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Can I Cut off CNN?

I'm trying. But is a war a war without a theme song?

By Elaine Corden 11 Jan 2007 |

Elaine Corden writes a monthly pop culture column for The Tyee.

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Sexy Anderson, solemn Evan

2007 is the year I give up junk news. It's terribly gauche to admit that I am still in the midst of a full-blown CNN addiction, buttressing my television consumption with websites and e-mailed updates. Like a new gym membership, already gathering dust, this New Year's resolution to quit hasn't quite kicked in. Though I know it's bad for me, and I know it's warped beyond all repair, I can sit easily for hours, waiting to see if the miners get out alive, how Trump has insulted O'Donnell again or how many troops were led to the slaughter in Iraq on any given day. It's a sickness, I know; so bad, that at this point, I'm just glad the CRTC won't let Fox News sink its ugly talons into me.

So yes, 2007 is the year I give up junk news and watch the homegrown stuff, whether it be the network my tax dollars pay for, the dignified if austere CBC Newsworld -- or the poor cousins of American news, CTV and Global.

But though I like Canuck news more (largely because it acknowledges the presence of a world outside our borders, and almost never indulges in yellow journalism) it takes some adjustment to come back home. Withdrawing from the horrors of cable news has taught me that, as ignoble as it surely is, I have a dependency. It's partly the format and partly the anchors. And now, I'm suffering from withdrawal symptoms: how do I know Gerald Ford is really dead if there's no spinning graphic and live funeral coverage? Is a war a war without a theme song? How do I interpret news as good or bad when there is virtually no spin at all? All of a sudden, it's as if I'm supposed to think for myself.

Barking heads

On American 24-hour news networks, with their never-ending flashing graphics, breaking stories and general air of Pavlovian frenzy, the anchor reigns supreme. Amidst the circus environment that pervades Fox, CNN and CNBC, the anchor's constancy and weight is all that stops the viewers' heads from spinning right off into the stratosphere -- overwhelmed as we are with information that is all treated with equal import and pomp, whether it be a kitty in a tree or an insurgency in Afghanistan. There may be 10 demanding pieces of information on the screen (usually a ticker, a sidebar, the time and weather, the stocks, a station id, a "Breaking News" graphic, another flashing "Chaos in the Middle East!!!" logo, the actual headline, a "live" indicator, and perhaps the anchor's name), but the face in the middle, whether it be crotchety Jack Cafferty, or the impossibly named Wolf Blitzer, is the only familiar element.

U.S. anchors can also seduce the viewer with a sheer force of numbers. Morning news has always been a little more frenzied that its evening counterpart, but, of late, networks seem to be ramping these up too, opting for a beast with many heads. The result is a multi-anchor extravaganza, which is both dizzying and dazzling. Amongst its impressive cavalry, CNN's Headline News now has two identical redheaded female anchors, Heidi Collins and Kyra Phillips, and two indistinguishable male anchors, Don Lemon and TJ Holmes, who I thought were the same person for a whole year.

Add to this chief correspondents, experts and random heads whose relationships to the program are never explained, and you've got quite the show. The more the merrier, the policy seems to be, and the number of "anchors" almost outnumbers the news stories. If it's a slow day or a busy day in the world, the pace is the same: the news is the news. Though CBC, and privately owned Canadian morning news broadcasts, such as our local Breakfast Television and CTV's Canada AM, duplicate this format to some extent, there is none of the "infinite army of reporters" element that cable news stations boast.

Stoic or sexy?

In the evening, the differences between American and Canadian news are even more sharply drawn. Canadians tune in to bland Lloyd Robertson, stoic Sandy Rinaldo or Ian Hanomansing and his shockingly white teeth; each of them is fairly stiff, whereas the evening news anchors on American cable news each have a cult of personality, a recognizable brand and moral stance that is shockingly simple to dial into.

As Stephen Colbert's parody so cleverly satirizes, U.S. cable news anchors don't just deliver the news, they feel it. Whereas even the most folksy Canadian anchor, such as sweet, sympathetic, Fargo-esque (and some might say saccharine) Deborra Hope might occasionally furrow her brow at a political scandal, over on CNN, yapping heads regularly editorialize and proffer their extreme worldviews on every topic. Lou Dobbs defends the middle class from Mexicans who want to steal American's theoretical jobs mopping 7-Elevens. Handsome Anderson Cooper delivers sad, serious news, then cuddles you afterwards. Nancy Grace, my personal favourite, redefines shrewish indignity at the criminal classes, mustering up all her righteousness before asking the mother of a slain teenager the most inappropriately intrusive questions imaginable.

Say what you want about how Canadian news is broader in scope and more balanced in perspective -- but it's just not as neon-light sexy as cable news. I'm not saying that's a bad thing. But still, Evan Solomon, intriguing and charming in his own bookish, understated way, is no A-Coop. And Kevin Newman, the so-unimposing-I-had-to-Google-him Global National anchor is no Lou Dobbs. George Stroumboulopoulos may be the closest thing we have to a full-blown talking head, but frankly, everyone and their dog knows that Strombo, for all his talk of national interest, is on the next viable train to Hollywood that happens by. The sexiest news anchor we ever had was leopard print aficionado Pamela Wallin, who ran off to join the circus in New York at the earliest opportunity. Even she, the catwoman of CBC, held back when she was in the anchor's chair, not revealing the full extent of her quirky charm until well after she'd cashed her last Ceeb paycheque.

Evan or Anderson?

Canadian news, to use a tired metaphor, is the lover who calls when he says he will and showers you with love. Cable news is the sexy-but-bad-for-you boyfriend who treats you mean, and stretches the truth into truthiness, but has a [news] chopper and a devastatingly seductive allure. Switching back to homegrown news, in my own effort to appreciate what's good for me, has been like finally giving the bad-boy the boot.

To be frank, I sometimes miss it. I miss headlines with exclamation points and news that interrupts news and experts for everything. I miss ridiculously overwrought anchors who, like, really care about me. Getting my attention span back for Avi and Lloyd would be easier if they were just a bit more charismatic in their delivery or the whole affair was a little more forward thinking instead of weighted down by outdated tradition.

While the Canadian national character abhors flash and dazzle, and there are factions of our society that prefer everything be understated, the fact is, for me, turning from the hoopla of overblown news to an underfunded, solemn channel like CBC Newsworld has felt, sadly, like a chore. It may be more respectable, reliable news, but the staid, '50s-era model of the humble pie anchors is hardly viable to anyone who wasn't alive in the '50s.

And while I by no means advocate that our national broadcasters turn the news into a three-ring circus, it's worthwhile to remember that they are competing in a market where the circus is most definitely in town. Surely there is a third way, between the fire-eaters on Fox and the oatmeal hucksters here at home -- it's sad to think that real, trustworthy news can't be presented in a more engaging format.

For now, I will keep weaning myself off the news beast and try to limit my watching only to certain times of day. Like, say, when I'm at that new gym. I'll be over my addiction in no time.

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