Why CNN Struggles to Cover The Economic Panic

The current economic collapse is a difficult story for TV. It's a peculiar period in between an election and an inauguration. This most important story, this great-or-not-so great depression, is also the hardest for CNN to tell. I have more than enough reasons why in this late-night rant.

1) It's not a hurricane so Anderson Cooper of CNN is unable to position himself in the middle of the storm for optimal drama. In other words, TV anchors can't get wet and windblown, while viewers worry about their safety. The state of the economy is a disaster but not a natural disaster. Nobody's leaving the studio for this one. There's no place to go.

2) It's like a war and we keep losing ground each day. In the place of casualties, we have falling stock indices but it's hard to show the real damage. There's only so much you can do with oversized charts to tell a story. The war on terrorism featured a real enemy. We've just never been able to find them, no matter who goes after them. (Maybe it's not so different.) Campbell Brown ("No Bull, No Bias") should say that what the capitalism's finest did to themselves and to us was worse than any terrorist could have imagined.

3) Few CEOs, fewer economists, and almost no one in the financial industry, want to step forward and say with conviction what will happen. A year ago we couldn't get them to stop telling us what great things to expect in the next quarter. Not now. They don't know what's coming and they aren't willing to say even that much. They are MIA. Insider information is at an all-time low.

Memo to all American CEOs: don't presume in ten years' time to write business books about your leadership skills; maybe there's a gripping survival story to be told about how you held on to your job.

We want them to face the music. Even the Watergate hearings, which had a large cast of characters, were compelling to watch day after day.

4) There is not a President at the center. Bush is just not there. Like us, he's watching TV to find out what to think. Reporting from the White House doesn't have any relevance today. Moreover, the satisfaction in blaming Bush for everything is diminishing.

In addition, with the election over, reporters can't simply ask the candidates to react to the day's bad news. It seldom produced much insight anyway but it filled time. Now Obama is filling time, and he keeps repeating that "there's only one President" but there's really not a President. There's a leadership vacuum waiting to be filled by Obama. (BTW, this story is much bigger and more important than Obama's election and I think he understands that.) Bottom line is we're waiting for a central figure to emerge.

5) Real experts are hard to find, especially ones with big hair. So over-present talking heads such as Suze Orman ramble on and on in front of Larry King and others. Here's an incredible ramble from Suze Orman on CNN:

People feel they need medication because they are panicking.

It's as if the economy right now is in the I.C.U. unit of a hospital. We are in intensive care and they are throwing everything type of medication at us to cure what is going on. They are panicking because why? Nothing is working. They tried this, it didn't work. They tried that medication, it didn't work. They are running out of prescriptions to give it. We are going to be in the I.C.U. unit for a while. Eventually, I don't know when that will be, six months, a year, year and a half, we will get out, we'll be in the hospital then. We'll stay in the hospital for about a year or two. After another year or two we will end up in rehab and then we'll be okay. This is a long stretch. People have to stop panicking.

CNN link

Makes me think of Amy Winehouse singing "They try to make me go to rehab, I say no, no, no." Rehab is taking place over on CNBC.

6) Where are the winning and losing teams? We have learned more about Al Queda cells and Saddam Hussein's Elite Guards than about the people in power behind CITI, Goldman Sachs, Lehmann Brothers, AIG, etc. We know more about the New York Jets than we do about CITI Bank. Are the slow-moving Detroit Manufacturers competing head-to-head against the fast-talking Wall Street Financiers? Please tell us more about these teams as we're entrusting them with such large amounts of public money. Maybe we need to start thinking that, as with football, we care because we're betting on teams to win. We have our money at stake.

7) I can almost hear producers wondering each night if there isn't a better story to lead with. "Isn't there a story we can do on Sarah Palin? Like her or hate her, people can't get enough of her." At least that appears to be the thinking behind her getting the most air-time in the week following the election. Would you rather hear about Sarah Palin pardoning a turkey or David Gergen saying no one knows what to make of the economic mess? At least, the Palin piece will have something interesting going on in the foreground and the background.

8) "Why can't this be happening to Russia or China? If it was only happening there, and not here, we would know how to cover it." CNN would send Christiane Amanpour there. "Live from…". We don't have visuals like people knocking down walls, rushing into the streets or standing in lines. The Fall of the Berlin Wall is the Fall of Communism, the fall of Saddam's statue — now these are stories of new freedoms. In America today, we have a big fall without a distinctive symbol, without a video loop, without an exotic locale.

Also, how do you explain that China is providing the bail for the bailout? As David Gergen said tonight on CNN, "China's become our banker." Even harder to tell that kind of "freedom" story.

9) The problems aren't going away and there's no timeline. So, where's the equivalent of "America Held Hostage: Day XN"? Nightline evolved from a special report to become a nightly hard-news program to follow the ongoing story of Iran holding American hostages during the Carter Administration. Why isn't this economic story played front-and-center in the same way? Isn't there a TV journalist saying "Holy Christ, this is the biggest story of my career and I'm going to bring it to you every night"? Ted Koppel, Edward R. Murrow, where are you?

Here's my list of names for a new Nightline-like special series on the economy:

  • America's Panic Attack

  • The Joke's on US

  • Invisible Hand-Wringing

  • Capitalism on the Ledge

  • The Economy on the Couch

  • Future Shock & Awe

  • Hitting the Wall And Falling on the Street.

  • America Sucks Right Now

  • US: Out of Order

10) Lastly, the TV media is no better off than we are at understanding this complex crisis. On a gut level, viewers know what the story is, that it's about them, their future and their children's future. They have specific questions that are difficult to answer (see the Suze Orman blog on CNN where it is promised that she'll answer these many, many questions; she doesn't, of course.) and they have general worries (should I panic?) that are hard to resolve. While we try to absorb as much information as possible, we keep having the same conversation over and over:

Q. What's going on?

A. I don't know. It's hard to tell.