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Sean Daly, Michelle Stark and Sharon Kennedy Wynne

Will Piers Morgan hire reveal news-first standard officially gone at CNN?

20

July

Piers-morgan I’ll be honest: These are wearying times for a media critic hoping to hold news outlets to some standards of independence, integrity and consistency.

Nowhere is that struggle more obvious than on cable TV, where audiences seem to have voted decisively with their remotes. From ESPN to Fox News, hyperbolic, overblown displays rule the prime time ratings, where codes of journalistic consistency and standards of fairness have eroded to the point of non-existence.

Which brings us to CNN, where intensifying rumors that the cable newschannel is finalizing talks with America’s Got Talent judge Piers Morgan to assume the marquee 9 p.m. timeslot now occupied by Larry King, seem to be the final admission that the news-first strategy once favored by Ted Turner’s brainchild is officially ancient history.

The first sign, of course, was the hiring of disgraced former New York Gov. Elliot Spitzer and conservative columnist Kathleen Parker to replace Campbell Brown at 8 p.m. In a matchup which first sounded like a practical joke – “Where’s the one place an ex-governor ousted for hiring prostitutes would feel like the least scummy guy in the building? The TV news industry!” (rimshot) – CNN busted its habit of hiring actual broadcast journalists for its high profile gigs.

Now, press accounts say the cable newschannel known for groundbreaking coverage of the first Persian Gulf War is poised to pay anywhere from $2-million to $8-million annually for Morgan, a former British tabloid newspaper editor who was fired from the Daily Mirror in 2004 for publishing faked photos of English troops abusing Iraqi prisoners.

One TV executive I spoke to about the Morgan hire cautioned against underestimating him. Though he’s known mostly for reality TV gigs stateside, in England Morgan has hosted many different programs and made headlines by making then-British prime minister Gordon Brown and his wife cry during an interview for his King-like chat show Piers Morgan’s Life Stories.

Still there’s troubling signs ahead, if and when this deal is finalized. Here’s my top notions on what this may mean for CNN and TV news in general:

No new ideas – The Spitzer/Parker show sounds like a rehash of Crossfire with two people who have never worked as permanent hosts of a prime time TV show before. Morgan will likely offer a sharper, smarter take on King’s tabloid-friendly celebrity interviews. Neither notion sounds like a particularly new direction for CNN or cable news in general, or a particularly strong challenge to Fox News and MSNBC.

The official divorce between news and cable newschannels in prime time – CNN seemed to be the last cable newschannel willing to promote journalists such as Brown, John King, and Anderson Cooper as central parts of its brand. So, amid rumors John King may also be on the way out, what happens when the top three cable newschannels devote their highest-profile timeslots to something other than news? (go ahead and say it; you think they already do).

The chief qualification for a cable news anchor gig is officially drawing eyeballs – Back when George Stephanopoulos decided to turn from manipulating news outlets for politicians to working for them, he spent long years covering political stories and developing the bona-fides to become ABC’s Number Two news anchor. But cable news was always a looser land (especially on the more desperate channels), allowing ex-politicos such as Joe Scarborough and Alan Keyes to lead shows, sometimes after stepping right off the campaign trail.

But its hard to remember the last time, if ever, a politico jumped from a career-ending scandal to an anchor job. Or, in Morgan’s case, a so-called reality show featuring performers who stick electric drills up their nostrils.

The only question left: Whether this disappointing turn by an outlet once known as the most traditional cable news network is a sign of how dysfunctional its management has become, or the audience.

        

[Last modified: Thursday, August 12, 2010 2:15pm]

    

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