Opinion

Of course CNN invited Corey Lewandowski on the air

How cable news became about show business, not journalism

It's no surprise that CNN was one of the first stops Corey Lewandowski made after a contempt-filled appearance Tuesday before Congress. Lewandowski, President Trump's former campaign manager, is evidently a showman; CNN likes to put on a show. The pairing — right after Lewandowski more or less conceded that he lies to the press — was inevitable.

You would think that Lewandowski's too-cute half-admission before Congress — "I have no obligation to be honest with the media" — would earn him a ban from CNN's airwaves. After all, CNN is supposedly in the news business, an industry focused on eliciting the truth and delivering it to viewers. Why put Lewandowski on your airwaves if you know his goal is probably to deceive your viewers?

CNN can claim it did its journalistic job by challenging Lewandowski during his Wednesday appearance on the channel. "Are you lying now?" Alisyn Camerota asked him.

"I'm as honest as I can be with you, Alisyn," Lewandowski responded.

Again: Too cute.

What did CNN viewers actually learn from the encounter? Nothing new. But in exchange, Lewandowski, who is considering a run for Senate in New Hampshire, got something he wanted: attention. And CNN got something it wanted, too, although it wasn't anything like the truth. Instead, it got a moment. Confronting Lewandowski was great TV. The performance was what mattered most.

This is not a broadside against "the media." Partisans of every stripe like to gripe about the media, but their criticisms are usually broad and shallow. "The media" is a bunch of different publications and outlets, all with differing missions and techniques. A local paper is different from a regional newspaper, which is different from a national newspaper — but all of those publications have more in common with one another than they do with cable TV news.

Newspapers are imperfect, and some — like The New York Times — come in for almost daily criticism of every news and editorial decision they make. But newspapers are usually substantive: If you're going to learn what happened during your local city council meeting, it is probably going to be in the paper and almost nowhere else. That's a valuable, if occasionally boring, public service.

Cable news in the 21st century doesn't have time for boring.

That's why you have the holograms, the "breaking news" alerts for stories that aren't all that breaking or newsworthy, the panels of pundits shouting at each other. Fundamentally, this is show business more than it is journalism. Spectacle matters — a lot. And that makes it difficult, sometimes, to get a handle on what is happening on screen. Did CNN's Camerota actually take a stand against Lewandowski's fundamental untruthfulness? Or was she just being performative? In other words: Was she being a journalist? Or was she simply participating in show business?

The distinction matters. Sometimes the imperatives of show business align with truth-telling, but often they don't. CNN boss Jeff Zucker's career has taken him from news to entertainment — he was running NBC when The Apprentice was a hit for the network and offered Trump a launching pad for his political career. (It's nearly impossible to imagine an editor getting a top newspaper job after years spent greenlighting sitcoms.) When CNN gave Trump hours of free airtime during the 2016 campaign, it did so for the same reason Gary Busey guest-starred on The Celebrity Apprentice: Viewers ate it up.

Cable news outlets didn't just enable Trump's rise. They're positively Trumpian. Like the president, channels like CNN often seem more interested in popularity and spectacle than in solving problems or doing the right thing. With that understanding, Lewandowski's appearance on CNN was foreordained.

Roughly a third of all Americans get their news from cable television. It is troubling to consider how democracy might be distorted when a prime source of information — and social media shares this characteristic with cable news — is more likely to quicken your pulse than enlighten your views.

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