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Sins of omission at CNN

Dec 2008
Diane Laurin

What does it say about the integrity of global news media when a major news network cuts its entire science, technology and environment news staff?

That’s precisely what CNN, the Cable News Network, did last month when it cut Miles O’Brien, its chief technology and environment correspondent, and six executive producers. In a report published by the Columbia Journalism Review (Mediabistro’s TVNewser originally broke the story), a CNN spokesperson acknowledged the cuts.

“We want to integrate environmental, science and technology reporting into the general editorial structure rather than have a stand-alone unit,” she told CJR. “Now that the bulk of our environmental coverage is being offered through the Planet in Peril franchise, which is produced by the Anderson Cooper 360 program, there is no need for a separate unit.”

Discharging O’Brien is regrettable. He has anchored newscasts for CNN, covering, among other things, John Glenn’s return to space in 1998, the failed Mars Orbiter and Polar Lander missions, and the tragedy of the shuttle Columbia. He has received numerous awards, including those for coverage of Hurricane Katrina, the September 11 attacks, the Centennial Olympic park bombing in Atlanta and post-cold war technology conversion in the U.S. and Russia.

CNN’s announcement was preceded by NBC Universal’s staffing cuts at The Weather Channel when it ousted the entire staff of the “Forecast Earth” environmental programs as well as several on-camera meteorologists. Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine recently nixed its bureau in Cape Canaveral, Fla., where NASA launches its rockets and shuttles.

What gives? Whether the networks actually decrease or water down their coverage of science, technology and environmental news remains to be seen. But this much is certain: Some of the media appear to have canned the experts at a time when advances in medicine and biotechnology warrant prime time, and increasingly so. It’s possible – frighteningly so – that these decisions could lead to technology reports that are prettified and more editorialized.

How CNN is going to fare on major stories without its science staff is anybody’s guess, but any way you look at it, the decision smacks of poor judgment. If it’s the economic downturn that’s driving the network, perhaps the public would be better served by cutting staff in other areas.

Celebrity crime and entertainment come to mind.

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