Editor's Note: Eric Burns is on vacation. Until he returns, readers may enjoy reviewing one of his previous columns. The column below, written in May, is relevant given the relaunch of CNN Headline News this week.
Satire is usually made up. It's how the word is defined. It starts out with reality, but then embellishes it, exaggerates it, dresses it up in entirely different garb for comic effect. A serious theme, yes. A moral at the end, yes. But both are usually expressed in a comic manner by comic characters.
For example, Swift's Lilliputians. Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel. Moliere's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.
And now, CNN's Andrea Thompson. Ladies and gentlemen, the world's first all-news television network now brings you satire without fiction.
Thompson is a former actress, known for her role on the ABC series NYPD Blue. CNN is a former ratings champ, known for a recent statement by an executive that it would attempt to regain its ratings supremacy by hiring stars to sit behind its anchor desks. In other words, it wants anchors that will bring publicity to the network prior to their arrival, not earn publicity once they get there for superior performance.
Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.
CNN is positively drowning in publicity about Andrea Thompson — not because of her celebrity status, as the network might have hoped; not because of her lack of journalistic status, for which the network was surely prepared; but because of her nude photos, now appearing on the Internet, which caught the network totally unaware.
But how? Don't they have any investigative reporters at CNN? Didn't any of them think to investigate Thompson? Couldn’t they have spared at least one of their news-hawks from the carcinogens-in-canned-goods beat to find out whether their new star had ever shown her duff in the buff?
In a prepared statement, Thompson said this about her nude photos, which were taken for a "prestigious artistic publication" called Black & White. "I ... make no apologies for any and all of the creative decisions I’ve made as an artist in my 20-year career."
Whoa, Andy, hang on there! Taking off your clothes might be a practical decision — say you're about to jump into the bathtub. It might be an emotional decision — say you're about to jump into bed with a lover. It might be a sanitary decision — say you just jumped into a landfill and hit liquid. But taking off your clothes is never, by any stretch of the imagination, an artistic decision. And if you think it is, then that year you spent being a reporter in Albuquerque, N.M., polishing your skills for journalism's big time, has not taught you as much as it should have.
That's right, Andrea Thompson, heading for an anchor slot at CNN's Headline News, has about a year's worth of experience in news. She did not graduate from college, dropped out of high school in the eleventh grade to become a model, and bared herself not only in Black & White, but in an epic piece of Italian erotica, Manhattan Gigolo, which was released to theatres, although very few of them, in 1986.
What makes this story such effective satire is that it so closely follows the definition. It starts out with reality: The perception that TV news executives, not just at CNN but everywhere — Fox, MSNBC, NBC, CBS, ABC — are more concerned with the appearances of their female journalists than their substance.
Then it embellishes and exaggerates. Who needs a resume to get a job reading the teleprompter when you can submit the publicity stills from Manhattan Gigolo?
As for the serious theme, it is that TV journalism has become obsessed with style, indifferent to substance. Of course, we knew that already, but the point is made so uproariously in the Thompson-CNN tale that it seems brand new.
The moral? Put it like this: Beware of hiring an anchorwoman with a beautiful face and shapely legs. You might just end up with one who is beautiful and shapely over every square inch of the territory in between, and who has provided evidence thereof for the World Wide Web.
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