David Zurawik owes Erin Burnett a big fat thank you. Zurawik, The Baltimore Sun's TV critic, was one of the first commentators to take Burnett to the woodshed for her "smug" and "superficial" coverage of Occupy Wall Street, making him one of the few media darlings to emerge from the protests. Zurawik's review of Burnett's new CNN show -- "she comes across as self-satisfied, smug, privileged and feeling not one whit of [the protestors'] pain," he wrote -- was referred to by almost all the many subsequent takedowns of Burnett. Even Keith Olbermann, who once named Zurawik his "worst person of the week," was impressed. "Holy crap: @DavidZurawik and I agree 100% about @ErinBurnettCNN," he tweeted.
The Burnett firestorm, fanned by sites ranging from The Huffington Post to Salon.com to Forbes.com -- yes, Forbes -- is a perfect encapsulation of the coverage of Occupy Wall Street, which has mostly been about, well, the coverage of Occupy Wall Street. The earliest missives focused on the media's failure to cover it, which gave way to a stream of reports by columnists who went down to Zuccotti Park to, in the words of William Cohan, "see what all the fuss is about." Some were impressed -- Nicholas Kristof -- others, not: Cohan, Andrew Ross Sorkin, Burnett. But both camps adopted the same self-congratulatory tone, as if traveling to downtown Manhattan was a feat of fact-finding journalism.
Sorkin, who noted that his field trip was inspired by a call from a worried bank CEO, was quickly taken to Burnett's woodshed. "NYTimes Andrew Ross Sorkin Visits #OccupyWallStreet to Make Sure Banksters Are Still Safe," read the headline on The Daily Kos. Still, the real venom was reserved for Burnett.
In a segment called Seriously?! -- a strange mix of Anderson Cooper's RidicuList and Seth Meyers' Really!?! shtick -- Burnett visited the protestors and basically mocked them in a poorly executed attempt at a kind of snark better delivered by professional comedians than former CNBC anchors. The blogosphere went nuts, with reports of Burnett's background -- she's a former Goldman, Sachs & Co. analyst engaged to a Citigroup exec -- offered as unassailable proof of her pro-Wall Street bias. "The pretense that these people are 'objective journalists' delivering opinion-free facts is so discredited that they should just stop pretending," wrote an incensed Glenn Greenwald on Salon.com. "It's embarrassing already."
Open season on Burnett continued after she took aim at the iPhone4S. "Erin Burnett's last pot shot at Apple before Steve Jobs died," read a Fortune.com headline, as if her iPhone criticism and Jobs' death were related. Fortune was cheered by Forbes.com's Eric Jackson, who recounted all of her anti-Apple reportage. "The whole thing that disgusted people about her coverage of Occupy Wall Street was how overtly biased and unsympathetic she was. This Apple stuff though just shows she is consistently biased on any number of topics."
Well, no kidding. Welcome to the media. More specifically, cable TV. Seen it lately? And if so, anybody seen anything remotely resembling objectivity or even "pretending" to be? Yes, I know. Burnett told Vanity Fair last year, "My job isn't to give an opinion but to try and explain what's happening." But get real. The highlight of her CNN show is a segment dubbed Seriously?!. Doesn't that pretty much signal what she's up to?
The fact is, Burnett isn't a journalist; she's a cable TV personality, emphasis on personality. Which brings us back to Zurawik's takedown. "At a time when many people come to cable news looking for someone they can trust to help lead them out of the economic nightmare this country has plunged them into," he writes, Burnett gave them snark. Let's get this straight. People are looking to cable news -- cable news! -- to lead them out of the economic mess? Seriously?!
What miracle would this cable god perform to accomplish that feat? Produce an economic plan? Suggest job creation ideas? No. According to Zurawik, he would be more like Anderson Cooper, who in Haiti and New Orleans "showed heart" and "earned a kind of moral (or, at least, cultural) authority through his work as a journalist on CNN."
It's a telling wish. Burnett's critics don't want objectivity, they want empathy. Zurawik has no problem with TV reporters showing personality, as long as it's a personality that makes him feel a little better.
Yvette Kantrow is executive editor of The Deal magazine.