While I am still thinking about the role that social media played in facilitating recent protests in Iran, let me draw your attention to the fact that today is that rare day when Twitter users have had the guts to accuse someone else of being shallow and inattentive to global affairs. Could those be the early signs of maturity in a community that has spent a good chunk of the last few months obsessing over the perturbations of Susan Boyle and Ashton Kutcher?
The most recent target of a Twitter-induced moral panic is CNN, which, according to some globally-minded Twitterati, has abdicated its responsibility to report on the protests that are unfolding in the streets of Tehran and has, thus, signed off in its impotence. Make no mistake, moral panic it is: CNN, which passed on the Tehran story to give more coverage to the bankruptcy of Six Flags, the challenges involved in switching from analogue to digital television, and, to top it all, the lifestyle of bikers (who were invited to share their thoughts with Larry King – actually, a re-run) has been chosen to embody everything that is wrong with today's infotainment-driven television media.
This collective rage has turned into massive anti-CNN cyberprotests under the common "CNNfail” hashtag on Twitter (see good overviews of this on ReadWriteWeb and CNET). Currently, it's in the list of the ten trending topics; the Twitter-rage doesn't seem to abate (some of it is pretty funny: “CNN: the most trusted name in snooze” is my favorite). I've been digging into some of the most fervent CNN criticism generated by “CNNfail” and some of is quite reasonably. My reading of the situation is that most Twitter users talk about CNN's actions (or, rather, lack thereof) as if there existed some implicit social contract between the TV channel and its viewers: CNN promises to feed them a certain type of news and viewers watch it based on those promises. If CNN over-promises and under-delivers, fewer people would watch it as a result.
From this perspective, we'll know if CNN really failed in a month or two, with the publication of precise audience numbers and their levels of satisfaction; those who find CNN's focus on the bikers terrifying would turn simply tune out or move to a different channel. I am, however, quite skeptical that this is likely happen; if we are really talking only about audience numbers here, there are surely many more viewers out there who are interested in the life of Paris Hilton than in how Iran's protests end.
There are, of course, numerous reasons for this. CNN might simply be trying to maximize their revenue, not entirely a bad thing given the grim future of traditional media. Over the years, they, along with other news networks, have pushed the definition of what counts as news beyond any reasonable limits—today's “news” is surprisingly much cheaper to produce, for example – and now they are simpling ripping the benefits.
Besides, CNN has always created value through superior access. 20 years ago it was superior access to places like China and Iran, where few freelancers would venture into and where locals would be unable to report the news due to the lack of equipment and the heavy expenses associated with training, knowing how to get the tapes out the country, and so forth. This era is certainly gone, for the locals have been empowered to report news on their own, via Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and, most importantly, mobile phones. CNN's superior access advantage has been greatly eroded.
On the international news front, what they still have left is their ability to feature sophisticated commentary of the likes of Christiane Amanpour next to the footage that their broadcast. That is, “sophisticated” as opposed to the banal commentary of some locals armed with mobile phones, who, of course, do not always have the luxury of being able to compare Beijing in 1989 to Moscow in 1991 to Kyiv in 2004 to Chisinau in 2009. However, I am not sure what everyone is interested – replace Christiane Amanpour with a properly trained and knowledgeable local expert, and the accompanying footage would be as well-received.
At the moment, the only true advantage (at least, in terms of access) that CNN enjoys is their access to the world of Paris Hilton et al: if you really want to get 60 minutes of infotainment brainwashing on what is going on in Paris's head, you can't really trust citizen journalists with the task. No self-respecting celebrity – save for the really desperate ones – would sit down with bloggers for that long on a regular basis. There is nothing very surprising, then, that CNN is trying to use this access advantage to its fullest; it's more popular – plus, it's also much cheaper.
In light of all this, one lesson that I draw from the “CNNfail” debacle is that CNN as an international news venture is dead. Of all stories they had to report in the Middle East this year, this was the most important one – and they failed badly, which, to me, is the best reflection of their priorities. What we really need to figure out is how to fill in the CNN vacuum. I happen to think that cultivating demand and interest for international news is incredibly worthwhile, but also very tough (however, not impossible). I don't think that we can simply leave this task to the market forces; the fact that there is arguably much more international content on the Web – Twitter, Facebook, Global Voices Online and many other sites are great examples - does not mean that there is any more demand for this content.
The problem with relying on Twitter to supply you with a rich international news diet is that finding this content on Twitter and unknown local blogs is a high-effort activity; not only do you need to know which Twitter users you could follow and trust, you also need to be constantly on the look-out for new hashtags and discussion threads. Not so with television: you may be zapping your way to MTV and be serendipitously exposed to a mesmerizing report about Iranian elections, which would then force you to go online and read more about it.
There are many more advantages to having international news presented in the visual rather than textual format: it's easier to follow, there is usually more context, and moving images could be very powerful. Ultimately, I think it all boils down to human nature: most of us are just not inquisitive enough to make an effort of finding out what is happening in places we cannot really relate to (not to mention, place them on a map). To me, the only way to change that is to hijack other processes we are involved in (e.g. finding our way to our favorite reality shows) and introducing little dozes of serendipity-driven international coverage into them.
The most curious feature of the “CNNfail”hashtag campaign is the simultaneous use of another hashtag - “NPRwin” – meant to highlight the excellent work that NPR has done in covering the protests. For someone like me, it's very easy to like the NPR folks: free of profit-maximization motives that have squeezed most of other media outlets, they can afford to go into as much depth as they think is necessary. Unfortunately, they are not in TV business, but it doesn't mean that a non-profit model for international news cannot exist.
As far as I am concerned, the solution here is simple: we need to create a government-funded international news channel to supplant the failing CNN. I think that NPR's existing fund-raising model – the combination of funds raised from public and private sources – may potentially work too, but I also think that, since television usually operates on a different expense scale, it may be better off to simply provide it with government funding from the outset and free them of the fund-raising burden for the first five-ten years of their existence.
After all, BBC in Britain is funded with public funds; as a matter of fact, BBC has been widely praised for its rich and diverse coverage of the Iran protests. Deciding whether this new TV channel would be directly underwritten by the government or money should be raised from individual taxpayers is not really that important; the main thing is to fill in the international news vacuum left by the departure of CNN (and several others) from the business of serious reporting of international news. If this also means less reliance on advertising, so be it; the very point of subsidized international news is to
This channel should go beyond CNN's 40-hour workweek and work the real 24/7 news cycle; “this happened on a Sunday” should never again be cited as an excuse for not covering an election or any other important geopolitical event. They should find a way in which to integrate social media from across the entire Internet and not just from their own citizen journalism brands (iReport in CNN's case). They have to acknowledge that their main value lies in their brand and not in their primary delivery platform; if this means offering many more features on the Internet than they do on television broadcasts, so be it; the Web should be at the center of their activities and not at their periphery.
If this new channel could implement even one third of these suggestions – as well as of many others that are slowly emerging thanks to the “CNNfail” hashtag – we'd be living in a much more stimulating and intellectually-challenging news environment...For now, we'll have to satisfy ourselves with stories about Ronaldo's memorable moments and social networking sites for film-lovers – two articles featured prominently on CNN's page at the moment.
photo by Alan Stoddard/Flickr
Evgeny Morozov, originally from Belarus, is a visiting scholar at Stanford and a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation.