SNL: The Situation Room--David Petraeus

Saturday, November 24, 2012
Wolf Blizter (Jason Sudeikis) attempts to provide his viewers with the most complete coverage of the unfolding Petraeus scandal

As I have done here on several other occasions, I like to share Saturday Night Live's takes on journalism, specifically the cable news channels.  This past weekend, they highlighted the Cable News Network-- and its venerable news anchor Wolf Blitzer--about their coverage of the current scandal surrounding former CIA director David Petraeus and his biographer, Paula Broadwell.  One of the more interesting side stories to emerge has been the activities of a 37-year old Tampa socialite Jill Kelley, who initially tipped off the FBI about harassing emails from an anonymous woman (later determined to be Broadwell) and that investigation turned up evidence of an affair between the writer and her subject.

Here was SNL's take on how CNN's The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer might try to unearth additional information about Kelley:

I am not a regular CNN viewer but I can say that Jason Sudeikis portrays a very convincing Blitzer in that clip (all the way down to the "ghost" beard).  While former player Darrell Hammond is considered by many to be that show's best impressionist over its 38-year run, Sudeikis has done masterful portrayals of politicians (Mitt Romney, Joe Biden), celebrities (Simon Cowell, Hank Williams Jr.) and media personalities (Chris Matthews, Glenn Beck) during his eight seasons on the show.  Although there were rumors about him leaving the show after last season, he came back and was guaranteed to continue his political impressions no matter which ticket won the White House.

A real photo of Jill Kelley (second from right and actually wearing Mardi Gras beads) at a January 2010 event at her home in Tampa, Florida.  To her left is her husband Scott with the Petraeus' (David and Holly) flanking them on the outside. (photo by Amy Scherzer and courtesy of The Tampa Bay Times via ZUMA Press)

As for the writers' depiction of how CNN goes about presenting information to their viewers, I do not have enough familiarity with that show to provide specific commentary (but I can make some assumptions).  The constant looping of the same video footage of Kelley walking from her house to her car (and in various other ways, directions and speeds--to include a man wearing women's clothing in a "dramatization" of that walk) is something that bothers me about television news in general, but that is not a specific critique of CNN itself  because almost every outlet does that from time to time.  While good "B-roll" can bring an additional dimension to the words being spoken by the host and their guests, seeing the same thing over and over (and over) again can become an unfortunate distraction.  In the Kelley example, it turns out that she is very photogenic and various pictures of her have surfaced in the wake of this story hitting the newspaper's front pages and "A segments" of television news broadcasts (and not just the one wearing Mardi Gras beads like the skit portrayed).

CNN's "never-used Tampa correspondent" Victor Rendell (Bobby Moynihan) talks with Blitzer while "B roll" video of Jill Kelley (Cecily Strong) walking backwards from her car into her house

Blitzer's useless cutaway to "never-used Tampa correspondent" Victor Rendell (played by cast member Bobby Moynihan) is another indictment against all television news and not just CNN.  With cutbacks in the news industry, networks are having to rely upon very inexperienced reporters to provide the information that more seasoned correspondents used to just 10 to 20 years ago.  Employing such novice techniques as yelling questions at her house from across the street for three days is probably hyperbole but if you lack visibility in your assigned area (and possess a small contacts list), that might be only way to try and glean information about your subject.  Blitzer's second question about the content of the 30,000 emails exchanged between Kelley and current Afghanistan senior commander Marine General John Allen seemed a major stretch for "long time viewer, first time reporter" Rendell to answer being that even their competitors were getting non-specific answers from the actual investigating agency or senior Defense Department officials (they described some of the emails as "flirtatious").  His response ("unfortunately, I wasn't cc'd on any of those emails") was borderline flippant but demonstrated the media's overall frustration about not having better access to potential sources in this matter.

The "self-proclaimed mayor of Tampa", Derek "Fat Deuce" Derek (Jeremy Renner) tries to give Blitzer a virtual "fist bump" at the start of their interview

Blitzer next moved on to interview the "mayor" of Tampa (Derek "Fat Deuce" Derek, portrayed by guest host Jeremy Renner) with some awkward moments between the two.  When Derrick askes the CNN host, in a jocular fashion, "where you at?", Blitzer does a double-take, looks around at his surroundings and replies "I'm in the Situation Room" while pointing back at the show's graphic behind him.  The mayor finds that response to be humorous and then puts out his fist to show his appreciation for the laugh, to which Blitzer reluctantly does the same on the set.  Decked out in a black fedora, a white polo shirt and a gray blazer, Derrick unleashes a stream of unflattering references to Tampa ("Tampa all fine...Tampa's got everything--cigars, Jill Kelley, tattoos, loose murders, and a gutted-out Applebee's you can fight in") that some local media sources did not seem to appreciate (other segments of this episode were not kind to Florida).  Rendell's "never-used" status was also a jab at the central Florida city, home to the US Central Command and host of the 2012 Republican National Convention.  It wasn't until an off-screen producer hands Blitzer a piece of paper that he realizes that he was "punked" by this street-wise imposter (who goes by the "self-proclaimed mayor" title) instead of chatting with the city's actual mayor, Bob Buckhorn.  The segment ends when a photograph of the a good portion of the Western Hemisphere is displayed with an arrow pointing at Tampa to indicate it was also a view of Jill Kelley as seen "from outer space" to supplement their dearth of on-screen graphics.

A supposed photograph of Jill Kelley taken from space ended the segment

While done with a fine satirical scalpel, SNL's parodies of the media often are more honest and brutal than what passes for criticism from within the industry itself.  Like the recent depiction of MSNBC's coverage after the first presidential debate between former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama, it takes what was widely witnessed on-air and adds on preconceived opinions about the style and substance of their coverage.  CNN, the country's first cable news channel, debuted back in June 1980 in a world that was still 10-15 years away from fully embracing the "Information Age".  In addition to its flagship station, they rolled out a 24-hour CNN2 channel in 1982 (changed to CNN Headline News in 1983) to provide constant news, sports and entertainment updates as well as CNN International in 1985 for a growing overseas audience for news, current affairs, politics, sports, opinions, features and business programming.

A video clip of CNN's first hour on the air from June 1, 1980

When I lived overseas and watched military television, those latter two outlets were frequently interspersed into regular programming and served as "lifelines" back to the United States to keep up with domestic news as well as a supplemental perspective to in-country information providers. During my days as an intelligence "watch stander", CNN would always be on the office's television set and we would eagerly try to beat their breaking news coverage with our own reporting.   I can still remember their coverage of many newsworthy events during the 1980s and early 1990s, to include the 1987 Jessica McClure story and the 1993 siege of the Russian Parliament building during a violent constitutional crisis between then-president Boris Yeltsin and stalwart communists members of that body.

A clip of CNN's coverage of the 1993 siege of the Russian Parliament building

Their monopoly ended in 1996 when both MSNBC and the Fox News Channel started their cable operations.  While Fox's original intent was to provide a "fair and balanced" coverage of news and current events (by interspersing conservative-skewed content to counter supposed "liberal bias"), CNN held true to its credo of being the "worldwide leader in news" and tried to toe the line between the country's rapidly polarizing political ideologies (MSNBC initially tried that tact as well but migrated towards a more progressive slant related to the ratings successes of primetime shows by Keith Olberman, Rachel Maddow and others) but it was overtaken by Fox in 2002 and MSNBC in March 2009 for overall viewer totals and commercial ratings.

 A Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism chart showing CNN's diminished viewership from 2002-2011

Groundbreaking and perennial  viewer favorites like NewsNight with Aaron Brown, Crossfire and Larry King Live were eventually cancelled and replaced with shows resembling that of their cable rivals but those audiences have not come close to their predecessors (with hosts Glenn Beck, Lou Dobbs and Greta van Susteren slowly migrating over to the conservative-friendly Fox cable outlets over the past decade).  HLN (CNN Headline News was rebranded in 2007) changed their format in 2003 due to competition from Fox and MSNBC to include hour-long blocks dedicated to entertainment news and opinion-based programming.  CNN International remains true to its worldwide audience but their daily schedule does include some of the more popular domestic US shows.

NewsNight with Aaron Brown (2001-2005), Crossfire (1982-2005) and Larry King Live (1985-2010) were some of my favorite CNN offerings

While I do not believe that CNN's days are numbered, I do feel that its influence upon cable news (and journalism as a whole) has been greatly reduced from its monopolistic heyday.  It still enjoys wide viewership within the US national security environment (they and Fox News are live-streamed over several closed computer networks to provide workers with real-time situational awareness of breaking events--MSNBC does not get the same level of respect) that does not get reflected into Nielsen-friendly metrics.  The causes for CNN's demise are also evident at nearly all televised news outlets who similarly face the challenges of today's near instantaneous information notifications through social media and other online sources.  I admit that I do use those means when I am away from home or work, but my preferred choice for following breaking news is sitting in the soft glow of a television screen.  During the recent general election returns, I dropped in on all three major cable news outlets to get their specific takes on how the evening was progressing and CNN served as an "honest broker" between the partisan perspectives of their more junior rivals. Over the years, they have been berated by media watchdogs from both the left and the right concerning claims of bias in their overall coverage and the favoring of particular presidential administrations ("Clinton News Network" during the 1990s, leniency towards George W. Bush after the September 11, 2001 attacks and the 2003 invasion of Iraq) so I guess that they are still doing something right--after over three decades on the air.

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