The 24-hour cable news network that's redefining non-stop news picked the wrong story today. In case you hadn't seen, history is unfolding in Egypt right now. It is truly earth-shattering news. But the poop-cruise network has spent the entire day broadcasting the bumbling minutiae of the George Zimmerman trial in Florida instead, relegating the chaos in Cairo to a picture-in-picture box in the corner. The only time CNN broke to cover Egypt in any sort of real depth was when the trial broke for lunch. And then it was back to the sad new reality of American TV news now.
Across social media, CNN faced huge amounts of criticism for choosing to cover a small but microcosmic domestic trial while a very important government in the Middle East, one that has close ties to the U.S., was falling. "Gotham gets the CNN it deserves," wrote Circa's Anthony De Rosa. Indeed, CNN has spent this important day fulfilling every cynical commentary about the non-stop Trayvon Martin murder trial coverage, about the Carnival Cruise thing, about the true-crime obsession, about all of CNN's attempts at rebranding under new president Jeff Zucker by way of story torture. Where was Will McAvoy when we needed him?
What made matters worse was the ridiculous, television unfriendly morning in the trial itself. George Zimmerman's college professor was attempting to Skype in to give his testimony remotely. But a bunch of trolls started calling the prosecutor during questioning, disrupting the call, making it impossible for anyone to hear what the professor was saying, turning the entire mess into televised garbage.
CNN currently airing a bunch of people confused over what Skype is, so perfect.— Anthony De Rosa (@AntDeRosa) July 3, 2013
There were a lot of moments like this:
CNN was taking the brunt of critics' complaints, but MSNBC, even with a military deadline approaching, pre-empted The Daily Rundown with hosted coverage from outside the Florida courthouse, and they weren't the only domestic network going full-Zimmerman Wednesday morning:
All three major cable nets on Zimmerman trial live, fwiw.— David Folkenflik (@davidfolkenflik) July 3, 2013
And, to be fair, for a while some of the prestigious international networks we expect to be more sophisticated were ignoring Egypt in favor of Zimmerman coverage, too:
Hey, Al Jazeera English is finally live from Egypt.— Alex Fitzpatrick (@AlexJamesFitz) July 3, 2013
Incredibly, neither the BBC nor Al Jazeera are airing the Zimmerman trial.— David Colton (@DColtonNow) July 3, 2013
By 11 a.m., questions were being asked. Why are CNN and MSNBC so obsessed with this trial? And, truthfully, it's because of ratings. They're both still getting walloped by Fox News, and stories like Zimmerman and Paula Deen are working for them, even if that kind of programming can be deeply misguided. The American cable networks, at this point in their business re-alignment and endless competition, are not interested in driving the most important news so much as the most watchable news. Lord knows we've covered CNN's descent into full-on poop cruisedom here in the past, but there was always some balance, always some balast that you knew they were aware of the importance of international news, that it didn't go ignored, or completely relegated to the corner of the screen. But today was the first time — even after forgoing State of the Union preparation for the Chris Dorner manhunt, even after days of running the Zimmerman trial for hours on end — that CNN was really running with it, real news be damned. As Politico's Dylan Byers explained, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News are just giving the people what they want:
The truth is, CNN's programming decisions aren't a reflection of CNN so much as a reflection of the American people, more of whom care about a domestic court trial than about the historic events taking place overseas. Right now, CNN International is broadcasting wall-to-wall coverage from Egypt. The fact that CNN's domestic channel isn't should tell you what executives there think about the American people's interests. And sure, CNN could take the lead and cover what they think the American people should care about, but that's not necessarily a great business strategy.
Networks executives, try as they might, can't change what people want to consume, and it was only a matter of time before the same people who turned celebrity news into the beast it is today claimed the real news, too. This is the Stars: They're Just Like Us! moment for things that actually matter.
Perhaps the most embarrassing part of CNN's Egyptian ignorance, though, is the lengths to which its anchors went, on-air, to avoid mentioning the upheaval in Egypt — aside from, you know, that box. CNN anchors refused to talk about Egypt even when the Zimmerman trial was sidelined by the Skype call. Instead, Ashleigh Banfield and Jeffrey Toobin went to great lengths, promising viewers that "won't miss a moment of the testimony" and explaining at length how Skype works, which is ridiculous. My elderly aunt knows how to use Skype at this point.
If you're wondering why people are so mean to CNN, Mediaite's Matt Wilstein explains:
CNN is certainly not alone in putting the Zimmerman trial above all other news. Fox and MSNBC have been relentlessly covering the proceedings, especially during this holiday week, which, until Egypt started to erupt in protest again, was relatively devoid of other major news. But while those two channels’ dedication to American “politics” could be seen as an excuse (if you consider the trial political to begin with), how can CNN maintain its desired role as the one and only destination for breaking news if it barely covers the biggest breaking story of the day at the height of its action? And with sister network HLN also completely devoted to “gavel-to-gavel” Zimmerman coverage, shouldn’t that allow CNN the opportunity to cover the bigger picture?
Deep down, we all want Wolf Blitzer to be our Will McAvoy:
Next season on "The Newsroom," Will McAvoy heroically forces ACN to break from Zimmerman coverage to Egypt coverage.— daveweigel (@daveweigel) July 3, 2013
Finally, CNN broke from the clutches of Zimmerman coverage just in time to air a statement from the Muslim Brotherhood. But it wasn't a matter of journalistic integrity. It wasn't something noble or worthy of praise. It was, in fact, because the trial broke for lunch:
Now that Zimmerman trial recessed for lunch, cable news looks to Egypt.— Alex Weprin (@alexweprin) July 3, 2013
Egypt has overthrown George Zimmerman on CNN— Anthony De Rosa (@AntDeRosa) July 3, 2013
The Revolution Will Not be Televised. (Except when the Zimmerman trial is in recess.)— Matthew Miller (@matthewamiller) July 3, 2013
And there was at least some evidence of dissent among the CNN ranks. Blitzer was visibly displeased when producers returned to Zimmerman coverage while tanks were rolling through the streets in Cairo. Meanwhile, the rest of the network was ordering that we pay even more attention to the secondary and tertiary witnesses rolling through Seminole County Circuit Court in Sanford, Florida:
Wolf Blitzer sounds pissed handing it back to the Zimmerman trial. "There's historic news in Egypt right now ... other news going on, too."— Brett LoGiurato (@BrettLoGiurato) July 3, 2013
CNN switches from Cairo--to mere re-cap of morning Zimmerman trial. Says it's "transfixed America."— Greg Mitchell (@GregMitch) July 3, 2013
Today will go down as the day the CNN dream died. It won't get better from here. It's only going to get poopier.
Update, 3:08 p.m. Eastern: Morsi is out, but CNN will be back to its regularly scheduled programming shortly....