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CNN: A Shadow of once-great Network

g and compass

San Francisco Chronicle

Wednesday, November 14, 2001

CNN (becoming) a shadow of once-great network

Stephanie Salter

THERE WAS an unintentionally ironic moment Monday as CNN's veteran news anchor, Aaron Brown, reacted to live footage of grieving relatives who'd come to Las American International airport in Santo Domingo to meet American Airlines Flight 587.

Said Brown, "This is so painful to watch."

Funny, I've been thinking the same thing of late about CNN itself.

Between the September 11 terrorist attacks and the so-called war in Afghanistan, a once-great news operation seems to be morphing into the Atlanta- based annex of the West Wing -- the real one in the White House, not the Emmy- winning series on CBS.

Although CNN anchors and reporters have not yet joined their counterparts at Fox in wearing American flag lapel pins, the network of Walter Isaacson seems more like Spin City than the network of Ted Turner -- the one place you knew you could trust to deliver all the unadulterated facts.

Why, there's even a "War Room" in Washington where Wolf Blitzer (who, surely to God, is a little embarrassed at the pretentiousness) can talk strategy with CNN's military analyst in Georgia, Major-General Don Shepperd. A lanky, amiable man with a penchant for easy-to-grasp analogies, Shepperd wears a business suit instead of his Air Force general's uniform, but his instinctive use of "we" makes the "retired" part of his rank a mere formality.

The day after the crash of Flight 587, Blitzer in his War Room and Shepperd amid his 3-D landscape of the Middle East, were in high demand at CNN. Our new best friends, the Northern Alliance, had strolled against orders into Kabul -- What else could they do? Someone had to provide "security" -- and there was much cheering and dancing in the streets.

While CNN's maddening bottom-scroll carried such news items as "Fashion editor-turned-Old Navy pitchwoman Carrie Donovan dies at 73", Gen. Shepperd stood with reporter Joie Chen on the Arabian Sea and used his pool-cue-length pointer to track the retreating Taliban.

"Think of this as Denver, Colo.," he said, tapping on Kabul, "and this (Kandahar) as all those ski areas up in the Rocky Mountains."

Sharing the split screen with Shepperd and Chen were shots of bloodied bodies -- none in military uniform -- laid out on a dusty Afghan road. The accompanying footage then turned to an Afghan gent repeatedly kicking a dead man's head as if it were a soccer ball that had gotten stuck to a human torso. Shepperd's earlier observation that "this is not a good day to be a Taliban" took on even deeper meaning.

In an article last week about the post-September-11 ratings rise in this country of BBC World News, Caryn James of the New York Times wrote: ". . . after two months, American television's cautious approach has turned into knee- jerk pandering to the public, reflecting a mood of patriotism rather than informing viewers of the complex, sometimes harsh realities they need to know."

Not surprising, the U.S. commander-in-chief seems not to agree. Tuesday, during his White House press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin, George W. Bush heaped praise upon the entire U.S. news media, which he admitted he had "been trying to tame ever since I got into politics."

Having "failed miserably" to do that, he said, he could declare that "the press in America has never been stronger and more vibrant."

No doubt that brought satisfied smiles all around the CNN War Room.

Stephanie Salter's column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. E-mail her at [email protected]

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