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Jive Talkin' at CNN

News giant makes hiphop play for black viewers

By sigcino moyo

CNN is tweaking its headline News format to attract younger -- and, it seems, darker-skinned -- viewers. They're about to turn themselves out as hipsters by incorporating in their Headline News broadcasts the street lingo aka Ebonics preferred by black youth and reviled in some circles for not being "proper" English.

The hep cat got out of the bag recently when CNN Headline News general manager Rolando Santos let loose to the San Francisco Chronicle that announcers were to start slinging slang in an effort to embrace "the lingo of our people."

The pong on this directive got a little more stank when the New York Daily News got hold of an internal memo that reads, in part, "Please use this guide to help all you homeys and honeys add a new flava to your tickers and dekkos."

The list of "in" terms -- such as "ill," "fly," "wack," "jimmy hat" and "bling-bling" -- seems tragicomic when you consider it may emanate from the mouths of neophyte hood rats.

Black commentators and media watchers are not amused. Andrew Tyndall, publisher of The Tyndall Report, which has been monitoring American nightly newscasts since 1987, is convinced the Headline News bark is a lark.

Tyndall snorts, "It's pathetic and ridiculous. All news organizations have the task of attracting a younger audience, because you continually have to renew yourself. But this is an extremely inappropriate response. If you can remember back in junior high school, the most ridiculous teacher of all was the one trying to be hip."

Indeed. The weblogs, too, are packed with taunting takes on CNN's latest effort to be "cutting-edge." Mocking headlines in the U.S. press abound.

On paper, this looks sick (or should I say "ill"?). But it's not the first time CNN has allowed itself slack to troll for younger eyeballs.

The network went ahead with the hiring of Andrea Thompson, actor of NYPD repute, last April -- amid criticism that it had passed over more tenured journalists -- even after it was learned that nudie pics of the beauty had been floating on the Internet. The media buzz around the hire and her subsequent "exposure" garnered her prime-time slotting. Not quite The Naked News, but a ratings winner nonetheless.

And so, too, may be this Ebonics tonic spritzer that's on tap .

For whatever reason, African Americans watch more TV than the rest of the tube populace. Nielsen Media Research's January 2001 numbers show that African Americans are the largest minority segment of the U.S. television household population, comprising 12 per cent of the 102 million TV households. Nielsen's general viewer numbers can't be ignored either, especially since they include the legions of suburban white boys who have immersed themselves in hiphopisms.

For CNN, there's also the nasty war with arch-rival Fox News to think about, a war they're resoundingly losing. CNN didn't respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson at Fox says the issue "doesn't concern us."

Author Norman Solomon, executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy and syndicated Media Beat columnist, isn't surprised by the Headline News skew.

"The mass media are often quite predatory," Solomon says. "They skim grassroots culture and commodify it. There is a real tendency to dilute and eviscerate day-to-day vitality, so the trappings of cultural and political dissent are appropriated and simultaneously trivialized."

But that said, Solomon figures, "I think it just might work. The line between entertainment and news gets pretty thin at times."

The advertising buck will make the ultimate determination if CNN's dubious scheme of dispatching def news has any teeth.

Top fashion designers who made an economic killing off the street set through the 80s and 90s are distancing themselves from this contingent now. So one could argue that CNN ought to be commended -- self-serving interests aside -- for trying to draw a massive subculture into global affairs.

Is that such a bad thing?

But a chafed Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a syndicated columnist and president of the National Alliance for Positive Action, based in Inglewood, California, says CNN should "improve its news and information content instead of changing its language around, which seems a very stereotypical thing to do -- assuming that all African Americans and Latinos speak a kind of jive language, a hiphop language, a different language."

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NOW Magazine Online Edition, VOL. 22 NO. 8

Copyright 2002 NOW Communications Inc.
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