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CNN Is Bad at Tabloid Journalism

Defense testimony for the Zimmerman trial, perhaps concluding Wednesday, has so far been something of a sideshow. A trainer from Zimmerman’s gym swaggered to the stand on Monday, described Zimmerman as “soft-bodied,” rated his fitness a 0.5 out of 10, and—feeling visibly awesome about his own athletic abilities—demonstrated a grappling move on the defense attorney. On Tuesday, a former medical examiner described himself as having a “very strong interest in gunshot wounds.” But the main attraction has been the procession of family members trotted out by the defense—including Trayvon Martin’s father—endlessly subjected to questions about that 911 audio, by now the trial’s central, sacred document. 

If a murder trial is like a miniseries, the family members on the witness stand are the supporting cast: dutifully performing their separate roles, emoting persuasively, humanizing the protagonists with their devotion. During the Michael Jackson trial, the testimony of Jackson’s eldest son Prince, who found his father collapsed and hanging off the side of his bed, was heartbreaking. Jackson’s nephews cried on the witness stand. Jurors saw a home video of Jackson and his children. And in the 1995 O.J. Simpson trial, Simpson’s mother, sister, and daughter testified movingly on his behalf. An attorney escorted Simpson’s frail, elderly mother to the stand, where she described raising her children as a single mom and tenderly treating young O.J.’s rickets. She was such a sympathetic figure that the prosecution declined to cross-examine her.

This all made for captivating media coverage. But in the second half of the Zimmerman trial, the family has been used less to amp up the drama and humanize the two men at the center than to participate in the tedious game of analyzing the voices on that tape, guessing at which voice is whose. On Friday the defense began by calling George Zimmerman’s mother, Gladys, to the stand. The cries for help were clearly her son’s, she said. Then Zimmerman’s uncle, George Meza, listened to the tape, and offered: “That voice just came and hit me,” he said. “I heard that, but more than heard that, I felt it inside of my heart. I said, that is George.” Earlier, Trayvon’s mother had testified with the same cool certainty that the voice on the tape was her son’s.

To be clear, the panicked voices on the tape are impossible to distinguish. Parsing them feels like an insanely futile exercise. But it’s also a pretty undramatic one. Sussing out who was the aggressor is clearly key to the trial's outcome, but as a spectacle—for a court case that has up till this week made for riveting television, with the testimony of Rachel Jeantel a notable highlight—it gets repetitive fast. I haven’t seen the ratings yet for Tuesday’s coverage, but the fortieth hour of 911-tape talk seemed like a good opportunity to cut away to some other, meatier world event.

And yet CNN, with its knee-jerk faith in the criminal trial as TV news’s new cash cow, forged ahead. On “Piers Morgan Live” Monday night, guests spent a significant chunk of the hour discussing the 911 tape. “I’m not sure how effective it is to put on witness after witness after witness to say he was screaming for his life, because how would they know,” one commentator said. Still the conversation about the tape continued. Morgan asked F. Michael Higginbotham, the author of the book “Ghosts of Jim Crow:Ending Racism in Post-Racial America,” a few questions about the role of race in the trial and then segued into some more talk about ID-ing the voices on the recording. “FRIENDS SAY 911 SCREAM IS ZIMMERMAN,” the ticker proclaimed.

Much has been written about CNN’s recent descent into tabloidism. Jay Rosen wrote an essay Monday declaring his intention to stop criticizing the network, on the grounds that its standards had so fully lapsed that it was no longer worth criticizing. “CNN is TV, popular enough to stay on the air,” he wrote. “That’s pretty much all you can say about it now.” Jack Shafer’s piece in Reuters from last week, “In Praise of Tabloid TV,” argued that the basic interestingness of CNN’s Zimmerman coverage is its own defense. But the worst kind of tabloidism is boring tabloidism, which was what CNN had devolved into by Tuesday night. Its headlines were sensational (“SELF DEFENSE OR MURDER?”), but its content was mostly not. So it is not the fanatical coverage of the Zimmerman trial or the relegation of Tahrir Square to a tiny box in the corner of the screen that feels most symptomatic of the network’s general decline. It’s the moments when even CNN’s nightly news programs, the one opportunity for some analytical distance, participate in the trial’s vacuity instead of stepping back to interrogate it.

Perhaps the best broadcast from CNN this week was Monday night on “AC360,” after Cooper rolled the clip of the trainer testifying about Zimmerman’s subpar physical fitness. The commentators were arranged in rows like the Brady Bunch, stifling chuckles and half-smiles as they grasped for meaningful remarks. “If I was George Zimmerman, I’d be like, OK, I got it, I was out of shape,” Cooper said. In the new age of CNN tabloidism, it helps simply to acknowledge just how absurd the whole circus has become. 

Follow @lbennett.