Permit us to share an anecdote from today’s CNN telecast that just might explain the dive the cable-news network has taken in the ratings.
And, no, it’s not the story about how CNN and sister network, HLN, missed the conclusion of the John Edwards trial—we’ll get to that in a bit.
This is the story of anchor Gloria Borger’s massive fumble in announcing the news that everyone on the planet had already learned on Twitter or competing networks.
“The jury has found John Edwards not guilty on count three and they have been dismissed for the day,” she said.
“For the day?” jumped legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin. “Not for the day. The jury has been dismissed.”
Borger: “They’ve been dismissed so the thinking is they’re deadlocked.”
Toobin: “They’ve been dismissed. The trial is over.”
Borger: “The trial is over?”
Toobin: “Yes. It’s over. There is no verdict in the other counts.”
Well, here’s one verdict: CNN is a mess. (Not a hot mess. Just a mess.)
It took a few more seconds for it to sink in for Borger that the trial had concluded, but it finally did. Toobin then went on to explain that he thinks it’s “inconceivable” the federal government would want to try the case again. But, really, what was inconceivable was that CNN was nowhere to be found when the news actually happened and that viewers were being subjected to observations from correspondent Joe Johns that illuminate how Edwards was “the most active person in the courtroom.”
“I’ve seen John Edwards in the courtroom, pouring water, obviously he was a little parched and very nervous. I can’t tell you what a gamble this was for this man who ran for president twice—twice—to find himself facing the possibility of spending 30 years in prison.”
For crying out loud, Joe Johns, we don’t think we can spend another 30 seconds listening to you. At this point, every kindergartener in the country knows who Bunny Mellon is but, sadly, Johns does not. In explaining the single count on which the jury agreed—that Edwards did not misuse Mellon’s contributions—Johns stumbled as if he’d just woken up from a nap and referred to her simply as “a rich lady.”
Borger then asked Johns how it’s possible that the jury reached a verdict on one count but was unable to do so on the rest. Johns’s response was as insightful as ever: “It was obvious they were having problems.” On second thought, maybe that wasn’t entirely Johns’s fault. It was a ridiculously silly throwaway question.
The embarrassing disaster comes at a crucially bad time for CNN, after the network registered its lowest month in ratings since 1991. An average of 389,000 viewers watched CNN primetime this past month, a 51 percent drop from the same period last year. It also had its second lowest-rated month in more than 20 years in the 25-to-54 demographic most important to news advertisers.
But, really, what a difference just one decade makes. The network that was first to report the Sept. 11 attacks was 10 minutes late to deliver the news that the John Edwards trial had ended. Yes, we know those two events are not remotely close in magnitude, but how was it possible that CNN missed the boat today when all eyes were on North Carolina and the network itself had been reporting from Greensboro just a few minutes before?
Less than an hour before the trial officially ended, all of the media descended on the courthouse in anticipation of a verdict. But, it turned out the judge had misunderstood. When the jury disclosed that they only agreed on one count and the judge ordered them to deliberate further, CNN apparently decided it was nap time.
As competitors reported that the jury was back in the courtroom and that they explained they were hopelessly deadlocked on the rest of the counts, CNN was busy covering an impaled something or other and HLN was in commercials.
Ten long minutes later, the network got it together and Johns saved the day, with his analysis of what had just happened: “A crazy day here in Greensboro.”