Television

Mideast Media Bazaar

Why Connie Chung's loss is the world's gain

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Among Gulf War II's casualties is veteran news anchor Connie Chung, who's just been given a dishonorable discharge by CNN. As the Chicago Tribune reports, Connie Chung Tonight, already preempted by expanded war coverage hosted by the media somnambulist and golf nut Aaron Brown, has been cancelled.

While the show's failure was deserved on its own (de)merits—in one of his rare accurate and unobjectionable comments, CNN founder Ted Turner last winter called Connie Chung Tonight "just awful"—it also opens a discussion of how the mainstream media are struggling to cover the fighting in Iraq in an age of radical decentralization of news sources and feeds. In fact, despite the blathering of media critics in the pages of The Nation and elsewhere, news junkies have never had so much journo-smack to choose from.

Such critics mistake ownership consolidation for ideological consolidation—as if all of us don't have vastly more info sources at our fingertips than we did a decade or three ago. There's a good case that this is not an accident of consolidation but in fact its direct result: In a bid to serve larger and larger numbers of people, category killers ranging from Home Depot to Disney typically expand the range of products they offer their customers. Even if you don't buy that argument consider the fact that even Noam Chomsky, America's self-styled "dissident intellectual," has topped the bestseller lists in this dire age of corporate repression. That seems as sure a sign of a robust marketplace of ideas as one might possibly imagine.

Indeed, it's worth remembering that CNN came of age with its remarkable 24/7 coverage of the 1991 Gulf War, the first such conflict to benefit—if that's the right term—from fully functioning cable news channels. Even though the Pentagon tightly controlled news access to military sources and battle situations, CNN's live-from-Baghdad reportage vastly expanded the amount of information available to viewers around the globe.

A decade later, such an important supplement to traditional networks and newspapers almost seems quaint, as the number of easily accessed perspectives and news outlets has vastly multiplied. In the United States, trailblazer CNN has fallen victim to such creative destruction. It's now an also-ran, losing U.S. market- and mind-share to the relatively new Fox News Channel. As the Tribune notes, "Through the first five days of the war, Fox News Channel has averaged 4.16 million viewers each day, compared with CNN's 3.74 million. Fox's audience was larger when the war began March 19 and each day through Sunday, according to Nielsen Media Research." And as Reason's Tim Cavanaugh suggested here on Monday, Qatar-based Al Jazeera, which like Fox News Channel didn't exist in 1991, is eating CNN's lunch on the international stage.

More important than the rise of rival cable and satellite news channels has been the rise of the World Wide Web, which has had a powerful though widely underappreciated double effect. First, it has allowed all traditional media outlets to effectively reach a global audience. Hence, those of us who live in areas not served by The New York Times on a daily basis nevertheless have immediate access to its pages, not to mention foreign sources galore. Second, new media filters and sources ranging from The Drudge Report to Yahoo! to Salon to Instapundit to Where is Raed? have altered both what is considered news and how we consume it. Where we might have once looked for an authoritative source on a given topic, we now expect and demand multiple perspectives. In the marketplace of ideas, as in any other sort of market, we're effectively haggling over truth claims.

However tough such a "bazaar model" may be on established outfits such as CNN, it's that much tougher on governments and "official" news sources. To be sure, the Pentagon has pulled a neat trick by "embedding" reporters with combat troops. While such a situation has resulted in much genuinely fascinating reportage, the camaraderie that inevitably results minimizes critical distance even as it ostensibly grants unprecedented access. Yet whatever journalistic Stockholm Syndrome might result—and there's no question that even sanctioned reports are often useful and interesting in their own right—is dwarfed by the larger set of media resources now available.

Connie Chung's —and CNN's—loss is the world's gain.