Friday, March 25, 2011

Dear CNN - You suck!

This is an open letter to CNN, regarding your reporting, or lack thereof regarding the ‘Crisis in Japan’.

Two words can sum up my feelings: YOU SUCK.

No really, your reporting on Japan is absolutely horrendous. I’ve been irritated by it over the last week, and this evening what I saw was enough to put me past my boiling point.

I tuned in to catch some news about the situation in Libya, figuring that I’d learn something I hadn’t on BBC World (my other English language news service). One of your CNN anchors was discussing the situation in Japan with the Iodine-131 in drinking water. He introduced the story, before handing off to one of your gaijin correspondents in Japan, by saying (from memory), “Now to Tokyo for an update on the contamination of drinking water there. Officials announced yesterday that drinking water was unsafe for young children, because of radioactive contamination. But today, they are saying it’s safe to drink. How can the water be unsafe to drink one day, yet safe the next? We take you to ________ in Tokyo.”


Stop right there. What kind of reporting is this? The issue is that the levels of Iodine-131 fell in the last day, and are now below the 100 Bq/kg limit set for infants. That’s it. By introducing a story like this, you are leading the viewer to believe that there is a controversy or misrepresentation or something awful happening that shouldn’t. Unfortunately, there’s nothing to support this claim, in your story or otherwise.

Then, the correspondent in Japan comes on to repeat the same line saying (from memory), “People don’t know what to think. The water is unsafe one day, then safe the next. This is causing worry and concern amongst Tokyo citizens.” Then you move on to interview a Japanese mother with an infant telling you she’s worried about safe drinking water.

So, where the hell is the story here? If you want to imply that the government of Tokyo, or central government of Japan, of cooking the numbers and/or misleading the public, you should follow this up with some actual reporting. How about some evidence that there is some monkey business from eyewitnesses or an inside source? Or even a response from government spokespersons or officials to your question of ‘how these levels could have changed’ or to your implication that something untoward happened?

There was none of this - absolutely nothing justifying that provocative lead-in. So, what we have here is a clear case of idle speculation instead of actual reporting, investigative or otherwise. WTF?! This isn’t why I pay for access to English news on my satellite dish.

Now I’m going to speculate. I can only envision two explanations why CNN took this tack on their report. The first is that you guys are really, really stupid. Perhaps you cannot fathom in any way how radiation might dissipate over time or how diffusion might actually result in dispersal of these substances to lowered concentrations throughout the water supply. I thought that’s why you had paid experts come on and pontificate - you know to explain concepts like basic science to you that are beyond your comprehension. Or perhaps you actually think that the government doesn’t know how to measure these things or wants to just lie, and make people drink water that isn’t safe. Never mind that you don’t have any facts to back this up, or bothered to investigate.

The other explanation I can come up with, is that you just don’t care about the truth and you want to suck in viewers, preying on their fear and gullibility. Given that your business model is based on advertiser revenue, which is based on number of viewers (ratings), I guess it’s OK (in your minds) to do whatever it takes to suck people in - even if it means creating problems or crises that aren’t actually there. It’s quite clear that whenever that you can milk some event for ratings, CNN is there. We know, because you keep the “Breaking News” legend at the bottom of the screen, for days, even weeks at a time for any ongoing issue - even when there isn’t any new news. You often introduce stories as “breaking” or “this just in”, when the information is 4-12 hours old. And you often give the ‘meta-story’ a title (e.g., “Crisis in Japan”) which you show whenever you present a story on some ongoing topic. These are all very subtle ways for you to subliminally implant in people’s minds that there is something really important on-going and CNN is on the job, telling you what you need to know. I’ve seen this in your reporting of the trapped West Virginia coal miners a couple years back (wondering why you guys just didn’t lay off the poor relatives of these guys). I’ve seen it in Haiti, where one of your reporters (A. Cooper) decided to interview some desperate people trying to dig relatives out of the rubble, as opposed to actually getting in there and helping them.

But I digress - let’s get back to the truth. Whether or not CNN is really stupid or you are purposely misleading to gain viewers probably makes no difference to you, as long as there is (as Stephen Colbert describes it) some ‘truthiness’ to what you are saying or reporting. The problem is that in crises, making inflammatory, speculative, provocative statements really has a negative impact on the people actually in those crises and their relatives around the world. It’s leading to panic and stress among foreigners, and their relatives back home that don’t have better information sources than the crap you are putting on the air. It’s enough, and I demand you stop!

In the case of the earthquake and its aftermath, the real crises involve the victims, refugees in the Tohoku region, and nuclear plant recovery. Although people are inconvenienced in Tokyo, it’s currently nothing more than that. Suggesting or implying otherwise is irresponsible, regardless of whether or not you think the government is telling the truth. Most of the reason foreign governments asked citizens to evacuate also had more to do with fear than reality. CNN and other foreign news services are responsible for helping to generate and sustain those fears. As a foreigner living west of Tokyo, I have concerns and fears for my family here too. And if things deteriorate to the point of real danger, we will certainly leave. But unfortunately, we won’t be able to rely on information from CNN to help us make that decision.

Wake up and stop the exaggeration and misinformation! Be responsible journalists, and just tell us the facts. Leave the speculation to people that actually take the time to investigate. Maybe take lessons from some of your iReporters, those “amateurs” that often truly grasp what journalism is.