Squirming while watching CNN cover a live event — such as the riots in Baltimore — has become a defining characteristic of modern life. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
TV critic

Is CNN as bad as everyone seems to think it is? Often, yes. The network’s live coverage of Monday’s destructive acts in Baltimore, and its seeming appetite for more trouble on Tuesday, in many ways demonstrated the strengths and shortcomings that are involved when a cable news channel tries to chase a live (and incendiary) story while haphazardly feeling around for a central statement or a bigger picture.

The purist ideal of “reporting the news” — a value that so many of CNN’s critics claim has long since vanished — simply will not suffice anymore; in an effort to remain true to its original mission but also stay ahead of its many competitors (including anybody with a phone), CNN appears to aim for programming that is news-themed, delivered by journalists obsessed with their own emotions.

On Monday night, the network held fast to a “Baltimore Is Burning” headline despite some of its sources reminding on-scene reporters and in-studio anchors that the fires and looting had kept to certain blocks and that the situation had not escalated into an official riot.

Contrary to that input, what CNN had, for several hours beginning Monday afternoon, was an earnestly excitable correspondent, Miguel Marquez, giving urgent play-by-plays from North and Pennsylvania avenues of looting and fire-setting and, in a rather dramatic fashion, standing aghast as young men with knives punctured a fire hose meant to help combat a blaze in a nearby CVS drugstore.

Marquez cut an interesting figure at the epicenter of Baltimore’s meltdown: Dressed like a hipster Clark Kent (sans necktie), he for some technical reason required the constant use of his smartphone, which he held to his ear while interviewing eyewitnesses and answering questions from CNN anchors.

This had a way of making Marquez look like both a lunatic and a true man of the moment; he wasn’t always on point (“I didn’t know what a tough and diverse city this is,” he remarked), but his relentlessness exemplified the swashbuckling flavor of a CNN hallmark that goes at least as far back as the Scud Stud days: the reporter who is in the thick of things. In between reporting what he was seeing, Marquez was peppered with unnecessary attaboys from the anchors back in the studio, who expressed fear for his safety. Oh, the humanity.

On a night like Monday, no one involved — Baltimoreans, city officials, CNN reporters, and, indeed, all journalists doing live TV or filing dispatches tweet by tweet and photo by photo — had the time to parse their own words. Words such as “riot,” words such as “thug,” combinations of words that are mostly metaphorical exaggerations, such as “the city is burning.” You can only be so careful with the sting of smoke in your eyes and the taste of pepper spray in your mouth.

Likewise, CNN doesn’t always have the time to think deeply about the images it beams live back to the rest of the country. One assumes there are a lot of people calling the shots at CNN, but it’s hard to see the power of a guiding hand or principle. It is CNN’s nature to jump into the fray and seek out the most dramatic events it can capture on camera and then summarize them as they occur, while queueing up a long line of experts to weigh in.

The strongest visual will always win. CNN would be shirking its duty if it declined to show such events to appease some nobler effort to accentuate the positive, which, in this case, included the many people who chose peaceful protest. TV news frequently finds itself explaining why non-burning buildings and people standing still (or staying home) don’t make the cut.

But viewers — from President Obama down to the rest of us — also recognize the corrosive effects of repeat footage of looting and fires. When CNN fixates on a burning car as its primary visual for 45 minutes, or when it appears to treat the loss of one CVS drugstore as a bigger tragedy than the death of a person in police custody, viewers pick up on that. If you were watching CNN anytime between Monday and Tuesday afternoon, you would sometimes think you were watching a noisy funeral for a drugstore, one of 7,600 drugstores in a very profitable chain that can very well avail itself of some positive, valuable PR by rebuilding.

Such squirming while watching a live news event unfold on CNN is nothing new; indeed, it’s a defining characteristic of modern life. Even at its best, CNN’s live coverage will necessarily be a messy work in progress.

The difference in 2015 is that CNN’s viewers are no longer a passive audience (indeed, no news organization enjoys a blowback-free existence anymore). We can and do complain about the network in real time, pointing out dumb questions, needlessly stray remarks (you knew it would come and late Monday night it did — someone alluded to “The Wire”) and editorial choices. At times it’s difficult to sort real criticisms of the network from the virtual noise.

So, once more: Is CNN as bad as everyone seems to think it is? As often as the answer could be yes, the answer is also no.

By Tuesday evening, the network seemed to have put its arms around the larger story that it had so clumsily grasped at first (and initially ignored in favor of covering the White House correspondents’ dinner Saturday night). It was letting the residents of Baltimore express their feelings rather than letting the reporters and anchors be outraged on their behalf. It was doing better interviews and putting events that had happened 24 hours earlier in context. Its strongest voices (Jake Tapper, Anderson Cooper) were making up for its lesser, more lampoonable ones (Don Lemon, Wolf Blitzer).

“I’m just glad you all are here getting the whole picture,” a Baltimore man wearing a tasseled fez said to Ryan Young, a CNN reporter covering midday protests Tuesday.

To be completely honest, I’m glad CNN is there, too, even though it’s impossible for cable news to be as essential as it once was. When it’s good and when it’s bad, CNN is still part of our cultural fabric; but, like its competitors MSNBC and Fox News, CNN still relies too much on old formats — the toss from hourly show to hourly show; the array of experts spouting opinions; the burning drugstore on an endless loop — and not enough on the raw feed. When people complain that CNN doesn’t tell it like it is, part of what they’re saying is that CNN spends too much time telling and not enough time showing.