Fifty Shades of CNN

Can someone explain why the Jodi Arias murder trial is national news?

The world abounds with newsworthy stories. In Rome, the College of Cardinals has elected the first non-European Pope, while the old Pope still lives. In Venezuela, the death of Hugo Chavez has raised questions about the future of that country, and the possible course of its relations with the United States. In Washington, President Obama has reached across the aisle to GOP leaders in an effort to address looming budget cuts. In New York, the city brazes for the possible trial of Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law, captured a few days go. Meanwhile, asteroids continue to pass dangerously close to the Earth, fueling doomsday predictions.

Yet the story that dominates CNN’s nightly coverage is the murder trial of Jodi Arias, now entering its third month.

The story lacks the celebrity of O.J. Simpson and the pathos of Caylee Anthony. What it does have is sex – lots of it.

Each night, Erin Burnett, Anderson Cooper and Piers Morgan bring Jodi Arias’ sex life into our living rooms under the guise of news. The details are salacious and explicit, the analysis over the top. We are repeatedly told that the story is important, but we are not told why.

The Arias story is indeed important – not to the viewer, but to CNN’s ratings. After more than two years of round-the-clock coverage of the drama that was our presidential election, CNN now finds itself with a programming gap. The casual viewer will not tune in nightly to watch stories of governmental inertia, no matter how many “gloom and doom” scenarios are attached to the coming budget cuts. Enter the Arias trial, a story that is sure to titillate by appealing to our most basic prurient interests.

Long before the success of E.L. James’ sexual trilogy brought the term “mommy porn” into our national lexicon, the works of such authors as Harold Robbins used sex as a springboard to best-selling status. Sex sells – it is no coincidence that some of the most popular shows on television today are carried by HBO, Showtime and other premium networks not subject to rules of censorship that restrict the major networks. The success of cable and satellite television can be largely attributed to the “anything goes” image propagated from the very beginning by cable networks and operators. The viewer was willing to pay for TV, something that had always been free, because he was getting something unavailable over the airwaves: uninhibited language, graphic violence and, above all else, sex.

Which brings us back to the Arias trial. Each night new details of the sexual relationship between Arias and the late Travis Alexander are disclosed and analyzed. Sex is the hook used by CNN to lure (and keep) viewers until the next big story comes along.

There is nothing new about the concept of news as entertainment. An industry beholden to the whims of advertisers will inevitably compromise its values to survive. That is the way TV news has worked for decades. 60 Minutes remains the longest running show on TV not because of its news value, but because the public is viscerally attracted to attacks launched by the late Mike Wallace and his cohorts upon seemingly unsuspecting targets – that’s entertainment. The stories are trimmed into 20-minute segments, with intervening commercials, to keep the show (and the advertising dollars) flowing.

What CNN is doing with the Arias story is predictable, if lamentable. CNN has turned the Arias trial into national news because it needs the ratings.

It is “news” as conceived by Larry Flynt.