The Ultimate in Airport terror
About a month ago I experienced what, for me at least, was the very essence of Orwellian terror. While walking through the new Northwest Airline terminal in Detroit, I looked up and saw on a huge plasma TV screen the surreal, snarling, Rushmore-sized head of certifiable political madman, James Carville.
For my friends on the left, imagine Bill O’Reilly or Rush Limbaugh on that screen, and you will begin, just begin, to understand the horror of it all.
I looked away, of course, but Carville’s ragin’ Cajun cackle trailed me from speaker to speaker as I walked ever faster through this seemingly endless chamber. Finally, I passed under the screen and breathed a sigh of relief only to be confronted in the next massive chamber by another talking billboard filled still with the same monstrous gleaming Carvillian head.
On my way to a nightmarishly distant gate, in fact, I passed through about ten more such chambers and under ten more colossal Carvilles until I finally reached the gate and ducked into a restroom, the only refuge I could find.
For the record, Carville is, among other things, the co-host of the CNN show Crossfire. Until that moment, I had not really noticed that CNN has infiltrated every major airport in America. Now, when I travel, I can scarcely notice anything else. (Again, my progressive friends, imagine your outrage if airports only showed FOX!)
To find out the why and how of CNN’s success, I called Joe McBride, the helpful marketing manager for Kansas City’s aviation department. McBride informed me that KCI does indeed show CNN on its newly installed (and relatively discreet) monitors. It does so because CNN comes without charge, allows six minutes an hour for local announcements, and has, until now, inspired no serious protest.
This service, launched in 1992, is called the CNN Airport Network. As of this writing, 1775 airport gates in 39 of America’s leading airports show CNN news and no other news but CNN news, and they do so all of the time.
Because it had paid for its own media infrastructure, $200,000 worth, KCI is not obliged to show CNN. To determine whether the 38 other airports that show CNN have this same freedom, I called Lauren Hammann, manager of public relations for CNN. Hammann confirmed that, yes, all these airports were free to show what they chose. Following the published CNN line, Hammann insisted that CNN is shown “at the discretion of the airports” and that “they have the right to turn it off.”
McBride, however, had shared with me his belief that CNN had picked up the much larger infrastructure tab for at least a few of the nation’s busier airports. When I asked Hammann if this were true, she answered tersely, “We don’t discuss that.”
A few minutes later, to her credit, Hamman called me back. She now admitted that CNN had indeed installed the infrastructure at the twenty-five busiest of America’s airports. When I asked whether these airports had the right to “turn it off,” she reverted to form, “We don’t discuss that.”
Hammann’s evasion suggests that these airports cannot just turn CNN off, that they are contractually bound well into the future to force feed a captive audience nothing other than a politically-loaded CNN 24 hours a day. If true, this represents the most comprehensive monopoly in the history of the American media and the most egregious: several hundred thousand adults held captive to a single show every single day. There is not a close second. An average person could go his whole life without ever seeing or hearing an O’Reilly or a Limbaugh. The same can no longer be said about James Carville.
Nor are Americans exactly clamoring for CNN. Airports, in fact, are about the only place where CNN viewer-ship is growing. In recent ratings, CNN secured but one spot among the top eleven cable news shows. FOX News, which has increased its ratings 13% over the last year, held down the other ten. It is not unusual now for FOX to have higher ratings than CNN and MSNBC combined.
There is one very good reason why CNN has lost so much audience share. Its perceived political bias has alienated a good percentage of the public. During the 90’s, fairly or not, much of America routinely referred to CNN as “Clinton Network News.”
The stunning admission by CNN's chief news executive Eason Jordan that for the past decade the network systematically covered up stories of Iraqi atrocities to secure its equally monopolistic toehold in Iraq did nothing to improve its ratings or the confidence of the audience.
To be fair, viewers did not necessarily flee to FOX because it was fair and balanced. They fled to FOX mainly because its bias reflected their own. In that airline passengers skew male, middle age and middle class, they likely skew even more pro-FOX than the general population. No matter. This year, at the airports, they are watching CNN.
And this political year, even before I encountered Detroit’s Brobdingnagian Carvilles, was proving uniquely irritating. Like never before in the relatively tame TV era, most of the major news-producing sources, CNN included, have abandoned even the pretense of objectivity in their drive to elect (or, in the rare case, re-elect) a president. So superficial is it all, and so phony, that I will not be in a room with the TV news on, FOX included, especially at an airport.
Like an airline pilot, the ideal TV personality should have a calming influence : Johnny Carson comes to mind. So do Andy Griffith, Arthur Godfrey, Martha Stewart, Mister Rogers, even Walter Cronkite before he got old and weird and began thinking he was Che Guevara.
Cable news, however, does anything but calm. It features annoying personalities, covers them with images of mayhem from around the world, and surrounds those images with a raging current of unreliable news briefs and fluctuating stock quotes. This torrent of stuff makes the airport experience, already jittery and unnerving, all the more of both.
To be sure, the best solution is just to shut the dang monitors off. Airports used to be a good place to read a book. Short of that, if people have to watch something, there does exist one news outlet that is honest, inoffensive, appropriate to the occasion, and if inaccurate, never so by design. I refer, of course, to the Weather Channel.
There is more good weather on the Weather Channel than bad, and when bad, more people escape or get rescued than get swept away. Stories unfold according to their importance and not the political grudges of the producers. On the Weather Channel, no one would dare spike a killer tornado story or transform a spring shower into a hurricane because of their potential effect on the November election. When the weather turns remarkably cool, as it has this summer all across the East, this channel is free to acknowledge it, even to celebrate it, as it is the one non-FOX channel without a global warming agenda to protect.
There is an opportunity here for the folks at KCI. If entrepreneurial, they will approach the Weather Channel and offer to co-produce and test market a packaged weather show. I’ll watch it. Hell, if they show it in Detroit, I might even start flying Northwest again.
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