This Just In: CNN Has A PR Problem

cnnIf you were online, in front of a TV or listening to the radio mid-afternoon Eastern time today, you were exposed to some of the most frustrating moments a news consumer could have.

Multiple “big brand” news organizations, notably CNN via its correspondent John King and the Associated Press, which feeds virtually every bona fide news organization in America, reported first an “an arrest is imminent” and then “a suspect is under arrest” and then “the arrested suspect is being taken to Federal Court.” Some of the reports even included detail about how authorities identified the suspect. At the same time, other news organizations were either holding off or directly refuting the CNN and AP reports.

About an hour later, law enforcement began announcing, through their own channels, that there were no arrests. CNN’s King started backtracking, blaming bad information from his source. That source, it turns out, was a single source (which, as a standard was once not enough to even report a shred of news in a story like this), inside Boston law enforcement, which the public knows was playing a secondary role in this case.

From a PR standpoint, CNN comes out of this looking the worst because the AP is staffed by largely anonymous journalists and its service is often invisible to consumers. On the other hand, CNN is engaged in a public battle to win back the relevance it has lost over the past 20 years. In fact, on Monday of this week, hours before the Boston bombing, CNN President Jeff Zucker compared CNN to the “spare tire” you use only when you need it (breaking national news) and “the challenge for us is how to make CNN more essential, how to make it one of the four tires on the car.” Two days later, CNN faces a reputation challenge.

Compounding matters and likely contributing to the dubious reporting and generous “green lights” from management today is the inherent challenge for cable channels that typically just run cheap, easy political debates with talking heads all day to suddenly transform themselves into news reporting organizations. Most days, there’s not a lot of news on “cable news.” So when there is, they have to operate differently, which is a tough task from top to bottom.

First, it was a much-discussed error in reporting the Supreme Court’s health care law decision last year. Now, it’s this report of the arrest that wasn’t. For all of the focus on personalities and formats, credibility really does matter to the public, whether they follow the news minute-by-minute or much less often.

The TV business now operates in a perilous time, especially on cable where younger viewers are starting to think it’s not worth the money. If the choices really do become “the conservative channel,” “the liberal channel,” or “the channel that gets it wrong,” an important segment of the audience will continue to migrate from the platform.