The New York Daily News is reporting (not, perhaps, without a touch of schadenfreude) that CNN’s rating have hit a 20 year low. The network’s ratings for the second quarter of 2012 are down more than 40% since last year, their lowest since 1991. The other 24-hour cable news networks have also slipped in the ratings, but none so sharply as CNN.

Over at his blog, Groundswell, Josh Stearns suggests:

CNN isn’t plummeting in the rankings because people love “biased news.” However, what MSNBC and FOX News understand, that I think CNN doesn’t, is that people want to see themselves in the stories they consume.

The problem with CNN, as he would have it, is not that they gambled on objectivity and lost, but rather that they’ve rarely managed to forge more than a “false balance.” They’ve settled on a formula that purports to present both sides of a story. According to that formula, you achieve balance when you can “boil all issues down to two sides and include both sides uncritically in your reporting.”

That’s problematic, Stearns says, because, “the two sides are rarely both equally true, and because issues always have more than two competing sides.” People see through those false dichotomies, he argues, and have less trust for the source as a result. For reasons I’ll get to in a moment, that assessment strays a little wide of the mark.

The other albatross around CNN’s neck, says Stearns, is its predilection for the “clash-of-titans narrative.” CNN often frames their stories as struggles between large institutions – typically industries or special interest groups. That drives off potential viewers because

The clash-of-titans narrative misses the deeply personal ways policy shapes people’s lives (not too mention the democratic implications of these policies) and when people read these stories they don’t see their concerns reflected there. Why should they trust it or support it financially?

For what it’s worth, I largely agree with his assessment that, “to rebuild trust we’ll need to rebuild journalism with communities at the center.” But his account leaves out some of the stakes that have driven CNN’s strategy. Understanding those stakes will help us understand the difficulties involved in trying to remake journalism at the cable news level.

The old advertising model was at least partly indirect. Papers used their coverage to appeal to readers, thereby building circulation. They could then turn around and cite those circulation numbers to potential advertisers, who paid the bulk of the bills by buying ads on the premise that those circulation numbers would translate into ad views.

And no doubt CNN wants viewers to help coax advertisers on board. But because its driven by different pressures, cable news operates differently. It may be that broad circulation is less critical than attracting a particular kind of audience.

Consider, for example, the import of breaking news in the financial sector. By the time you read about it in the Wall Street Journal, that news will be anywhere from a few hours to an entire day old. That may be too late if you work in the financial sector and could have done something savvy (like alter your portfolio) in the first hour after the news broke. But coverage that helps analyze such events and explain their significance can still be of use to general public. It’s on the strength of that sort of analysis that we still find a use for traditional news media.

But because they’re often called to act on dribs and drabs of fragmentary knowledge, the financier and the politico turn to a source like CNN for its immediacy. The qualities that frustrate the rest of us, like the editorial department’s willingness to start reporting stories even before there are any details or context to give them meaning, are the qualities that make it useful to the power players. A 40-point hit in the ratings certainly doesn’t help CNN, but its livelihood depends less on distributing coupons to the hoi polloi than it does on making its coverage valuable to those Stearns calls the titans – who are, after all, the people who buy ads on Headline News.

Which is to say that CNN may have been putting its real audience at the center of its stories after all. Those stories about the titans of industry gearing up for battle? They’re practically “human interest.” It’s just that the humans that keep the lights in the CNN Center running are primarily interested in lobbying efforts and the DOW.

Those are important points to keep in sight, precisely because Stearns’ goal of recalibrating journalism in the public interest is so laudable. Unless we recognize the pressures, both economic and technological, that have divorced it from the public interest, our ability to put it back on track is severely limited.

is the founder and editor-in-chief of Culture Ramp.
— Please submit all corrections, responses and rebuttals as letters to the editor.