Welcome back to The Hotline's "Year In Review." So far, we've brought you the Year In Scandals, the Year In Upsets and the Year In Surprise Stars.
We now turn to the media stories that dominated 2010. We learned that TV is a powerful medium that can create a national debate or even cause someone their job. But in CNN's case, TV can only be a powerful medium if people tune in. The existence of a network that seemingly refuses to go in the direction of partisan talking points, is a refresher and a reason why the Comcast-NBCU merger frightens a few people. The availability of different networks and outlets is essential for not only the viewing public to have a choice on where to obtain their information, but for the media's sake, too.
Who, for example, knew a city debate over an Islamic cultural center in Manhattan would invoke a response from Pres. Obama, Newt Gingrich and just about every other politician, running and not running for office?
Starting as a New York Times article, the story of the so-called Ground Zero Mosque soon became a frequent segment subject on Fox News. From there, it went viral. The AP, New York Post and Sunday political talk shows talked endlessly about the planned Islamic cultural center.
And when Obama remarked on the subject, the story laminated itself as a campaign talking point.
The "mosque" debate soon became a bigger narrative on religion, a narrative that grew so heated so quickly that a pastor in Florida threaten to burn a pile of Korans on the anniversary on Sept. 11. Gen. David Petraeus told the media that the burning could endanger troops. While Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged network news not to cover the burning "as an act of patriotism."
In any other city the issue would have gone unnoticed, but the cultural center's proximity to Ground Zero had all the markings of a great television debate. However, this seemly harmless debate suddenly turned into national security issue, all based on a cable news segment.
What the "mosque" debate lacked in media scrutiny, the Shirley Sherrod scandal made up for.
Sherrod was the Georgia USDA worker that was fired over comments taken out of context by conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart. Breitbart posted carefully edited video of a speech Sherrod gave at an NAACP event.
While Fox News and MSNBC ran with the video followed by colorful punditry, CNN did a phone interview with Sherrod to tell her side of the story -- that her comments were edited and taken out of context. Even though Sherrod told anyone that would listen that the media was getting the story wrong, the morning shows had already done their damage. Sherrod was asked to resign immediately. When the full video emerged, Sherrod received an apology from the president and a personal phone call. And she was even offered a higher position in the administration. She graciously declined.
The Sherrod story will forever be engrained into every television producer from now on. It's a lesson on what bad journalism is and why going to the source and asking questions is still the basic fundamental of the business.
But it's also lesson on how big the media's power is. Cable news has enough influence on high government officials, that they would fire someone because of only a soundbite. And because of how rapid news flows these days, Sherrod was fired over the phone, on her way to work.
While the CNN was the network that excelled in reporting the Sherrod scandal, their objection to go the ways of MSNBC and FOX News, is their angel and devil complex.
In five words, CNN had a bad year.
You've read about their structural problems in an extensive Vanity Fair expose, "How long can the respectability strategy prevail," wrote Michael Wolff. "Without an audience?" And you've seen countless articles on their dismal primetime ratings.
Broadcast executive Jon Klein was fired as his last hires former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer and Washington Post conservative columnist Kathleen Parker were tanking in the ratings. "Parker Spitzer" averaged 140,000 viewers, in the 25 to 54 key age demo during their first few weeks. Their lead in, "John King, USA," hasn't fared much better, either.
And to top it off, Larry King, a CNN icon, turned over his coveted 9 p.m. timeslot after 25 years at the network. Paving the way for a questionable hire of British journalist Piers Morgan, most known to U.S. audiences as a talent judge of NBC's "America's Got Talent."
However, to CNN's credit they still turn a huge profit and even attract more viewers during big news events like the Chilean Miner Rescue. And they are still hiring, which is more than most networks can say. ABC News, for example, cut a significant portion of its staff this year.
In fact, it's hard to determine the bigger story: CNN's decline or the media's obsession with CNN's decline.
With a new leader in Ken Juatz, CNN has the opportunity to change the landscape of cable news, once again. Rumors have even started to swirl about a CBS/CNN partnership. Whether or not a partnership happens, CNN, once a leader and pioneer in cable news', has a chance in 2011 to reinvent themselves, with nothing to lose.
While CNN has nothing to lose, NBC Universal does. When GE announced a year ago their plans to sell their stake in network to cable giant, Comcast, it was to some a media match made in heaven.
The union between the two huge media companies would create one of the biggest media outlets and the year plus process highlights the complexity of that merger.
But the road to media marriage bliss has been long and complicated. "Comcast's recent willingness to violate net neutrality demonstrates the need to stop its merger with NBC," Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) told media site The Wrap. "That is why I recently urged the FCC to block the merger."
The merger has to be approved by the FCC and the DOJ -- a process that is still ongoing. Controversy hangs over proposed net neutrality regulations.
Comcast-NBCU expect the FCC to rule by year's end, which is evident as both companies have already restructured their top brass.
While these stories have a lasting impact, there were a few story lines that caught and rallied viewers attention. The firings of NPR's Juan Williams, or the two-day suspensions of MSNBC's Keith Olbermann and Joe Scarborough ruffled a few feathers on the ethical standards or media organizations. NPR did make a statement with the dismissal of Williams, but Fox News, who doesn't carry the same contractual standards, quickly snapped him up. And Olbermann and Scarborough got more of what seemed like an un-paid vacation rather than a firm hand laying down the rules.
And of course, how can you forget the rallies. Glenn Beck, Ed Shultz, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert all held rallies on the National Mall. All were fun to watch and that's about it.