Channel Changer

There was good news last week, and it came from an unusual source: CNN. After months of staffing up on such big names as Aaron Brown, Paula Zahn and Connie Chung, CNN decided to let Chung go. And television news will be the better for it.

Chung -- whose big accomplishments on other networks have included prompting then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich's (R-Ga.) mom to call Hillary Clinton a bitch and then-Rep. Gary Condit (D-Calif.) to deny that he killed intern Chandra Levy -- applied that same tabloid approach to her CNN show, which lasted less than a year. Over the last few months, she's devoted airtime to such true-crime subjects as Robert Blake, Laci Peterson and Clara Harris, leaving Brown and Larry King to spend more time on actual issues of importance -- like Iraq.

My favorite example of a typically bad Chung interview came on Jan. 3, when she talked to the leader of the Raelian cult about a possible cloned human baby. As she introduced him, she said, "You want to be called your holiness. I will absolutely do that." But then she said, "You have not seen this baby. You haven't met the parents. There isn't any evidence that this baby actually exists." Which begs the question: Why was she spending time interviewing him? Even Ted Turner called her show "just awful."

Of course CNN had other reasons to dump Chung besides her poor choice of topics, which would have been more at home on Access Hollywood or Inside Edition than on a prime-time CNN slot. Her show got pummeled against Bill O'Reilly's gabfest on the FOX News Channel. (It's small consolation that Chung regularly beat Donahue, because his program was also canceled recently.) But we can also hope this signals a new trend in television news, one where there will be more focus on actual news and less on who's delivering it.

I may be overly optimistic. Television news broadcasters have become celebrities, appearing on the covers of People and Good Housekeeping and, in the case of Katie Couric, earning a reported $65 million for five years of work. Anchors appear on programs such as Live with Regis & Kelly and The Tonight Show, they're featured in gossip columns and their clothes show up in glossy fashion magazines. We not only rely on them for news; we feel we need to know about their personal lives and their take on the latest movies, music and fashion trends.

It wasn't always this way. Sure, everyone knew who Walter Cronkite was, but we cared more about what he was able to tell us concerning events in the world than the problems in his personal life. That's partly because society respected privacy more back then, but also because we really relied on reporters to give us the news, not make it. And we relied on journalists to provide us with the most important information of the day, not just the most tantalizing gossip.

But it also has to do with who's putting these people on the air. Chung was hired by Jamie Kellner, who founded the WB Network, the home of such shows as 7th Heaven, Charmed and Dawson's Creek. Kellner has left the network and CNN appears to be returning to its roots of showcasing news, not names. Let's hope it's a lesson MSNBC realizes sooner rather than later. Showcasing Ashleigh Banfield -- best known for her stylish glasses -- and Phil Donahue didn't work. It's too early to tell if the network's courting of Michael Savage and Jesse Ventura will lead to similar failure.

Chung will probably find another job in television; she'd already worked for several networks before joining CNN. Still, her recent failure to boost ratings and her lowest-common-denominator approach aren't likely to bring begging executives to her door.

Now that CNN has rid itself of Chung, it's up to the viewers to reward the network's decision by tuning in. At a time of war, our choice of which channel to watch should be determined by which reporters are doing the best jobs of covering the news.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is a Prospect senior editor.

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