CNN's 'big story' approach to Freddie Gray

When Jeff Zucker became president of CNN at the beginning of 2013, it was tanking in the ratings. Viewers tuned in when there was a big story but not for regular news or talk shows.

Mr. Zucker was the one-time wunderkind producer of the Today show; he was 26 when he took over that show in 1992 and rose from there to head NBC. At CNN, Mr. Zucker soon revealed his model for turning ratings around. If the audience came to CNN when there was a big story, make sure there was always a big story.


Only a few weeks after Mr. Zucker took the helm, a cruise ship lost power in the Gulf of Mexico. As it slowly made its way to port in Mississippi, CNN went wall-to-wall. Helicopters hovered over the ship. Contact was made with passengers to discuss their gruesome fate. Dockside reunions were arranged with worried families.

For hours that turned into days, CNN had virtually no other story for its viewers. Only one problem — it wasn't much of a story. No lives were threatened. The ship wasn't about to sink.

But it didn't matter. CNN had its story, and it worked — viewership rose.

This strategy was perhaps most notoriously on view a little over a year later when Malaysia Flight 370 mysteriously disappeared. CNN latched onto that and refused to let go. For days, then weeks, there were the same endless discussions, the same speculation, the same lack of any real news.

And so with the death of Freddie Gray, Baltimore became CNN's latest ground zero. Viewers had flocked to coverage of unrest in Ferguson, Mo. after Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, was shot by police. Here was another dead black suspect. Perfect.

Except it wasn't. In Ferguson there was a virtually all-white police department and political structure and a majority black community. The Ferguson police were saying they did nothing wrong. And they reacted to the first hint of demonstrations with an overwhelmingly militarized response that inflamed already seething resentment.

In Baltimore, no one was trying to justify what happened to Freddie Gray. There was no racial disparity between the mayor and the police commissioner and either the victim or the majority of the citizens — all are black, as are half of the officers who dealt with Gray. All of those in power, including the police, were saying that Gray's death shouldn't have happened and that they were going to get to the bottom of it. They said they understood and welcomed demonstrations. There was certainly a clear history of police-community distrust, but there also seemed to be a feeling of giving those now in power the time they needed, to trust them until they proved unworthy of that trust.

At least that was the case everywhere but on CNN. Once Baltimore had been deemed the big story, it had to be covered in a way that justified that. Thus a gathering of 100 or so people outside of Western District police headquarters became a huge gathering of people seething with rage. A thousand people at City Hall became an unprecedented outpouring of community resentment. Anything could happen! Stay tuned!

In fact there was no hint of Ferguson-like violence for days until that Saturday night when a relative handful broke off from an otherwise peaceful demonstration and did some damage (ironically when CNN was wall-to-wall with the White House Correspondents Association Dinner). But CNN's non-stop coverage had done the job of ratcheting up the story. You shine the spotlight long enough and eventually people will be attracted to it. Now Baltimore was everybody's big story.

So on the Monday of Freddie Gray's funeral, television provided constant images of police using Napoleon-era tactics against another relative handful of people, this time high schoolers — who were acting like, say, fans of a team that has just won or lost a big game — elevating teenage craziness to the level of political revolution. Others followed suit, some with genuine rage, some with crass opportunism.

Would all this have happened if CNN had not chosen Baltimore as its big story? Who knows? But the problem with the big story approach is that when you don't have a big story, you have to pretend that you do.

In those last few days of the curfew the intersection of Pennsylvania and North became a virtual TV studio, where media members, who outnumbered anyone else of the street, breathlessly counted down the minutes until 10 p.m. They were all searching for a something to justify their presence. Anyone who did something crazy got on TV.

That's the way it used to be at Orioles games when some fan ran out onto the field until they figured out that it was better if they pointed the TV cameras in another direction.

Former Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Hill was TV critic of the Evening Sun from 1978-1992. His email is