Why The Search For The Missing Plane Is CNN's Story

Mar 18, 2014

CNN’s ratings are through the roof. It’s been criticized for reporting more speculation than other networks, but its wall-to-wall coverage of the search for Malaysia Airlines flight 370 doesn’t seem to be putting off a lot of viewers.

Joe Concha, TV news columnist for Mediaite.com, says this is an example of the cable news approach of today: all-in on one story. He speaks to Here & Now’s Robin Young.


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From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW.

CNN's ratings have soared by almost 100 percent in primetime because of its coverage of missing Malaysia Air flight 370. This might reflect viewers' fascination with the mystery, maybe the biggest in aviation in our time. But it also reflects a trend in cable news. Joe Concha is with Mediaite.com. Joe, welcome.

JOE CONCHA: Thanks for having me, Robin.

YOUNG: And this trend, what is it? It's not bifurcation. It almost feels like trifurcation.

CONCHA: It seems more and more we're getting fractured kinds of stories from CNN, MSNBC, and Fox. MSNBC last year declared that they are not really into the breaking news business, that they're strictly more of a political animal. So when it comes to elections, when it comes to speculation, when it comes to any talk within the Beltway, MSNBC says that's our baby. So when the Chris Christie scandal broke, they went all in on that. Fox is kind of a combination of the two. They could do breaking news fairly well. If you could find a more effective anchor in television right now than Shepard Smith, I'd love to meet him. And they do the political stuff as well, particularly Obamacare is something they've gone all in on.

CNN, their strength primarily is with sensational news. So we saw last year, whether it'd be the Zimmerman trial or the royal baby. They went all-in on those stories. But where their real strength is are international resources and international breaking stories because they have folks all around the world. So people are now running to CNN because they know anytime they turn on that network, that story is going to be on. Everything else has been put aside, and the ratings, as you said, have been great.

YOUNG: They have been going - running to CNN. I mean, it's sort of a cycle that feeds itself. CNN is doing this because people seem to want them to do it.

CONCHA: Right. And I think, Robin, the fear is that if they even go to another story for more than one minute, folks will tune in and say, oh, there's nothing in the plane story. Let me check Fox or let me, you know, by chance, maybe MSNBC is doing something on it. And I think that's what you're going to see more and more, Robin, that when a story falls into a particular narrative, a network will say, we got that. That's ours.

YOUNG: Well, and just stay there for one second because I - for listeners who might be thinking, well, this entire conversation is a bit gauche, you know, this is a tragedy, its viewers who seem compelled by the story. Could CNN not cover this story?

CONCHA: It has to from a business perspective obviously. They were struggling up until this point from a ratings perspective. But it's the whole water cooler conversation. I mean I - everybody is talking about the plane. You know why? Because everybody can play armchair quarterback and offer up a theory - from aliens capturing the plane to it landing in Pakistan, being loaded with explosives and then going to be flown into a building or into Israel perhaps. With all these different options, everybody's imaginations are in play because, really, besides the plane making a turn, that's pretty much all we have in terms of actual facts.

YOUNG: Well, CNN does run into a problem, though, because at some point, they might have to decide, how long do we cover this? What if this plane is never found?

CONCHA: That's the thing, Robin. This is unprecedented. Most stories have a beginning and a close, you know? It's a circle of communication. What if the plane is never found? How do you pivot out of this? The only scenario I could see is that the search is called off, and it's going to have to be at some point because, you know, plane parts can only float for so long. And then it'll just be this mystery.

And it's kind of like - I think back to JFK and that assassination. And even though Lee Harvey Oswald, you know, a lot of sensible folks will say he did it, there's still that thought: What happened behind that grassy knoll? Were the Cubans involved? Was the mafia involved? Who was responsible for JFK's death? And that's become an industry within itself. This plane and it being missing and it never being found perhaps could be talked about for years. The question is how does CNN pivot out of that and go to another story? The only solution I can really think of is a bigger story comes about.

YOUNG: Joe Concha with Mediaite.com, thank you so much.

CONCHA: Thank you, Robin.

YOUNG: You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.