The Power of the 24-Hour News Cycle

On the 25th anniversary weekend of CNN's creation, Liane Hansen speaks with NPR's Media Correspondent David Folkenflik about the significance and culture of 24-hour news networks.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Joining us to talk about the evolution of cable news over the past 25 years is David Folkenflik, NPR's media correspondent.

David, first of all, paint us a picture of what the broadcast news world was like 25 years ago. Was there a big demand for more news beyond what the three main networks offered?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK reporting:

Well, there may have been a demand. There was certainly a real opportunity. Obviously, the three main networks were there. They commanded an extraordinary plurality, majority of the audience at any time, you know, 80 percent more. You think back at the media landscape, you know, major cities had three newspapers or more. It was a time when there were outlets in print. There were fewer on the airwaves. This was a point at which Ted Turner, sort of a maverick, very willful, as Dan Schorr described earlier, really saw an opportunity to say `There's not serious in-depth news being done. Maybe this is my time.' He certainly had the ability to put it together with his media empire.

HANSEN: Would you say that there was a particular news event that established CNN and then ensured some longevity for the network?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, there's certainly moments along the way. I was in high school in the mid-'80s and you think of the shuttle disaster and that was certainly one place where people gathered around sort of a communal place. But I think more than anything, the first Gulf War under the first President Bush, you had, you know, Peter Arnett, Bernard Shaw were actually in Baghdad. They seemed to be under fire. They were able to get access to Iraqi officials at a time after President Bush had sort of said to the media: `It's time to come home. It's going to be too dangerous there.' I think that sort of was riveting for people to watch.

Tom Brokaw, if I'm remembering correctly, on the air acknowledged that, you know, this was sort of a moment for CNN when all the media was taking its cues from them. And they became sort of this indispensable wallpaper.

HANSEN: Well, then did the success of CNN, it becoming this indispensable wallpaper, spur other organizations?

FOLKENFLIK: I think that's exactly right. As sort of penetration occurred in American households, it's sort of an awkward term to indicate how many people actually get cable or these days cable and satellite television. And '96 was sort of a seminal year for cable news. That's when both MSNBC and FOX News popped up. It was initially thought that perhaps MSNBC would be the real challenge to CNN. After all, you had the joint power of General Electric, the owner of NBC, and Microsoft, you know, these two, you know, enormously powerful corporations. But it was Rupert Murdoch's FOX News that proved a much more potent competitor.

HANSEN: So what happened to CNN? How did it fare when all of a sudden they're not the only player in the cable world?

FOLKENFLIK: They seemed to do great during much of the '90s and then 2000, 2001 you saw suddenly that FOX News was really starting to vie with them for ratings. It was really cheek-by-jowl for a while there, and in late 2001, after the attacks, after the invasion of Afghanistan, it became clear that FOX News really had a ratings lead. And CNN ever since, actually to be honest, since the late '90s, has engaged in kind of this leadership by revolving door where every 14 to 24 months you see somebody at the top kicked out and a brand-new grand philosophy announced. It's been an awkward time for them.

HANSEN: What about the journalism? I mean, how does it compare in cable news today with newspapers and network news?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, if you read Ted Turner's vision--and he's now really no longer involved in the running of CNN--but if you read what he had to say back when it was launched, he sort of described it as a newspaper of the air. He said, `You know, broadcast networks are really too much like headline wire service copy.' In a sense, that's what much of the time cable news functions as. They give you brief bursts of updates. In fact, MSNBC now every 15 minutes gives you an update of the news. And in between they're trying to figure out ways to keep you watching. So they'll do reported pieces. They'll do a lot of interviews. There are a lot of talk shows. And to be honest, there's a lot of things that we would classify as kind of pulpy, quasi-tabloid, quasi-celebrity news; anything that's sort of waiting for the next great crisis. And when crisis hits, people turn to cable, they particularly turn to CNN. And when crisis abates, they kind of tune it out. They don't need it as much.

HANSEN: What do you think, then, that cable news has contributed to journalism?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, you know, in a couple of ways, you know, particularly CNN has a real foreign reach. And when crisis happens, they have the knowledge and ability to go places and to have voices of the place, not simply somebody in London narrating something that they had feed from some remote freelancer of a freelancer. And I think that's valuable. They've kind of served as a broadcast wire service in that way.

In addition, on the other hand, you see newspapers and networks covering things that they might not have done. You know, there was the coverage of the Chandra Levy case, that disappeared former congressional intern who was said to have an involvement with a congressman from Modesto, California. Well, it was because there were journalists there that they ended up covering the disappearance of Laci Peterson, who is not somebody who is a celebrity and who was not connected to anybody famous or prominent in any particularly way, but was an attractive woman who had disappeared and whose husband was convicted of killing her. That became a story that cable covered endlessly and as a result that newspapers covered and network news even touched on in a way that I don't think would have occurred without the cable news.

HANSEN: David Folkenflik is NPR's media correspondent.

David, thank you.

FOLKENFLIK: Good to join you.

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