratings. Two promising shows do not solve CNN’s many problems. And if Zucker has to choose between smarts and ratings–well, we still have the Poop Cruise, and the possible resurrection of Crossfire, as evidence. (Not to mention his “Great job!” memo after the network’s checkered but high-rated Boston coverage.)

I don’t expect Jon Stewart to run out of CNN material any time soon. But to be an optimist for once, it’s at least possible CNN could solve some of its real problems without creating even more of them.