CNN Gets It Wrong — Why We Don’t Really Mind

“This is CNN.” The network’s tagline has a certain swagger, as if to announce its arrival, or more precisely, your arrival at your rightful news home. This is what you’ve been looking for.

Yesterday, however, CNN tripped in the middle of its news strut. And most likely left even James Earl Jones wondering: This is CNN?

It’s been a rough year for the network on air. Last summer, while the country waited for the Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of President Obama’s effort to expand health care, CNN — like every other news outlet — sat crouched like an anchor-leg sprinter in a relay, hand extended backward waiting to grab the baton and explode down the homestretch to deliver the news.

Supreme Court decisions aren’t light reading. And in its haste to break the news to a country surely interested in the state of their health care system, but most likely at work and not watching TV, they got it wrong. Not a little wrong. Completely wrong. For more than ten minutes, CNN reported that the law had been, essentially, overturned.

Jon Stewart rejoiced. Pundits weighed in. It was embarrassing, they said. The once proud network’s reputation was tarnished. It was inexcusable. It couldn’t happen again.

On Wednesday, it did. On live news, CNN anchors looking slightly confused in the heat of the moment, reported that an arrest had been made in connection with the Boston Marathon bombing. And then, again, on air, it backtracked.

The mistake set off another round of condemnations. CNN was too Piers Morgan and not enough Christiane Amanpour. Jon Stewart officially declared CNN “the Human Centipede of News.”

CNN got it wrong. Again. But does it matter to CNN?

It certainly matters to media watchers. Getting it right definitely matters in journalism — otherwise non-fiction becomes fiction, which is much easier to report. But, does it matter to viewers? Did Fox News viewers change the channel after the network’s Karl Rove induced election night debacle? Will CNN fans decamp?

It seems like not.

If they did care — if we cared — the networks would place more emphasis on getting the news right, rather than first. Both CNN and Fox’s blunders will be used as an example of the downfall of the modern media. Information moves too fast, the 24-hour news cycle is a corrupting influence. Maybe.

But, the real reason why it won’t matter is that our expectations of TV news have changed. It’s as much reality TV as it is a delivery mechanism of what’s happening. A train wreck attracts spectators. Memes are written, mashups are posted and careen around the internet. It’s better that people have an opinion of you, than don’t care at all, right?

It’s all part of a cable news circus, that is as much about the theater of reporting the news, as it is about what the news actually is. It may not make for good journalism, but it makes for great TV.

If we cared more about the journalism than news theater we’d all be watching PBS. But no one’s talking about NewsHour. There are no meltdowns. The circus, itself, becomes the point — the reason to watch. Youtube videos go viral precisely because they are unexpected, unvarnished — embarrassing. This is CNN.

As newspaper stories became blog posts and then were abridged into Tweet form, we’ve built up a pretty high tolerance for mistakes. And even crave them.

In some ways, it’s an acknowledgment that reporting is difficult and we’d rather have your best guess now, even if you don’t come up with the right answer until later. Blogs update, Tweets are considered provisional.

Why is CNN any different? We’d all like to think that it is. But if you think of a live cable newsfeed as essentially a live televised Twitter feed, then maybe we should temper our outrage, just as we’ve lowered our expectations.

And if we’d like to know what’s actually happening — what’s truly news — maybe we have to wait to read about it in the morning. CNN’s betting that we won’t.