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In CNN's nightly report, matters of race resonate

I never expected a mainstream TV anchor to regularly tackle race, religion and sexual orientation - subjects cable TV news' traditionally older and more conservative audience can't find particularly comfortable.

By ERIC DEGGANS
Published March 26, 2007


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photo
[AP photo]
Paula Zahn poses a CNN set in this 2003 file photo.

It was a jarring, provocative question; especially coming from a blond, blue-eyed mainstream news anchor.

"Why don't blacks value black life?" Paula Zahn asked on Tuesday's edition of her CNN show, Paula Zahn Now, promoting a story about black-on-black crime dubbed "The Color of Murder."

Later, after noting nine of 10 black murder victims are killed by black people, Zahn asked: "Why is there such a strange lack of outrage about it within the black community itself?"

These are questions I'm used to hearing from TV news anchors during special reports, often slated for Black History Month. But Zahn brings this noise every weeknight, brandishing a focus on race and social issues her show has honed for months, now called "Out in the Open."

Critics have noted how cable TV news personalities have boosted profiles and ratings by crusading on issues. At CNN, onetime business anchor Lou Dobbs found new life as an advocate against illegal immigration and Anderson Cooper solidified his status as the channel's most buzzed-about face by targeting waste and ineptitude throughout relief efforts in New Orleans.

But I never expected a mainstream TV anchor to regularly tackle race, religion and sexual orientation - subjects cable TV news' traditionally older and more conservative audience can't find particularly comfortable.

"I've done just about every kind of show in this business you can tackle . . . and this has given us a way not to do a standard newscast," said Zahn, calling from her Manhattan office. "I've always been fascinated by issues of race. (And) what I've learned over the past few months is how little is being done on this, though everybody pays lip service to it. I'm very proud of stirring the pot to make us think of things that are sometimes raw and uncomfortable."

Helping ratings

On Tuesday, that meant asking Al Sharpton whether black civil rights leaders should be protesting black-on-black murders as much as they protest deaths of black people at the hands of police. Past shows have featured the controversy over the flying of the Confederate flag at NASCAR events, a sorority accused of dumping members who were unattractive or racial minorities, and the Largo city manager seeking a sex change, Steve Stanton.

Just as Dobbs begins his shows with more newsy stories and segues into reports on his pet issues, Zahn's program often dissects the day's events from her "Out in the Open" perspective, moving to more in-depth stories that are debated by a panel of pundits.

CNN officials say the new focus may also have helped Zahn's ratings, with ratings among viewers ages 25 to 54 up by 25 percent in February, along with double-digit gains among younger viewers compared with the previous year.

"I do think there's value in narrowing your focus . . . rather than trying to be a broad generalizer, develop a real expertise and a reputation for covering something," said Jonathan Klein, CNN U.S. president. "We've always felt talking about intolerance and prejudice . . . would help us connect with more viewers than it would repel. And if that focus can stem from an anchor's passion, I think you're really onto something."

Accepting a mission

Hard as it may be to believe, Zahn may have Michael Richards to thank for her new attitude.

The former Seinfeld co-star may have seen his own career flame out after launching the n-word at a group of black comedy club patrons in November. But CNN's quick effort - a producer working weekends broke the story by discovering a black patron who had actually seen the rant - led Zahn to think about ways of extending the debate on race.

"I remember sitting at an editorial meeting the afternoon the story broke and . . . saying 'Could you ever imagine someone in a public forum using that kind of language?' " said the anchor, who recalled her parents taking her to volunteer with Jesse Jackson's Operation Breadbasket civil rights group while growing up in a Chicago suburb. "We came to the realization that this kind of language is more common than we think," she said.

First, Zahn offered a show on Richards' rant, then a town hall meeting on race issues planned for Vidor, Texas - a town known years ago for barring black people from its borders after dark (the meeting was relocated to nearby Beaumont when Vidor officials yanked permission).

Klein saw the ratings success and his anchor's reaction and was sold. "We all looked at each other and said, 'Why not do this more all the time?' " he added. "Nobody's doing this on television . . . what better journalistic mission could there be?"

A channel for change

CNN has also focused on race outside Zahn's show, unveiling a yearlong initiative called Uncovering America, dedicated to reporting on black Americans. The news channel also hired as a contributor Roland Martin, former executive editor of the black-focused Chicago Defender newspaper.

"Race is a hot-button issue, it caused people to get emotional . . . that's not shocking to see," said Martin. "It's an issue we like to avoid and run away from. (But) the question is, how do we make sure we're not just talking about it, but driving people to change?"

There are times when Zahn's reports feel a little too gee-whiz - it's hardly news to some people that racism still exists in small-town America or that some black people are troubled by the values of gangsta rap. And the panel discussions too often seem like the old shouting matches on CNN's canceled Crossfire.

But Zahn's show also offers stories on race and social issues I haven't seen elsewhere in cable news. And for an anchor who seems to have struggled to find a role since arriving from Fox News in 2001, this new focus provides a potent identity for Zahn at a time when she may need it most.

"My hope is when the audience leaves us after an hour they will have learned something - certainly they'll be much more aware of how much divisiveness there is out there," she said. "The e-mails I've read tell me our audience is happy we're doing the stories. . . . They say, 'Thank you for at least starting a dialogue.' So we'll keep it coming."

Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com.

 


Paula Zahn Now

Airs weeknights at 8 on CNN.

 

[Last modified March 25, 2007, 16:28:00]


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