Another case of substance abuse

by Michael O. Allen on April 22, 2008

I cannot explain why this New York Times story got under my skin so.

The Times basically celebrated flash over substance in choosing to focus on John King of CNN and his giant computer board that has dominated the cable news network’s coverage of the elections this year. The fact is that CNN is not using the teleprompter to deepen its coverage of the elections.

Measuring nearly seven and a half feet diagonally, the screen, along with its database, seems more suited to a commander moving troops around a battlefield, which is no accident. David Bohrman, who oversees CNN’s political coverage, fell in love with the monitor after seeing it at a military intelligence trade show last year. (Mr. Bohrman refused to say how much CNN had paid for the device, which is made by a company called Perceptive Pixel.)

Asked about his new toy on a recent morning at CNN’s New York City headquarters as his fingers darted from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh to Erie in a dry run of the Pennsylvania primary on Tuesday night, Mr. King said the technology enabled him to turn back the clock as much as move it forward. For more than a decade before joining CNN in 1997, Mr. King was a reporter for The Associated Press, and election nights usually found him systematically telephoning precincts to collect their tallies.

“I’m in TV 10 years, but in my head and heart, I’m still an old wire guy, a grunt,” Mr. King said. “You can use this new technology to look at politics the old-fashioned way, which is: who’s finding their people and turning them out?”

And yet Mr. King said that his touch screen allows him to present data in ways far more dazzling and compelling than in his days tapping out election results in A.P. bureaus in Providence, R.I., and later Washington, or even in his early years at CNN. The technology has also helped him solve a problem with which he has occasionally wrestled in his career at CNN: adapting his just-the-facts-ma’am approach to a visual medium.

This is ridiculous. CNN does not have more reporters out in the field to deepen its coverage of the elections. Its staff is not out talking to people in Erie, PA, for instance. Most of the staff, as a matter of fact, are sitting behind desks in the studio, either as analysts, or as producers. The CNN coverage is a lot of lips flapping, adding up to a vapid picture of what is taking place.

No matter how fast Mr. King talks into the camera, or snaps his finger across a screen to enlarge a map, what this new highfalutin machine masks too often in primary after primary and caucus after caucus is the lack of real news to report by CNN, especially in the early hours after the polls close.

Then the Times allowed King to say this without challenge:

“Nothing against white guys, but I’m a white guy talking in a box,” he said, stripping his broadcast performance to its essence. “If all I’m doing is saying, ‘6 percent, 8 percent, 10 percent, 12 percent,’ there’s that glaze-over factor at home. You’ve lost them.”

“The wonder of this,” he said a moment later, gesturing toward what is essentially a giant Etch-a-Sketch, “is that you can show it. You can make the math accessible.”

Since when has being a “white guy” disadvantaged anyone in any way from working in broadcast journalism? This was a ridiculous, stupid, vacuous statement that was just dropped in there and the Times just let it go without challenging its validity.

The Times compounded this ridiculousness by bringing in some story about Mr. King’s wedding to a CNN colleague. Why did the Times spend such valuable news space enhancing Mr. King’s celebrity?

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