CNN Breaking News Alert
The network still matters.
When Olbermann finally got around to the story, MSNBC relied on a static Google Earth image of the Upper Big Branch for illustration. CNN also relied on Google Earth but used it better, with stronger images and greater clarity. There was motion, tracking and tilting across the picture in a way that revealed a great deal of information while keeping the eye excited. And, CNN's version of the landscape, with its barren trees, seemed both seasonally appropriate and appropriately stark. By contrast, MSNBC aired a view of a fluffy-topped deciduous idyll.
At 9, Campbell threw to the venerable softball pitcher Larry King. "We'll be watching, Larry," she said, not quite convincingly. Larry's mine-disaster coverage had its merits. He was savvy in getting the governor of West Virginia to commit to reappearing on his show the next night. But also he wasted our time in asking the director of the miner-training program at Penn State whether the rescue effort would be hampered by nightfall. The interviewee was too much a gentleman to point out explicitly that mines, being underneath the surface of the Earth, are already kind of dark.
Then Larry did some Tiger coverage, which featured asinine expert commentary from the author of Where's My Fifteen Minutes? Excerpt: "Some have compared the effects of PR to lubrication in a machine." True. Also, some have compared the lubricative uses of PR to those of Astroglide. Shortly thereafter, Larry chatted up fine Jane Fonda, who succeeded gorgeously in relentlessly promoting an obesity-awareness campaign. Larry was baffled that her next movie will be a French-language production: "Why a French movie? Monster-in-Law was hysterical."
At 10, Anderson Cooper stuck with the mine story for maybe two-thirds of his broadcast. CNN had run through all there was to say about the mine and yet continued to say it at patient length, such that even though they had live video of emergency vehicles, it got hard to pay attention. (It didn't help that Anderson looked kind of washed out. I love his white hair, but the lighting director and the costume department need to do him right.) He perked up on two occasions, once when talking with Sean Penn. (The actor-director straightforwardly pled for further aid to Haiti in advance of the rainy season.) The other lively moment found him batting away a bubbly showbiz correspondent's Justin Bieber small talk. Whereas some anchors play-act and protest too much when teasing trivial stories, Cooper evinced assertive boredom.
That's the great thing about CNN. The network expresses itself with what it doesn't say. The best TV-news moment of the first quarter of 2010 occurred on CNN after the State of the Union. The crowded panel had started to overblow the matter of Samuel Alito's subaudible muttering. Then Campbell turned for comment to David Gergen, who coasted on a moment of silent thought before pulling the brake: "I don't want to talk about this."
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.