"CNN needs new thinking," said its big boss, Jim Walton, after announcing last week that he would step down as president of CNN Worldwide.

After years of observing this fact -  that CNN needs new thinking! -  I am too cynical to believe that Walton's admission will bring a change. The most likely result is that nothing will happen. CNN and its corporate owners, Time Warner, are fully satisfied with the money CNN makes as a worldwide news operation operating in all those hotels and airports and cable systems abroad. CNN International is the product, CNN in the US is just a spasm. For the actual product (the CNN of the hotel chain and airport lounge and foreign cable system) to work it has to feel harmless, safe, neutral, like beige carpeting in the convention center.

Just listen to Jeff Bewkes, CEO of Time Warner, praising Walton... "When Jim Walton assumed the presidency of CNN in 2003, it was underperforming and earnings were in serious decline. Since then, he and CNN have tripled earnings, doubled margin and delivered annual growth of 15 percent. In his nearly 31 years of uninterrupted and distinguished service to CNN, Jim has been instrumental in growing the business into the financial powerhouse it has become, while establishing the brand as the worldwide leader for television news."

A financial powerhouse growing at 15 percent a year needs new thinking? I doubt it. Bland newsy mush is not a weakness, but a strategic proposition for CNN. They've made their peace with mediocrity and also-ran status in prime time in the US. The fact that CNN is neither Fox nor MSNBC lets everyone feel great about his or her own "serious news person" credentials, and if you under-estimate how powerful that feeling alone is, you cannot get a handle on why this situation persists. They know almost no one watches until there's a big breaking news event, and they know they surrender everything to it and go to wall-to-wall whether there's anything to report or not. They don't care. 

For there to be any movement at CNN, they would have to admit that the View from Nowhere, and "we're not the left or the right-leaning network," and "at CNN, the news is the star" and "the worldwide leader in news" have lost their power to inspire great work. But that cannot be admitted. For structural reasons--the biege carpet that offends no one--and for ideological reasons. The people at CNN think they are better than everyone else in cable TV because they haven't gone left or right. Who's going to tell them they're not? No one has been able to yet, and plenty have tried.

CNN could turn prime time in the US into a laboratory for new approaches in nightly news without seriously affecting its financial performance. It could become truly experimental and keep Jeff Bewkes happy. It could conduct a three-hour fact checking clinic and tell us who the biggest deceivers are in our public life. It could accept third place status and go for prestige by producing original documentaries that actually investigate. There are many things it could do and still make barge loads of money. It won't do any of them. 

Jon Stewart nailed it years ago with his segment. "CNN leaves it there." http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/mon-october-12-2009/cnn-leaves-it-there Years later, CNN is still leaving it there. Tune in years from now and CNN will be leaving it there. The network is in stasis. It's a failure that makes money and makes for self-satisfied journalists. Speculating about how to improve it is idle. 
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