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CNN finds its identity in attack coverage

Published Sep. 10, 2005

One of the many things to end with the events of Sept. 11 may be CNN's identity crisis.

At least CNN's new chairman, Walter Isaacson, hopes so. He said he has a clearer picture of the cable news network's role after the terrorist attacks.

"This tragic situation has helped us on our true mission and the vital importance of what we do," Isaacson said. "Our true mission is to do hard reporting and smart analysis. It's to be reasoned and calm and to cover international news in a serious way."

Before the attacks, all the changes CNN made over the past year _ layoffs, programming shuffles and Isaacson's hiring _ hadn't changed one simple truth: Fox News Channel was nipping at CNN's heels and CNN didn't know what to do about it.

CNN tried to beat Fox by imitating it. Isaacson said that's over.

"For a while, CNN was searching for its mission and trying to chase ratings," he said. "I don't know that that's our mission now."

The news story of the summer _ remember Gary Condit? _ played to Fox News Channel's strengths in sharp and entertaining prime-time talk.

The news story of the moment, and probably for months to come, plays to CNN's news gathering strengths, particularly its unmatched presence and aggressiveness overseas.

Viewers seem to sense this. The audience for each news network has grown dramatically since the attacks, but it's grown more for CNN.

CNN averaged just under 3-million viewers for the week starting Sept. 11, up 813 percent from its daily average of 323,000 this year through Sept. 10, according to Nielsen Media Research. Fox increased 478 percent, from 289,000 to 1.7-million, and MSNBC grew by 446 percent, from 223,000 to 1.2-million.

On the night of Sept. 11, more people watched CNN's coverage than at any point in the network's 20 years, counting the networks that simulcast CNN's feed.

Though Isaacson can talk about not chasing ratings at a time ratings are chasing him, he won't always have that luxury.

"CNN will probably show a very sustained ratings rebound for the next three to six months," said Porter Bibb, a media specialist for Technology Partners and author of a book on CNN founder Ted Turner. "Then it's a whole new ballgame."

Then Isaacson faces the same problem that bedeviled his predecessors: trying to get the people who tune to CNN in a crisis from leaving when the crisis is over.