CNN and the Problem With the 'Egypt or Trayvon' Question

One of the few things Egyptians and Americans seem able to agree on during the events of the past few weeks is that they don't like how CNN has covered them. In Egypt, as my colleague David Kenner explains, protesters were upset by the network's decision to call his ouster a "coup" as well as its mislabeling of an anti-Morsy demonstration.

Here in the States, the Most Trusted Name in News has taken flack for downplaying the events in Cairo in favor of its wall-to-wall coverage of George Zimmerman's trial. As New York University's Jay Rosen put it, CNN President Jeff Zucker "wants everyone in his company to know what the priorities are: Mini-series in the center, world events off to the side." (This critique presumably applies to domestic CNN rather than CNN International.) 

On the other side, defenders of the network such as Politico's Dylan Byers and Reuters's Jack Shafer point out that high-profile trials are a ratings boon for the network and it's not as if people interested in Egypt don't have other options in the modern media landscape. 

"In today’s media environment, the media critic who insists that the cable networks follow Egypt and drop Zimmerman is like the nudging dining companion who wants to order both his meal and yours, lest you embarrass him by mistakenly ordering the burger and fries," Shafer writes. "He finds the burger and fries déclassé and bad for you and would rather you add something more tofu-and-wheatgrassy to your media diet."

(Update: Rosen has a follow-up post addressing these objections in greater detail.)

I'm obviously always in favor of major media outlets spending more time on world events, but I feel as if the way this debate is being framed -- serious important Egypt coverage vs. tawdry courtroom drama -- to be too simplistic on both sides.

First of all, as Aaron David Miller wrote last week, foreign-policy wonks have an irritating habit of assuming that global politics take place in some exalted Olympian realm while there's something distasteful about domestic issues. Putting aside the question of whether it warrants 24-hour wall-to-wall coverage, the Trayvon Martin story isn't just another celebrity trial -- it initially garnered public interest because it involves issues of racial profiling and gun violence that affect many Americans.

The issue is less that CNN is covering a trial that has excited major public interest, than how it's covering that trial. As former CNN producer Sid Bedingfield writes on Gawker, "Is this the sort of trial that should receive the full-on Reality-TV show treatment? Probably not.… The goal of the criminal-trial-as-entertainment genre is simple: Hook the viewer into the narrative. Get them emotionally invested in the characters. And, most importantly, persuade them to choose sides. Team Zimmerman vs. Team Trayvon."

It's one thing when world events are pushed aside for a big domestic story; it's another when they're pushed aside for a 15-minute debate on "N Word vs. 'Cracker': Which Is Worse?"

There also seems to be an assumption here that reporting world news has to be the equivalent of getting viewers to eat their vegetables before you transition to the stuff they actually want. Even the network's own John King seems resigned to this way of thinking, saying, "The American people don't often pay attention to what's going on in the world until they have to."

Not only is this a sad statement from the network that made it's reputation on the fall of the Berlin Wall and the first Gulf War, but isn't it the network's job to tell viewers why they have to pay attention to a story and to make it interesting to them?

I'm also not quite sure I buy that U.S. television viewers have no interest in the world beyond their borders. CNN's own most high-profile programming addition this year has been a documentary series that drops Anthony Bourdain into places like Burma, Libya, and Congo. Granted, Bourdain is a celebrity chef, not a reporter, but it's still a sign the network thinks there are prime-time viewers interested in spending some time learning about the M-23. HBO has made a similar bet on the thrill-seeking gonzo hipsters of Vice.

Again, I'm not necessarily holding up either of these programs as journalistic paragons, but they suggest that an organization with the resources of CNN should be able to find a way to interest viewers in an important story, even if it happens in another country. If viewers will watch a documentary about international issues, why not breaking news? From a pure storytelling point of view, it certainly seems like there's more human drama in Mohamed Morsy's downfall than in the testimony of Zimmerman's personal trainer.

The issue shouldn't be whether CNN covers Trayvon or Egypt. It's how it -- and the rest of the media -- could do a better job covering both of them.

Getty Images