This is news?

Full disclosure: For a long time, probably a good 5-6 years, CNN was “my” news station. I had always thought of its journalists as being fairly on-the-ball and objective (or at least, my version of objective, which may or may not be someone else’s). It was also the only news channel I could get in my dorm room, so it was convenient.

I haven’t regularly watched it in quite some time, mostly because I’ve been out of the country. At the time I last watched it, though, I had noticed a marked — and, to my mind, fairly rapid — descent into inanity.

Call me a snob, but I never did like the whole iReporter thing. Some people really appreciate “citizen journalism” and think it has value. To my mind, members of the general public, especially those on the scene of major events, can and should make great sources, and time and again their photos and video make compelling supplementary material. But that’s what it should be, in my opinion — supplementary. It should not replace the work of journalists — people not only trained in writing, editing and news-gathering, but also in ethics, judgment and legal theory. Likewise, Twitter trends can be a good starting point for news items, but they should not be the news item. Not only because Twitter can suffer from herd mentality, but also because a lot of what’s on it just isn’t true (according to Twitter, Johnny Depp died, like, four times last year).

So this trend toward relying on people-on-the-street for news items had already somewhat turned me off. Imagine my horror when I got on Gawker earlier today and saw this. Jon Stewart, bless him, ripped CNN a new one over some of its segments. They range from corny (Stream Team, which … I don’t even know) to borderline offensive (You Choose the News). The example of the latter segment involved an anchor (read: glorified infotainment card-reader) giving the audience three possible story topics. People would text to pick which one they wanted to know more about.

This concept might be cute or funny if it was for animal stories or some other fluff. But the topics to choose from were: the Afghan government’s takeover of women’s shelters, homeless female Iraq/Afghanistan veterans and the arms trade in Abu Dhabi, which has implications for Africa and the Middle East. As Stewart said, “Those all seem kind of important.” Someone in the comments helpfully pointed out that in the time CNN spent shilling (I almost wrote “whoring”) the segment, they could have covered all three stories in a fair amount of detail.

Granted, it’s not just CNN. It’s an easy target because Stewart did such a good job ridiculing it. After spending almost five months living in the UK, I think maybe I’ve just been spoiled by the BBC. The BBC has its share of cute stuff, but more often than not it covers the world hard-core. Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, even Wisconsin: The stories are there. Analyses of fashion, technology, film and music sit next to market reports, biographies of world leaders and multimedia coverage. Reader input is requested and used, but it sits alongside the coverage, giving it depth and perspective.

I wondered, how could the BBC (and even other sources like Al Jazeera English) get things so right and CNN and its ilk get things so … tone-deaf? I believe the answer is that the BBC is considered a public good. Its budget comes from license fees paid in by anyone with a TV set or access to live broadcasts. It is beholden to the British public (and Her Majesty, by Royal Charter), not to any corporate behemoth. Granted it has its own problems — people still accuse it of some bias and some of its anchors’ salaries are under fire — but I don’t think it would ever treat serious news like some sort of raffle prize. Despite accusations of bias (which you’ll find anywhere), it strives to be as non-partisan as possible given its structure and funding. And it’s everywhere.

On the other end is CNN (and Fox and MSNBC and to a somewhat lesser extent the networks), taken to corporate news’ inevitable conclusion: the watering down of issues and news turned into entertainment and entertainment trying to pass itself off as news.