You don't have to be an obsessive TV watcher to have noticed recent runaway coverage of a certain would-be bride. When Jennifer Wilbanks got cold feet, she made tabloid headlines and left tracks all over the cable news channels, including CNN. But when Jonathan Klein took over as president of that network last year, he promised more "roll up your sleeves" style journalism. Klein butts heads with Brooke over what constitutes news, and whether stories need justification.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week, many media watchers complained about news they can't use - about a certain runaway bride. When Jennifer Wilbanks got cold feet, she made tabloid headlines and left tracks all over the cable news channels, including CNN - the network that promised more and more rigorous journalism after Jonathan Klein took over as president last December. And so we called him up. Jonathan, welcome to the show.
JONATHAN KLEIN: Thank you. Nice to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, shortly after you took over as president of CNN, you said you wanted fewer, (quote) "head-butting festivals" of the "Crossfire" variety and more reporting of the news. So you're now five months into the job. Still committed to that strategy?
JONATHAN KLEIN: Oh, yeah. More than ever. You know, the public are bombarded with headlines, so they have a sense that they know what's going on, but in fact, there's a huge gap between awareness and real knowledge, and there aren't too many outlets that will close that gap. Well, that's what we aspire to do at CNN. We've got the resources to do it. We've got people all over the world. The real key is execution - you know, living up to it and resisting the urge to stray.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now you were quoted as saying that CNN will do more "roll up your sleeves storytelling with provocative character-driven narratives." Give me a sense of the kind of stories you're talking about.
JONATHAN KLEIN: Oh, we've done all sorts of things. Anderson Cooper went to Lebanon and Syria to really chart the birth of democracy there. Frank Sesno went to Germany to report a story on Hitler's secret family history. We had six different reporters spend couple of months looking into teen driving and why statistics actually have improved as far as safety in the past year, and so we're running the gamut.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, let's talk about the other end of that gamut then. Let's talk about Monday, May 2nd. "CNN Daybreak." The rundown had Runaway Bride, "American Morning" - Runaway Bride Could Face Criminal Charges. "Live from CNN" - Runaway Bride back Home. "Crossfire" - Should Runaway Bride Faces Charges? Anderson Cooper, Paula Zahn, Larry King, Aaron Brown - all of them devoted at least part of their program to Jennifer Wilbanks, the runaway bride, and Jonathan, I have to ask you - does this fit into the roll up your sleeves storytelling that you have in mind?
JONATHAN KLEIN: Well, sure. I mean the New York Times covered the runaway bride too, and I'm sure I heard a story about it on NPR.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It was way buried in the New York Times.
JONATHAN KLEIN: Well, we can quibble over degree, but what you will see more and more of is CNN focusing its resources on any given day around a few big stories, while we continue to cover everything else as well. But one of our problems was before we were spread too thin. We would do a little bit about a lot of things. But none of it was very satisfying. It was all very headline-y and surface-y. So instead, we're going to, on a regular basis, choose a story that we think is important or interesting. We were the first to throw all of our resources against the Schiavo story, and we really put that story on the national agenda. And then we rolled up our sleeves and went down to Pinellas Park, and we went out to Tallahassee and got exclusive interviews with Jeb Bush.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We can quibble about the importance of the Schiavo case. I don't want to, but I don't think it's a quibble to talk about the degree of coverage and the fact that there was some coverage of the runaway bride in the New York Times in a discreet story or two is quite different from what CNN did. A few years ago, we spoke to one of your predecessors, Walter Isaacson. He said some things in 2001 very similar to what you're saying now - more news and reporting; less shouting and soap operas. In fact, Bob read him a list almost identical to the one I just read you with the words "Chandra Levy" substituting for "runaway bride," and-
JONATHAN KLEIN: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: --is the lesson here that cable news simply operates at a level of inertia and entropy that no one can change, that you throw blanket coverage at a story that really doesn't merit it?
JONATHAN KLEIN: No. If you were listening to me, Brooke, you would have heard me say that on some days, that story that we decide to focus on will be the runaway bride. On other days, the story will be the spread of democracy in Lebanon. We looked around. We didn't see any other network anchor in Lebanon. And then we went to Syria. And we didn't find any network anchor there, either. Now, you could criticize us for covering that story too heavily as well.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But are you saying that CNN's coverage of the runaway bride was an appropriate amount of coverage?
JONATHAN KLEIN: Oh, for sure. It was a fascinating story that left a lot of questions unanswered - what drove her to this? Is this a crime?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jonathan, people disappear every day. It didn't become a story in the eyes of viewers until this seemed to take center stage on all the cable networks.
JONATHAN KLEIN: Yeah, I understand what you're saying. I, I'm a big believer that there's nothing innate about the medium that says "it must take one road or another." It doesn't have to be high road or low road. And so sometimes it's going to be Lebanon and Syria and Baghdad, and sometimes it's going to be the 30th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. Sometimes it's going to be the runaway bride.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It seems to me that, for the purposes of our discussion, you keep equating stories like Lebanon, which need no justification, with a weird little blip of a story like the runaway bride, which actually does need some justification.
JONATHAN KLEIN: Well, and yet, that's possibly a pretty elitist thing to say, because I don't know that you can say that one story needs justification, one doesn't. Who are you to argue with "the people" who flock to watch one story and not the other? The reason that I keep bringing up Lebanon and Syria is because our coverage of those stories and the tsunami and the Iraq election are as indicative of the kind of work in journalism that CNN ought to be known for as one day in which we covered the runaway bride. I mean, I'm sorry that you didn't like it- [LAUGHTER] but if you like the rest of what we've done for the last five months, then I feel okay, because I think over time we prove out and are getting even better at being worth the attention of our audience. And yeah, sometimes I'll disagree with it. Sometimes you personally will disagree with it, Brooke. But, you know, maybe you need to get more in sync with what viewers out there [LAUGHTER] want to know about.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you didn't cover it because you were afraid people would turn to Fox.
JONATHAN KLEIN: No, no. We really - and I'm glad you bring that up, I mean because it's a fair question. Yes, we're in a competitive environment. But one area we've been very successful in is making our own decisions and not worrying what those other guys are doing. I mean, they do talk radio, and we do reporting. We lose far more people to the broadcast networks and to the internet than we do to Fox News.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jonathan Klein, thank you very much.
JONATHAN KLEIN: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jonathan Klein is the president of CNN.