I asked myself today if it could be that CNN is starting to look like a real public interest press.  Today, Fareed Zakaria (host of CNN’s “GPS,” and also editor of Newsweek), who is quite possibly the best public interest journalist on cable, had an interview with Wen Jiabao, Premier of China.  It was the first Western media interview with Jiabao since Dr. Zakaria interviewed him in 2008.

On the very next segment, CNN’s “Reliable Sources” with Howard Kurtz discussed the Rick Sanchez firing.  It’s a shame they finally fired him for comments on a radio program – the trash he routinely pumped out on his own program should have done it, but I suppose they were holding off until Parker/Spitzer.  Regardless, the firing is a good lineup change.  Sanchez simply had a lousy editorial lineup and his off-the-cuff delivery came off as amateurish and often clownish.  He so rarely covered issues of substance, and with so little competence, that he usually seemed to be impeding the delivery of news rather than facilitating it.  The man simply isn’t sharp enough to have a prime spot on one of the highest profile networks in the United States.

But look who’s coming to dinner – Eliot Spitzer!  Those of us with exposure to media studies harbor more favor toward him than the public at large, due to his work as New York state Attorney General in exposing and prosecuting Sony’s massive payola cartel (http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/8700936).  He actually did a lot of great things as A.G., and wasn’t a terrible (though certainly more political) governor.  It’s a shame those elements of his career were lost to the scandal, although if you will recall, he did the right thing by resigning right away and not whining about it.  My point is, even if he isn’t the guy I’d want taking my daughter to prom, he’s a great political mind and has a great professional record.  The fact that CNN took him on, even though some people will tune out due to his philandering, shows a commitment to providing content that will almost surely advance the public interest.

I will point out one key thing Dr. Zakaria and Mr. Spitzer share in common – education.  Rick Sanchez has a B.A. from the University of Minnesota in journalism, a fine education for a network journalist maybe.  Fareed Zakaria holds a B.A. from Yale and a Ph.D. from Harvard in political science.  Eliot Spitzer holds a B.A. from Princeton and a J.D. from – you guessed it – Harvard.

I think CNN is starting to figure out the true meaning of diversity – hire people who do the job well, regardless of whether they were born in Mumbai or the Bronx.  Then again, if I were recruiting anchors, I might be obsessed with finding more like the Harvard-educated (she graduated later in her career) Soledad O'Brien –holy grail of racial neutrality (a Cuban mother and an Australian father of Irish decent), and an excellent journalist. 

Now if anyone actually reads this blog, they will doubtless accuse me of promoting an elitist ivy-league conception of the press.  Maybe I like the idea that an ivy education actually does mean those graduates are smarter.  Bill O'Reilly (say what you will about his politics, the man is a journalist and no dullard) has Harvard credentials, while fear-mongers Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck (who run their programs like religious services) have earned zero college degrees between them. 

But as a practical matter, I’m really talking about the need for credentials in general at the highest, most visible levels of journalism.  Howard Kurtz didn’t graduate from an ivy, but he did come out of the Colombia University’s prestigious journalism program.  Walter Cronkite didn’t have much in the way of education, and he holds a special place as the most trusted man in America… although Dan Rather didn’t either and he had all the integrity of a paper cup.  John King and wife Dana Bash hold B.A.s only, and both are solid public interest journalists.

In the end, cable networks like CNN are simply too important as public information brokers to hold on to Rick Sanchez types until they screw up.  I’m glad to see they’ve retained shows like GPS that aren’t riveting entertainment, but provide an important gateway for viewers to better understand the world.  And I’m glad they’re willing to bring on people like Spitzer who can contribute to discourse in a meaningful way, even at the potential expense of viewership.  That's what public interest journalism looks like.

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