Credibility in the news business is hard to get and easy to lose. But at CNN they're giving it away.
Several of CNN's major anchors did an advertisement for the new Will Ferrell movie Anchorman 2, about the fictitious blowhard Ron Burgundy. In spots that appear on Ferrell's website Funny or Die, Chris Cuomo, Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper do straight-faced interviews about their career experience with Ron Burgundy, a man who doesn't exist.
The first job I had was as an intern for Ron Burgundy. They were the worst years of my life.
Ron Burgundy, one of the most influential anchors in broadcast history.
When I first graduated from college and I started reporting, I was just doing my best Ron Burgundy imitation.
Following every one of them is the promo for Anchorman 2 and its opening date. It's supposed to be a joke, but it's an advertisement, and real reporters don't do advertisements.
In the case of Anderson Cooper it's even worse because he also works for 60 Minutes over at CBS, which is recovering from airing a grossly erroneous report about the attack on the Benghazi consulate. 60 Minutes is now employing a correspondent who's done a commercial for a movie.
The original Anchorman is to television news what the 1977 movie Slapshot is to hockey. It's a cult picture. Anyone who's ever worked in television has worked and suffered under someone like Ron Burgundy. People in the business laugh at it because they recognize the character from real life.
Ferrell arranged a clever marketing campaign, running around the country appearing as his character. He co-anchored the news in Bismarck, N.D. as Ron Burgundy, much to what should have been an embarrassment to the local CBS affiliate, but was not. They were thrilled about it. You can't blame Ferrell for asking, but journalists should say no.
Something in the lonely hearts of journalists make them want to be celebrities and movie stars. Being successful, well known and well paid isn't enough. They want to be loved. They want fame and adoration.
This is why reporters invite movie stars to the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner. Reporters want to be seen with Lindsay Lohan, Eva Longoria, Michael Douglas and Nicole Kidman. They pass it off with a wink, but they're really hoping the glamour rubs off on them. It's not enough to be with the stars, they want to be one of them. They want to be famous, rather than trustworthy, accurate and reliable. I once worked with a woman who used to say, "It's more important to look good than to be good." There's a lot of that in television.
Occasionally real reporters seduced by the call of Hollywood take bit parts in movies playing reporters. Friends of mine have done it. In their defense they say no one cares, it doesn't affect their work. That's what CNN is likely to say. Everyone knows it's a joke so it doesn't matter.
But it does. Roughly a third of Americans don't believe what they hear from major news outlets. Journalism exists to distinguish fact from fiction and truth from rumor. It should serve the public interest, not its own. Reporters shouldn't be back-slapping buddies with the people they cover, whether they're in Hollywood or the House. Reporters should remain separate and apart, even disliked if that's what it takes to independently deliver the information people need to be informed in a free society. If people don't believe us when we are delivering fact, why should they believe us when we mix fact with fiction?
In his bit Chris Cuomo says about Ron Burgundy, "We've all done some regrettable things to get where we are today. He's just done them better." It's a funny line. The joke of Ron Burgundy is that it doesn't matter what you say, so long as you are on television. Now it's Chris Cuomo and his fellow anchors who are the joke.