The Digital Journalist
The Situation Room
November 2007

by Ron Steinman

Sometimes in the gym, when on the treadmill or working the weight machines, one of the three TV sets is on CNN and its late-afternoon show, "The Situation Room." Working out is not very taxing to the mind. You can do anything or go anywhere inside your head. Thus, I sometimes watch TV. Other people listen to their i-Pod. We all hear the inescapable throbbing music pumped in by the gym management. Exercise in itself is sometimes exhausting, but watching that show is even worse. It is the most punishing news show on television. I suppose it wants to capture a young audience, but I wonder.

I watched "The Situation Room" from 4-6 p.m. and 7-8 p.m. Monday through Friday, hosted by Wolf Blitzer. From 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., Lou Dobbs anchored his one-hour show. But starting Nov. 5, "The Situation Room" will run as one three-hour bloc from 4 p.m. through 7 p.m., Eastern time.

According to CNN's Web site the show "combines traditional reporting methods with the newest innovative online resources, making the entire process of news gathering more transparent and placing the latest news and information at the viewers' fingertips." That is quite a mouthful.

Viewing "The Situation Room" makes me dizzy. To satisfy myself that I had not become a victim of the gym and its use of gimmicks to make me sweat, such as loud music, I watched the show several more times in the quiet of my apartment. The experience was worse. The continuous action on this news show wore me out. Viewing the program makes me tense. I have no idea how it affects others in the audience. All I can say is that Pong TV is here to stay. It may work for some, but not for me.

"The Situation Room" reminds me of an old-fashioned video game gone mad. Many modern video games are shoot-'em-ups, with heroes and villains, lots of death and destruction, and infinite ways to entertain anyone from 2 to 55. "The Situation Room" is not as good as the worst video game. It is rather like Pacman, or a carnival sideshow, there to attract an audience at any cost. News as a video game does not give us the opportunity to understand what is happening in an increasingly difficult world. Does CNN believe that by doing a program as fast moving and at times as glib as this is, it will attract a younger, more hip audience? If so, CNN's management is on the road to chaos through self-delusion. "The Situation Room" is a poor substitute for a news show.

"The Situation Room" is often so over the top, it is a wonder any of the anchors who run it on the air do so without serious injury to their psyches, let alone their bodies. Wolf Blitzer, the main anchor or host, is grating in his delivery. He comes across as in a hurry, probably because he is moving around the set so much when he delivers the news. That is very distracting. Does Mr. Blitzer ever sit? I have no doubt that all that moving and all that control room-generated motion on the set falsely add to the excitement of a story. Its main effect is to limit our understanding of a story. I wonder, though, how many recall what has been on the show after it goes off the air?

A major problem for me is the effort on the part of CNN to, what it calls, "break" news -- any news as long as it seems fresh -- before anyone at CNN or elsewhere understands what it is. These news "breaks" appear on the bottom line of the screen. They are at times sensational, and often contain the barest of facts. Occasionally there is video from the scene. The reporter standing in front of a fire or flood talks in endless circles using half-baked information to get the audience's blood boiling. In defense of CNN, every other cable news broadcaster does the same, including many local TV shows. It is not good journalism. It is not careful journalism. Instead, it disregards all standards of good reporting. But the producers at CNN do it anyway. Ratings are obviously more important than sensible journalism.

As a substitute for insight, CNN uses a variety of TV tricks that I assume it believes will give us greater understanding of a subject. A news show should present to its audience with clear information. A news show should not deceive its audience. For example, that huge wall behind the anchor on "The Situation Room" set is a serious distraction. My attention wanders when I watch the wall. Where do I look? Where should I look? Oh, there is another angle during the interview. Oh, there is more of what in news we call "wallpaper," shots of something that relates to the story, perhaps from another similar story, but is not of the story itself. I think I am watching a sporting event on TV instead of a purportedly hard newscast. The wall is clever. But with its four sections containing moving pictures, and Wolf Blitzer usually covering part of the frame, it is difficult to know where to look or what to watch. These devices do not work for me.

Worse is the use of video during an interview without identifying it as file or at least the date when it was shot. The video plays behind the interviewer and interviewee, often in profile for the wide shot. Sometimes it is in a box next to the interviewee who is also in a box. Either way, the unidentified footage dominates the scene. It is a major distraction. CNN also insists on using the same footage repeatedly throughout the interview. That is very disconcerting. Other cable networks also engage in this seemingly harmless trickery. It means that the free-flying footage on the screen overwhelms the meaning of the interview. CNN is only one of many doing this in TV news, but CNN is the worst offender of anyone in the TV news business.

I believe that we must savor the news. We should be able to taste it, maybe nibble it, and give it an opportunity to get under our skin, squeeze it around the edges, and chew on it. All of this is to give us the chance to digest it properly on the way to understanding. Unfortunately, video game news such as that on "The Situation Room" seems to care only for ratings and hardly anything else.

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, Executive Editor of The Digital Journalist, is an award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions. Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War.