CNN's image took a beating last week during the news network's coverage of the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombers.
On Wednesday at 1:45 p.m., CNN's John King told an anxious viewing audience that the police had arrested a suspect. But it was not the case. The Associated Press, the Boston Globe, Fox News and other media outlets joined the chorus of misinformation, the New York Times pointed out
Initially, CNN benefited as its audience tripled to 1.05 million from 365,000 the week before, the Times noted, quoting data from Nielsen supplied by Horizon Media. Normally, this improvement would be heralded as a significant sign of CNN's value.
But in hindsight, it is as if CNN hooked many of those viewers under false pretenses. It didn't deserve to get such a big bump for reporting incorrect news headlines. It will be interesting if CNN will now suffer a slingshot effect. Will the public turn away from CNN as a form of punishment?
For CNN, this is a dramatic development because the public tends to watch the network faithfully during times of crises -- just like the Boston Marathon bombing case. Starting with its stirring coverage three decades ago of Desert Storm, CNN has been America's go-to news channel when the stakes are highest.
CNN has tried to have the same kind of ratings success on ordinary news days but has failed to attract the same numbers by a long shot. It trails Fox News badly and is involved in a serious competition with MSNBC for the No. 2 position on cable.
New CNN chief Jeff Zucker has shaken up the network, bringing in new on-air journalists and spicing up the coverage of the news. He congratulated his staff for their hard work on the Boston story, which is probably more of a gesture of solidarity in a challenging time than anything else.
Right now, CNN clearly needs all the support it can get -- even from within. John King is a wise, seasoned reporter who knows what he is doing and is anything but sensationalist. Perhaps CNN's culture has to change to become more interested in accuracy than ratings.
I spoke with an experienced CNN executive who was as embarrassed by the criticism heaped on CNN by satirists Jon Stewart and Andy Borowitz as anything else. (Borowitz, a scathing social critic went so far as to suggest that CNN should drop its coverage of real news and present a greatest-hits format of its glory days).
The whole network should be mortified by the decline in its image. CNN will now have to win back the trust of its audience, one story at a time.