CNN announced its search is over: "Veteran news producer and former NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker will become the president of CNN Worldwide in January. . . His first challenge is likely to be turning around CNN/US television ratings, which have been declining in recent years. Zucker, who had most recently produced Katie Couric's new daytime talk show, had been widely rumored to be in line for the position. It's been that kind of whirlwind life for Zucker, who has had a rocket-like rise in the news and entertainment business."
The media mavens insist that CNN has no place in an increasingly polarized news environment. MSNBC is the White House lap dog. Fox News is the attack dog. So what does CNN do? Well, free advice is worth what you pay for it, but I'll offer up mine based on the premise that there is certainly a place for an unpredictable, lively news network.
For starters, during the campaign, conservatives were pleasantly surprised to see Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper doing hard-hitting interviews with Obama surrogates. These actually are two capable inquisitors, and it seems giving them the role that "60 Minutes" investigative journalists had (minus the ludicrous liberal bias) is what is missing from most of cable news. Yes, have them ask the tough questions and dish it out to both sides, but also do some actual muckraking. (The Veterans Administration is in shambles -- why? Where does all that U.N. refugee money go?) In other words, be the anti-Politico, namely a serious news outlet that does policy and doesn't merely regurgitate the conventional center-left wisdom.
Next, with all due respect, get some fresh faces as political contributors. The stable of election night gurus and political pundits is filled with relics of the Reagan and Clinton administrations, none of whom is in the midst of daily policy and political battles. The conservatives are generally not conservative or are cartoon characters, sort of Alan Colmes-style straight men. There is a world of smart, energetic bloggers, political operatives and ex-pols who have something smart to say in entertaining ways. (And yes, get some hard-hitting female reporters and hosts -- the evening line-up is very male.)
CNN can also be the place where conservatives and liberals aren't shielded from opposing views. When the two sides engage, in interviews or as hosts, you actually get conflict, drama and real debate. If MSNBC nighttime is a haven where never a smart conservative shall tread and Fox is the reverse, CNN can be where the combatants mix it up.
In that vein there is the no-brainer: Bring back "Crossfire." Most talking head shows are rip offs (poor ones) of the original version. But the immediacy of hosts pitching fast balls at each other and the guests and everyone hitting the ball back and forth was good, exciting TV. Compared to New Media, most cable TV these days seems sloooowww. Pick up the pace.
Viewers have become very expert in polls, fights about polls and pollsters. It is not just horse-race politics but the composition of the electorate, the public's views on health care and the voters' reactions to the media that are often the topic in print and online news, but rarely showcased in interesting ways on TV. Why not have the New York Times's Nate Silver and Weekly Standard's Jay Cost doing segments together? (I bet they'd have hashed out that whole skewed polling thing.) Bring in a Republican strategist to do a shadow campaign (Get Chris Christie out of that fleece jacket! Make Terry McAuliffe warm and fuzzy!) or do a reality show in an actual campaign.
In sum, CNN can be what every other cable news network isn't -- independent, fresh and actually newsworthy. One reason people under 40 (or is it 30?) watch less and less TV news is that they have read it all already online. If they have something to watch that they haven't seen 50 times already that day, they might watch. And one last thing: No Katie Couric, please.