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A military helicopter flies over the presidential palace as opponents of Egypt’s Islamist President Mohammed Morsi protest in Cairo. (Hassan Ammar/AP)
A military helicopter flies over the presidential palace as opponents of Egypt’s Islamist President Mohammed Morsi protest in Cairo. (Hassan Ammar/AP)

JOHN DOYLE

CNN fixates on Zimmerman trial as Egypt burns. What gives? Add to ...

What do social media teach us? That people have short attention spans and obsess about the most unlikely subjects. That’s what. Wednesday at lunchtime the top topic on Twitter – hereabouts, anyway – was this: QPR.

Yes, more people were discussing the doings at Queen’s Park Rangers, a terrible, terrible English soccer club, than were discussing, you know, the implosion in Egypt or the possible crash of the Toronto condo market, taking the Canadian economy down with it.

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I can understand the QPR thing, to some extent. Sports topics send people off Tweeting like nobody’s business. It’s a distraction. A screw-the-real-news attitude.

But, then we can ask: “What does television teach us?” And if the new-style CNN is any guide, it teaches us that a screw-the-real-news attitude is rampant there, too.

For several days now, CNN has devoted extraordinary amounts of time to coverage of the George Zimmerman trial, to the exclusion of almost everything else. It’s a bizarre and unsettling shift. And it illuminates something about both all-news channels in the United States and American obsessions.

One supposes it’s true that few outside the U.S can grasp the symbolic significance of the Zimmerman trial, which is rife with nuance about race, class and guns and touches on so many sensitive issues. At the same time, the wall-to-wall coverage on CNN (and on MSNBC and Fox News) plays out as an extravaganza of wild speculation that looks more like sports coverage. At one point, the use of Skype at the trial was the subject of much jocularity among reporters and legal pundits on CNN.

Can we assume this is what CNN viewers want? That they desire moment-by-moment coverage and pundits endlessly debating if the prosecutor made a mistake in tactics? On this, the Fourth of July, it would be in poor taste, perhaps, to understate the rawness of the emotions that run under the Zimmerman trial.

But on this or any other day it’s possible to wonder if CNN, now run by ex-NBC boss Jeff Zucker, is much less interested in events in Egypt than it should be. To some of us, watching from outside the U.S., it seems odd to find Anderson Cooper on-air for hours conducting analysis of the Zimmerman trial, while Cairo erupts and there are tanks on the streets there.

The Arab Spring was covered extensively by CNN and other U.S all-news channels. Pundits and reporters absorbed the energy and ardour of the revolutions and those events brought out the best and worst of American news outlets. I can still see and hear Geraldo Rivera on Fox News declaring: “Autocratic regimes give me the willies.” And shouting: “Mubarak, get out!” Followed by this announcement: “That’s my editorial.” Coverage was sometimes chaotic, but at least the reporters and camera crews were there.

Often it was the attraction of footage of mass protests that drew them, though. No one who saw the multitudes in Cairo’s Tahrir Square or on the streets of Benghazi in Libya would be in doubt that change was happening. Now, traumatic change appears to be under way again in Egypt, and on CNN that is all reduced to a small box picture in the corner of the screen. Perhaps it’s a symbol that CNN no longer offers the big picture about major international events. What it does is offer snippets of coverage of Egypt when the Zimmerman trial is in recess.

Revolutions, especially those that arise from the streets, and see a dictator overthrown, make for good TV. There’s inherent excitement in footage of mass crowds chanting and celebrating. Democracy is messier, as Egypt is learning. And as CNN seems to disclose, not half as interesting to cover, certainly not when democracy appears to be under threat of ending and a military coup is unfolding.

Only when the coup happened on Wednesday did CNN switch to full coverage of Egypt. While Fox News and MSNBC are self-declared as primarily interested in the U.S. and its internal politics and issues, one expects better of CNN. It has enormous resources and it seems perverse that events in Egypt recede to a small box on the screen while the minutiae of the Zimmerman trial get outlandish, detailed attention. There’s your screw-the-real-news attitude, right there.

Airing tonight

The Almighty Johnsons (Space, 9 p.m.) is not a series I’m familiar with. But I draw it to your attention because it has a cult following. A New Zealand-made comedy-drama, it’s about four hoser brothers who just happen to be descended from Norse Gods. The boys have powers that occasionally come in handy. In a recent interview, the producer took issue with the idea that the show is “preposterous.” He said: “Barking-mad shows with a creative stance to reality have always been around. Because I’m an old fart, I grew up with Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie and Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased).” So there.

Follow on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

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