By David Zurawik
The Baltimore Sun
9:39 PM EDT, October 5, 2011
I promised myself I was going to give CNN's new weeknight host Erin Burnett a full week of shows before I reviewed her.
It was hard keeping that promise Monday night when I saw her pay a visit to the Occupy Wall Street encampment so she could look down her nose and mock the folks there. I thought it downright cruel the way she and her producer cut one kid from the herd and then tried to make him look like a fool. This was cool kids mocking outsiders on the playground, and it made me angry.
But I laid off, hoping it was just an opening-night, adrenaline mistake.
Silly me. It wasn't. Not by a mile.
After filmmaker Michael Moore expressed his dismay at her Monday-night report, she tried to make light of him during her Tuesday show, putting on goofy glasses, essentially laughing it off and telling him to lighten up. And then she dangled the big carrot: He should come on her mighty show and talk about it -- as if Moore is going to be co-opted by being on a cable news show that barely draws half a million viewers. (Maybe less by the time I post this Wednesday night.)
I don't often find myself agreeing with Michael Moore, but he has a seriousness, a sense of purpose and even an integrity about what he does that are the very opposite of what Burnett seemed to embody in her first three shows.
As much as I am old-school enough to err on the side of being fair, I can't wait until Friday night to write about what I saw and felt Monday. Given online news cycles, I probably should have written this piece by 9 p.m. Monday.
By now, there is already a consensus building about Burnett based on her trip to Occupy Wall Street, and none of it is good for her or CNN's, um, latest "adventure" in weeknight programming.
I'll write more about Burnett if readers want me to, but let me focus for now on the larger problem with her -- and the trip to Occupy Wall Street is only a symptom of it. At a time when many people come to cable news looking for someone they can trust to help lead them out of the economic nightmare this country has plunged them into, she comes across as self-satisfied, smug, privileged and feeling not one whit of their pain. In fact, she's there to mock them and sarcastically say, "seriously!?" -- as she did of the protesters.
It is clear that CNN needs some flow from her to Anderson Cooper at 8 p.m., and someone wrongly decided one way to make that happen is with her having lots of attitude. Her "seriously" trope is supposed to be a cousin to Cooper's "The RidicuList," I guess.
But here's the problem: Cooper earned the right to flash a bit of attitude and call some folks out. And he earned it as a journalist after Katrina in New Orleans, after the earthquake in Haiti and in the way he took on British Petroleum and the Obama administration officials who tried to keep him and his producers from seeing the true extent of damage after the oil spill in the gulf.
And beyond the sound journalism, Cooper showed heart. He did get upset when he saw children suffering in Haiti, and like Dr. Sanjay Gupta, he showed impatience and anger when institutions and bureaucracies seemed insensitive to the misery he was trying to chronicle.
In other words, Cooper earned a kind of moral (or, at least, cultural) authority through his work as a journalist on CNN.
Two of the fundamental attributes of good journalism are curiosity and a respect for the people on whom you report. Burnett got an "F" on both those counts with her Occupy Wall Street piece. Not only didn't she listen hard enough to learn anything from the people in the group, she and her producers positioned the speakers to be seen as objects of derision. That is deplorable.
There is another large issue here, and that involves her producers and management at CNN. Don't they understand how Cooper earned his authority -- and how she absolutely hasn't? Do they think you can manufacture moral and cultural authority in a Manhattan office building and confer it on someone like the Pope handing out a blessing when you give them a nightly show? Didn't they learn anything from the Spitzer debacle? And don't they understand where this nation is and the desperate pain it is in?
I guess not, or they would have understood that Occupy Wall Street is an eruption of that pain, a sign of something deeply disturbing that has happened to the quality of American life and our ability to believe in the future any more. And the worst thing your new host could do is go out and look down her nose at the encampment and ignorantly dismiss its residents.
Did I say how much I hated her flip description of the encampment as having a "kind of a Tent City meets Woodstock kind of feel," as if she even starts to understand what it felt like to be in either of those communities -- or the deep social forces that led to those profound cultural moments?
I thought CNN was crazy for letting Kathleen Parker debut in silk and pearls in her first ill-fated evening onscreen alongside Eliot Spitzer, the least trusted man in America. I suggested they look at the understated, austere way Fox News channel's Greta Van Susteren wisely dressed in these hard, dark economic times.
Heck, Parker's problem was just a cosmetic one -- and the creep she was sitting next to.
Burnett's problem runs much deeper from what I have seen -- it runs straight through to the persona, if not the person herself.
It seems as if she doesn't get journalism, and she sure doesn't get America, at least not the one I live in -- seriously.
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