CNN & The George Zimmerman Show

For several days now, CNN’s extensive coverage of the George Zimmerman trial has shouldered aside the more important Egypt story on the network’s U.S. channel.

I rarely criticize CNN in public, partly out of loyalty, but also to avoid hypocrisy. No one spends 20 years in cable news and comes away entirely clean.

In this case, however, I’m tempted to agree with Jay Rosen, who believes it’s time to give up on CNN. I want to add a bullet point to his list of complaints.

Can we all agree that responsible news organizations should tread carefully when covering a story that evokes such strong memories of our nation’s racial history?

Putting aside legal questions of guilt and innocence, this story began when a man with a gun spotted a young black male who was believed to be somewhere he shouldn’t be and up to no good. 

African American history is filled with tragedies that began just that way.

And anyone with a passing knowledge of that history understands how this case could tap into a deep vein of suspicion and anger.

Given that fact, is this the sort of trial that should receive the full-on Reality-TV show treatment? Probably not. 

I know the arguments on the other side. We are bringing the public into the courtroom and demystifying the judicial process. Isn’t transparency a good thing? I probably made similar claims at some point in the past.

Those may well be side benefits of the coverage, but they are not the primary motivation. The goal of the criminal-trial-as-entertainment genre is simple: Hook the viewer into the narrative. Get them emotionally invested in the characters. And, most importantly, persuade them to choose sides. Team Zimmerman vs. Team Trayvon.

The best entertainment TV shows do all this brilliantly. But news is supposed to be different. Done well, news provides context and background that often complicates rather than reinforces the main storylines. News plays more to the head, not to raw, gut emotions, which is why TV news done well has so much trouble competing in a media landscape where entertainment is always one click of the remote away.

 Team Zimmerman vs. Team Trayvon. Is this really how we want the nation to follow this trial?

Legal analysts say Florida’s self-defense laws will make it difficult to convict Zimmerman.

Do their jobs well and the producers of the Zimmerman-Martin mini-series could get an unfortunate twofer – a ratings spike during the trial, and another ratings bump covering the violence that follows. No one wants that to happen.

All of this reminds me of a test that communications professor Robert Entman proposed to determine whether a news outlet was practicing “tabloid journalism.” Entman focused on motivation. If the journalists made decisions based primarily on maximizing readers, ratings and profits, it was a tabloid outlet. If those journalists granted more weight to the public good, even at the risk of leaving some revenue on the table, it was not.

CNN has always been willing to chase a popular story, but it has also  balanced those ratings grabs with an equal sense of public service. The network spent enormous amonts of air time and money on important coverage that was unlikely to draw a big audience (and we often had the ratings to prove it!). Under the Entman test, CNN never reached tabloid status in the past. And for the record, I don’t think it has now either. But I wonder if the Zimmerman coverage marks a turning point.