U.S. News

02.19.14

What’s Got CNN’S Anchors So Riled?

CNN used to be the straight-news network. No longer. Don Lemon got into an ugly slapfest with Fox News’s Gregg Jarrett, and Chris Cuomo is flinging insults at Jon Stewart. What’s their beef? And is it all a ruse for ratings?

Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart opened Tuesday night’s installment of The Daily Show with a video clip of Chris Cuomo—who only that morning had belittled Stewart as a mere “court jester” who doesn’t do challenging interviews with VIPs.

“When he gets a heavy in the chair next to him,” Cuomo had declared on CNN’s New Day program, during a panel discussion of Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show debut, “he’s making jokes or nodding yes, yes, yes! I don’t know that the bar will be that high for Jimmy Fallon to be the accountability guy.”

Why would the host of an anemically rated morning show on the third-place cable news network take a shot at the star of a thriving late-night franchise on another cable outlet—especially considering that Stewart is a world-class satirist who could easily subject Cuomo to painful ridicule? Or why, for that matter, would another CNN anchor, Don Lemon, allow himself to be drawn into a childish slapfest with “old white guy” Gregg Jarrett, a rival and admittedly older anchor at the top-rated Fox News Channel?

Could it be that the CNN-ers were tearing a page out of Keith Olbermann’s dog-eared playbook, wherein the former MSNBC anchor tried to attract attention and increase his viewership by abusing Bill O’Reilly, his prime-time Fox News competitor who was getting four times Olbermann’s ratings? (In Keith’s case, he was amply rewarded, as “Bill-O The Clown” couldn’t help but fire back.)  Or, just as plausible, is there zero method to their madness? Are they, as Lemon described himself, simply “pissed”?

Or maybe, after three decades as the go-to network for breaking news, served up plain and hard, CNN is finally morphing into a typically hyper-partisan cable outlet. If Fox News appeals to Republicans and MSNBC resonates to Democratic talking points, perhaps CNN is aspiring to claim the mantle of the Angry People’s Party, while attracting some buzz and, they might hope, a ratings boost.

None of the combatants—nor their network spokespeople at CNN, Fox News and Comedy Central—deigned to offer enlightenment, leaving the rest of us free to speculate. (Unlike the talent, network spokespeople are paid for the most part to be prudent and disciplined.)

When it comes to Stewart-bashing, this isn’t Cuomo’s first time at the rodeo. Back during the 2008 presidential campaign, for instance, Cuomo—then the news reader for ABC’s Good Morning America—disparaged the comedian as “clearly a lefty. Clearly pro-Obama.” It was an ironic and possibly calculated critique considering that Cuomo happens to be the son and brother of two of New York’s recent liberal-Democrat governors.

In the current circumstance, Cuomo’s portrayal of Stewart as a clowning yes-man in the presence of power was demonstrably wrongheaded. Just ask President Obama, who went on Stewart’s program just before the 2010 midterm elections apparently expecting softballs and instead received a merciless grilling about the disconnect between his campaign promises and his accomplishments, and was memorably chided by Stewart—“You don’t want to use that phrase, dude”—when he claimed that White House economic adviser Larry Summers “did a heckuva job.”

Or check with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who appeared on The Daily Show last October to trumpet the glories of her boss’s Affordable Care Act and instead, when Stewart challenged her on the incompetence of the Obamacare rollout and the administration’s apparent eagerness to give breaks to powerful business interests at the expense of ordinary folk, was reduced to a quivering mass of bureaucratic doubletalk. “Let me ask you this,” Stewart demanded at one point, “am I stupid man?”

After confronting a Cabinet secretary and the Leader of the Free World, dispensing with a cable television news anchor would seem to be child’s play. One could imagine a killer Daily Show video montage of Cuomo’s most blush-worthy interview moments—everyone on TV has ‘em—including his cringe-making encounter with Italy’s notorious murder defendant, Amanda Knox, and his awkward Q&A with his older brother Andrew, whom he insisted on repeatedly addressing as “Governor.”

When the first video excerpt on Tuesday’s Daily Show began with Cuomo at the anchor desk, I thought that’s where we were headed. Instead, Stewart’s detractor was shown reporting on the much-criticized jury verdict in the first-degree murder trial of Michael Dunn, the latest Florida middle-aged white guy to have shot and killed an African-American teenager for no good reason. For now, anyway, Cuomo was granted a reprieve.

It turns out that the Dunn trial—in which the jury convicted the defendant of attempted murder for the three teenagers he shot at but didn’t hit at a Florida gas station, but couldn’t reach a verdict in the death of 17-year-old Jordan Davis—provoked the hostile back and forth between CNN’s Lemon and Fox News’s Jarrett.

On Saturday, after an outraged Lemon, an African-American, announced “yes, I am pissed!” and blasted the jury for its inability to “come to some consensus on whether someone is guilty of murdering a teenager because his music was too damn loud,” the 58-year-old Jarrett unleashed a series of insulting tweets at the 47-year-old Lemon.

Jarrett, a practicing attorney in his former life, called Lemon “pathetic,”  “a pompous, pretentious jerk,” and ignorant of the facts. “The sum total of what Lemon knows about the law and this case,” Jarrett tweeted, “could be written on the head of a pin…And there would be plenty of space left over.”

Fightin’ words, to be sure—and Lemon certainly would have been justified in taking Jarrett to task. But rather than reproaching his heckler for making it personal, and instead engaging Jarrett on substance—the high-road option—he answered him in kind. “Mind ur business, old man,” he tweeted, adding that Jarrett “is suffering from a bad case of the Michael Dunns. Guess my TV’s too loud.” On the air, after Jarrett doubled down and called Lemon “the Al Sharpton of CNN,” among other freighted insults, Lemon slammed Jarrett, without naming him, as representative of “old white guys trying to claw their way back from obscurity by attacking other people who speak out against this particular case.”

And so on and so forth.

What are viewers to make of all this bad behavior, which seems more appropriate to an episode of Real Housewives than an anchor desk? Unless CNN President Jeff Zucker—who recently suggested that straight journalism is no longer his network’s overriding mission—plans to collaborate with Fox’s Roger Ailes on The Real Anchors of Cable News, we can only hope that everybody simmers down, gets over themselves and focuses on accurate, perhaps even insightful, reporting. Otherwise, it might be advisable—perish the thought—to start reading newspapers again.