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Big Names, Little News--This Is CNN?

NEWS ALERT:

Good morning! This is Calendar Morning, where you’ll find all the news you need to know this morning in Calendar Morning. And so good morning to you from Calendar Morning ... this morning.

MORNING BUZZ:

I’d like to praise me for the wonderful job I’m doing, an opinion of me with which I heartily agree.

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TOP NEWS: I’m cranky.

THE BIG QUESTION:

Have I said good morning?

Oh, brother.

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Have you checked out the new personality-obsessed, format-fixated, talk-driven, graphics-screaming, self-adoring, dumbed-down, less-news-is-good-news CNN? You know, the cable channel you can tune in around the clock and hear chat and opinion responding to chat and opinion.

President Bush has his “axis of evil,” CNN its axis of egos, from Aaron Brown to Paula Zahn to just-hired Connie Chung, whose switch from ABC is getting the kind of attention by CNN that it would give Osama bin Laden joining the CIA.

“Connie Chung is on our side now!” crowed the host of CNN’s “American Morning With Paula Zahn” last week. How did Chung initially help CNN? By giving Zahn someone else to interview.

“CNN has always been first-rate in my office and my home,” Chung explained about changing networks. After finishing with Chung, Zahn urged all in the studio to give their new CNN colleague a hand, leading the applause herself.

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And they call this news.

The network’s new emblem is, indeed, “American Morning With Paula Zahn,” three hours notable for titling segments (“MORNING BUZZ” and so on) in large block letters and enlisting the show’s regulars as shills by having them proclaim before each commercial break: “Stay with us on ‘American Morning.’ We’ve got all the news you need to know.”

Where is a laugh track when you need one?

“Are we your morning habit now?” Zahn asked Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott this week, lighting up like a slot machine after he made the mistake of politely mentioning it was nice being on her show. Later, she urged him to keep tuning in “AM,” and thanked him “very much for putting ‘American Morning’ on your morning agenda.”

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Zahn is obviously CNN’s lead pitchwoman in this barrage of self-love.

To foreign correspondent Christiane Amanpour in London: “I haven’t had a chance to tell you what superb work you did out of Afghanistan.” To White House reporter John King: “We very much appreciate that follow-up report. We know the long day you put in yesterday.”

Three hours of this forced cheer (How many times can they say “good morning”?) become a long day.

After previously working for the Fox News Channel and CBS, Zahn became famous at CNN recently for protesting being called “sexy” in a network promo that was swiftly disavowed by management and revised. Oh, please. If looks weren’t a strong motivating factor in her hiring--as they were a few years ago for Bill Hemmer, the baby-faced anchor whose show follows hers--then her name is Paula Poundstone.

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Zahn has two sidekicks. One is chuckling Anderson Cooper, formerly of ABC News, who looks like he rode over on a skateboard. Cooper is a fumbling interviewer who presides over such segments as “FUNNY SIDE UP” and recently faulted actor Cuba Gooding Jr.'s career judgment in appearing in the movie “Snow Dogs.” This from someone who arrived at CNN after hosting ABC’s “The Mole.”

A crease in the show’s cheeriness, designated grouch Jack Cafferty, is an ex-New York news anchor who works in his shirt sleeves. He appeared plenty teed off this week when quizzing a California Corrections Department official and an advocate for prison health care about Stanford University Medical Center’s controversial decision to give a prison inmate a heart transplant while others waited for hearts.

Cafferty ended up frustrated when he didn’t get the responses he wanted from these guys who had no influence over the transplant decision. “You really should talk to the people at Stanford about the ethics,” one told him.

“Know what I think?” Zahn said. “Why don’t we get these people on from Stanford?” A lightbulb had clicked on over their heads. Yes ... YES!!!

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It might have been worse. CNN could have named the series “Sexy American Morning With Paula Zahn.”

Audience levels for all cable news, including CNN, are up from a year ago. Yet CNN has been turning over personnel while redefining itself to meet the challenge of its competitors, especially the tenacious Fox News Channel, which in January surpassed CNN as the nation’s most-watched cable news network despite being available in 9 million fewer homes.

CNN still has its share of aces, from the astute Larry King to classy, experienced anchor Judy Woodruff to solid political reporter Candy Crowley to perceptive Jeff Greenfield to relatively new Brown. Coming over from ABC, Brown made his bones on CNN in the aftermath of Sept. 11, and is a fine, thoughtful anchor when not carrying chattiness to extremes and crashing like a computer.

Which he did one night last week when opening his “Newsnight” program with this profoundly newsworthy admission: “I’m cranky.” After which came a monologue about what a lousy day he’d had.

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Aaron, baby, sweetheart! Who cared?

The problem, if you value messages over messengers, is that CNN increasingly assumes that viewers do care and that faces on the screen are at least as important to them as facts.

Here is how CNN deceptively oversold Brown’s Wednesday-night interview with Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura in the St. Paul capitol building: “Two straight-talking Minnesota natives shoot straight from the hip.”

From the hip, my eye. Instead, happily, came a routine interview with Brown politely asking questions and Ventura responding. Yet why did Brown feel compelled to open the newscast with a story from his Minnesota childhood about being disciplined by his teacher after running “screaming through the rotunda” during a sixth-grade field trip to the statehouse?

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Cults of personalities have underpinned profit strategies of TV news for more than three decades, which accounts for a tradition of selling anchors to the public as icons and paying them scads more than the mortals on the pavement who do much of the work for small credit.

As far as any of them becoming celebrities, it’s unavoidable, for the camera confers that status on whoever is in front of it. Yet for years CNN resisted this phenomenon in the belief that news was sacred, even if its reporters did tend to rush breathlessly from one breaking story to another without offering much context. Formerly a network that chose to celebrate its anchors and prominent reporters only in moderation, CNN is now one at which news can do no better than co-star with the camera-ready crowd that delivers it.

Affirmation has arrived with Zahn, Chung (whose 5 p.m. newscast is scheduled to begin in late March or April) and even Brown, whose personalized style can wear thin.

CNN News Group Chairman Walter Isaacson has said he wants CNN “driven by personalities who are very compelling, interesting, vibrant, lively.”

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He omitted smart and informed.

CNN is increasingly a talk-show network with less news than opinion, much of it pretty lowbrow. Just how low must have been apparent this week to viewers of CNN’s noontime hour, “TalkBack Live.” Tuesday found a discussion of hot issues being led by chirpy, juvenile-sounding CNN Headline News anchor Robin Meade, a former local news star and Ohio beauty queen who kept calling her male guests “you guys.” Then Wednesday brought a dissection of President Bush’s State of the Union address led by Karyn Bryant, host of the VH1 game show “Name That Video” and former host of the TBS series “Movies for Guys Who Like Movies.”

Who’s to say one of them won’t someday join the CNN lineup as the measured, low-key Woodruff’s vibrant, lively successor on “Inside Politics”?

With more opinion come fewer news stories, meanwhile. But more and more gimmicks, as excitement becomes the prevailing CNN motif.

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Every reading of news headlines is now titled “NEWS ALERT,” the “alert” signifying urgency, even if none exists. The same motivation appears to be behind using “WAR ALERT” for all stories related to the U.S. campaign against terrorism, no matter how insignificant. And to further massage viewers’ emotions, CNN has been slipping background music into some stories, once a no-no there and at other responsible news shops in the belief that it was dishonest to shape viewers’ perceptions with artificial stimuli.

Speaking of artificial, Chung resurfaced on “Larry King Live” recently for what he billed as “her first in-depth interview.” Hadn’t he watched her with Zahn?

Actually, the usually chummy King seemed a bit testy with Chung, whose show will precede his in the CNN lineup, setting up a potential battle with her for top guests. He wondered, for example, if she felt like a “third rung” at ABC, where she usually trailed Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer in landing high-profile interviews. Was that a dig at someone who could become a rival?

Or was he just cranky?

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Howard Rosenberg’s column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be contacted via e-mail at howard. rosenberg@latimes.com.


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