WHAT IF CNN HADN’T HAPPENED?

CNN was born 25 years ago this month. It was a simple yet awesome invention, the brainchild of Ted Turner, who saw a world of satellites and cable and got the idea for a 24-hour news channel. Turner is a man who often asks “Why not?” rather than “Why?”

Therein lies our difference.

Twenty-five years later, I find myself asking “Why?” all the time about CNN. Not just CNN, of course, but all it has spawned. You could argue that without CNN there is no Fox News, no MSNBC, no Court TV, no E! Entertainment, no Bill O’Reilly, no “Hardball,” no Hannity or Colmes, no updates every five minutes on Michael Jackson in his pajamas.

Imagine a world without all that.

Would our lives really be lessened?

Don’t forget Ben and Jen

The problem with the magic of 24-hour news wasn’t the genie, it was the bottle. The bottle burst. CNN began with less than 1% of U.S. homes as potential audience; that figure today, if you throw in all the branded networks around the world, has been estimated at 1.5 billion — nearly one-fourth the world’s population.

Think about that. From Tasmania to Timbuktu. I read once about a nomad in the Middle East who lived in a tent but had a satellite dish and CNN on the screen.

What’s wrong with this? It shrinks the world to a sheep herd of images. A single piece of footage, no more than 10 seconds long, now can deify or destroy a person across the planet.

We don’t know facts; we know images. Among CNN’s recently cited 25 biggest stories were the space shuttle Columbia, Tiananmen Square and Monica Lewinsky. Each one conjures up a visual: an exploding spacecraft, a violent protest, a raven-haired intern hugging a president. Most of us don’t know all the details. But we feel as if we do.

And we can’t help feeling that way about the stuff CNN doesn’t congratulate itself on: the Robert Blake trial, Ben and Jennifer, the runaway bride. We’ve been hypnotized by those overblown events, too. At times, we can’t help it. Just try going to an airport these days and NOT seeing cable news. It’s blasting everywhere, in hotel lobbies, in bars, in restaurants.

It’s an intravenous drip. Input, input, input. Mainlined into your veins and brains.

Red state vs. blue state

I’m not sure this is a good thing. The world is a majestic place for a reason. It requires perspective. It requires effort. It requires travel, face-to-face contact, smelling strange foods, walking in strange sand. A box will not deliver that, no matter how much high-definition it contains.

Sure, there’s value in being informed. But given the choice between not knowing something or claiming you know it because you saw a 20-second story on it, well, which is more dangerous? We all feel smarter with cable news. But we also feel entitled to scream opinions about foreign governments or some abusive parent in Florida. Are we better for that?

Are we better for the competition cable news has fostered, creating a liberal vs. conservative hell storm, a fight for “gotcha” interviews and endless celebrity fawning? Are we better for all the repetition? I worked for a cable news network a few years ago. I remember being asked to talk about Chandra Levy every 10 minutes. As I said earlier: Why?

Maybe I’m just getting older. But I’m not sure everybody knowing two minutes of everything is a goal to which humans should aspire. There’s a value to smallness, to villages that are not global. There’s also a value to life’s mystery. To saying “I wonder what’s happening across the planet” without having a machine you think can tell you.

There’s no going back. The genie has run wild. I congratulate CNN on its 25th birthday but confess there are times I wish it hadn’t been born.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com”

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