The more preposterous the advertising slogan, the greater the number of repetitions required to mallet the message into the audience's consciousness. On the day of the New Hampshire primaries, CNN informed its viewers more than 50 times that it fields "the best political team on television." The network's incessant self-hype didn't appear in on-air promos between news segments but during news programs.
Like a human tape loop, CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer uttered the plug most frequently, but CNN's Kyra Phillips, Don Lemon, Collen McEdwards, Heidi Collins, Kiran Chetry, and John Roberts also chanted it to the camera like an incantation. No CNN broadcaster cited an authority that had deemed its team the best. None pointed to having won the most broadcast journalism awards or having received a J.D. Power and Associates survey supporting the boast. If they had quoted some metric, their assertion could be falsified. Instead, the broadcasters alleged their network's bestness as fact, again and again, like grinning soap salesmen reading from cue cards—which I assume they were.
Now, it's one thing for a station in a bush-league television market to proclaim itself the "region's news leader." Little harm is done because so few are insulted. But when a major network flings such a load of humbug on a day of peak viewership, the damage is palpable.
First, such words can do direct injury to viewers. Words are animate things, with lives and desires of their own, and unproven statements such as CNN's "best political team on television" corrode the ear canal and eat away at the brainpan.
Second, such slogans undermine whatever authority has been amassed by their speakers. There are a lot a of good things about CNN, John King being one. But the mechanical reiteration of a stupid catchphrase like "the best political team on television" calls into question the truth value and the earnestness of the whole enterprise. "Mildred, why are they saying that over and over again? Has Blitzer given the whole staff delayed echolalia?"
Third, slogans like this one remind viewers—as if they needed reminding—that the network thinks they're idiots, susceptible to the basest form of persuasion going. Who at CNN came up with this slogan? Perhaps it's the same genius who coined "The Most Trusted Name in News."
Addendum, Jan. 10, 7:30 a.m.: Reader Eric Persson notes that CNN won an Emmy last September for its November 2006 election night coverage. If you were being liberal about it, this could be inflated to support the claim of having "the best political team on television." But Persson also adds that the network was probably calling its team the best before it won its Emmy. And he's right. As early as Jan. 7, 2006, CNN was using the phrase.
Press Box is staffed by the best team in media criticism and distributed by "the most trusted name on the Web." (Can't you just hear James Earl Jones saying that?) Send your critique to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)