A couple of years ago, I was at a party, locked deep in conversation with a former producer at CNN. And I recall that one of the things we had talked about was the media's coverage of Hurricane Katrina. I remember telling him that even as specialized news programs came and went, and even though I had never made it a point to tune into CNN on a regular basis, whenever there was the pressing need to watch the news, it was CNN I turned to. I got to know Aaron Brown the same way most Americans did -- on September 11th, when the anchor was pressed into duty ahead of schedule. And during Katrina and its aftermath, I stayed glued to the network because they were offering the best and most consistent coverage of that story.
But, as has already been remarked upon, where the Iranian election and its aftermath are concerned, this was the weekend of #cnnfail. And I couldn't help but notice that the old equation had been inverted -- where once CNN had been defined by steady and comprehensive coverage instead of iconic news programs -- this weekend, it was a single news program, celebrating its one year anniversary, that gave CNN its only real bright spot in its coverage of the Iranian election. I am speaking, of course, of Fareed Zakaria GPS, perhaps the only show on Sunday that inspires people to send me complimentary emails, urging me to escape from the Sunday Morning talk show axis to watch.
GPS dedicated the bulk of its program this weekend to covering the Iranian election and its aftermath. Opening with Zakaria's frank assessment -- "My own sense is that the vote appears to have been rigged." The show went on to star international reporter Christiane Amanpour, who's covered a number of elections in Iran, and stayed with her through to the commercial break.
When Zakaria returned, he handed the show over to a panel discussion on the events in Iran, which significantly included two Iranian panelists: Reza Aslan, author of How To Win A Cosmic War; and Afshin Molavi, fellow at the New America Foundation (where Zakaria is a board member).
Former Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns rounded out the panel, and the ensuing discussion was simply on a higher than you were getting anywhere else. On a day when America had to struggle through Mitt Romney's simple-minded talking points on the subject on This Week, and CNN's earlier Great Debate on WHAT TWITTER MEANS TO THE WORLD (the never touched on answer was the Twitter was the means by which the world was doing CNN's reportorial job), GPS's depth of discussion was a welcome oasis. As was its dedicated eschewing of the typical patterns of cable news discussion. Matt Yglesias did a fine job summing up how the Iranian election, as a story, just failed to fit inside the square peg that cable news has carved for every story:
Whenever I find myself talking about new media to skeptics of an older generation who worry that the standards online are too debased, I try to remind people that the real debasing came with the rise of multi-channel cable news. In terms of the Iranian elections, the world's top newspapers have the people on the ground reporting the main facts, and there's lots of smart analysis from legitimate experts all over the web, but on television if it can't be captured by two talking heads debating each other it's like it never happened.
Emphasis mine, and I really cannot second this assessment strongly enough. It is like a sickness. But yesterday, GPS demonstrated it's immunity and turned in coverage and discussion of surpassing depth and unconventionality. It's survived one year on the air -- will other shows follow its lead? Or will they follow the lead of Howard Kurtz, who absolved CNN's coverage by suggesting "even journalists have to rest sometimes?" Would he have said the same about New Orleans, circa August 2005?