David Zurawik

CNN, MSNBC, Fox show true colors in choice of stories this week

Ashleigh Banfield, Nancy Grace and CNN going all out to have a total on-location feel to its coverage.

Last week was a great one for cable news watching.

Not because any one channel did such outstanding work, but rather because several stories clamored simultaneously for the camera’s attention. The choices that a channel makes in such situations are usually one of the best barometers of where it really lives.

After two days and nights of watching CNN ping-pong back and forth on location from the Cleveland captivity story to the Jodi Arias trial in Arizona, I can say for the first time since Jeff Zucker took over as president in January that I have a pretty good idea of where his CNN is headed day-to-day. And the ratings last week say that direction might be a good one — at least, in a business sense.

Besides watching multiple stories compete, developments last week also highlighted the ways in which the Internet and social media are interacting with and changing TV.

The topsy-turvy world of media got a little topsier and turvier when Arias, who murdered her boyfriend by stabbing him 27 times, shooting him in the head and cutting his throat ear to ear, used Twitter to try and seize the moral high ground from Nancy Grace, the HLN show host famous for playing judge and jury on-air in covering the cases of women on trial for murder.

“Nancy DisGrace has set back the cause of all women who have survived domestic violence,” Arias tweeted through a friend who used her @Jodiannarias account. “Her circus makes a mockery of something very serious.”

The tweet was sent while the jury deliberated — a deliberation that resulted in a first-degree murder conviction Wednesday.

Arias also tweeted that the trial was a “disaster” and that the prosecutor was a hypocrite and liar.

As I read her tweets, I couldn’t help thinking of Baltimore’s Frank James MacArthur, the cab driver and citizen journalist known on Twitter as Baltimore Spectator.

He was released from jail Friday after pleading guilty to having a sawed-off shotgun in his home. Police say they found the gun after a Dec. 1 standoff that began when they came to serve a warrant at his Waverly home in connection with another gun charge.

I am not comparing the crime MacArthur pleaded guilty to with the actions Arias was convicted of last week. But MacArthur tweeted and live-streamed throughout the standoff — criticizing the Baltimore police and media, much as Arias did the prosecution and Grace during her trial.

I wonder if we’re going to have to call Arias a citizen journalist now as well. Maybe just a citizen media critic.

That’s the role MacArthur was assuming in one of his first tweets Friday — a response to state Del. Jill P. Carter, who in welcoming him back commented on the “widespread corruption and dysfunction” within the prison system.

“Wait till you hear the real deal on what the mainstream is totally missing in this story,” MacArthur tweeted back to her, referring to coverage of a federal indictment alleging Black Guerrilla Family control of the jail. “I WAS THERE!”

He followed up with: “Was way more than just #DrugsInJail. Let them stick to their press release regurgitation. I’ll give you the inside scoop.”

For me, the most striking moment in all the cable news and social media coverage last week came at 8 p.m. Thursday when CNN, Fox News and MSNBC each launched their evening of prime-time programming. You could not have asked for a more focused snapshot of the differences among the three.

“The O’Reilly Factor,” with Bill O’Reilly, the highest-rated show on cable news TV, opened the night for Fox with the Benghazi story. While Benghazi became big news Friday thanks to the outstanding reporting of ABC's Jonathan Karl, Fox’s slant on the hearings about the deadly Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya was political and highly partisan. Opinion and spin as opposed to the hard journalistic work Karl was doing Thursday night to break a huge story on Benghazi spin doctoring Friday.

“Many on the left echo Hillary Clinton’s assertion that it doesn’t matter who screwed up in Benghazi, Libya,” O’Reilly said. “But there is no doubt that the hearings yesterday were embarrassing for the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton.”

On MSNBC, meanwhile, Chris Hayes opened his “All In” show with a look at President Obama’s trip to Texas on Thursday to highlight the Texas economy as a possible model for creating jobs. This, too, was political and highly partisan — and perhaps questionable in terms of news judgment at MSNBC. (Obama is coming to Baltimore on Friday to talk jobs.)

After explaining that Obama has done poorly in Texas in the last two elections, Hayes went on to say, “But more and more, Texas is being seen as potentially winnable by Democrats … It’s also a state that has seen some not inconsiderable economic success… And the president in traveling there today is trying once again to his credit to drag the nation’s attention back to the arena of jobs and the economy despite the best efforts of our collective attention to wander off into grandstanding and conspiracy theorizing about the Benghazi attacks or the culmination of salacious murder trials.”

The “salacious murder trials” reference was a shot at CNN, just as the “grandstanding” on Benghazi was a rip on Fox. And it’s understandable that MSNBC is trying to take cheap shots, because MSNBC is getting shredded in the ratings by Fox and the new CNN.

In fact, Tuesday night, CNN had more viewers in the key demographic of viewers 25-54 years of age than any cable news channel.

Between 4 and 5 p.m. Wednesday, the time of the verdict in the Arias trial, Fox led everyone with twice as many viewers as CNN. But CNN had twice as many viewers as MSNBC, a channel that is heading south in the ratings as Zucker’s network starts to make its way north.

There is nothing new about CNN’s formula. The basic idea is to use CNN’s superior manpower and journalistic infrastructure to flood the zone on high-impact stories. And when there is more than one big story, cover as many of them as you can that way. And never underestimate the public’s appetite for sex, murder and mayhem.

So, at 8 p.m. Thursday, CNN had Anderson Cooper doing his show standing down the street from the home of Ariel Castro, who is charged with kidnapping and raping three young women in his home in Cleveland. The prosecutor is going for an “aggravated murder” case based on statements alleging that Castro starved and beat one of the women to force her to miscarry. You can bet CNN will be all over that trial with everything it and sister channel HLN have — just as they had been doing all week in Phoenix.

Is it great TV journalism?

Of course not. It is the way most big local TV stations around the country, like Baltimore’s WBAL or WJZ, try to cover major stories in their cities. It leads to such silly shots as a reporter standing in front of Baltimore City Schools headquarters at 11 p.m. with the word “live” flashing on the screen as she reports on something that happened seven hours earlier inside the now-darkened building.

Jon Stewart had fun with the formula last week, highlighting video of an interview between CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield and HLN’s Grace that was presented as if the two were in different remote locations. But when Stewart’s producers split the screen and put the two reports up side by side, viewers could see Banfield and Grace appeared to be standing in the same parking lot outside the courthouse in Phoenix. It seemed as if they could have practically reached out and touched each other.

I wonder how Jodi Arias, citizen media critic, missed that one in her Twitter reviews.