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Wayne Williams, center, is led from the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta on Jan. 18, 1982, during his trial. (AP)
Wayne Williams, center, is led from the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta on Jan. 18, 1982, during his trial. (AP)

Andy Ryan: Television

CNN polishes its journalistic cred Add to ...

Where have you gone, Edward R. Murrow? The nation should be turning its lonely eyes to you. But everyone in the U.S. is watching Bill O'Reilly.

The business of American TV news is shifting and all those rules regarding journalistic objectivity seem to be falling by the wayside. These days, you take sides or you go home.

Or in the case of CNN, you fade slowly to black, one ratings point at a time. These are grim days for Ted Turner's once-mighty all-news network. CNN's precipitous decline worsens with each new ratings tally.

The most recent Nielsen rankings reveal that CNN's biggest stars, including Anderson Cooper and Larry King, have lost nearly half their audience in the past year. On most weeknights, Larry is getting trounced in the ratings by Joy Behar on the CNN-owned HLN.

Even CNN's wakeup show, American Morning, is losing viewers - down 30 per cent in the past year - despite the presence of chirpy Canadian-born anchor John Roberts.

Naturally, this translates into boom times for Fox News Channel, still sticking to its slogan "Fair & Balanced" against all credulity. Buoyed by the Tea Party movement, health-care filibustering and opposition to anything Obama-related, Fox News has seen a ratings surge in literally every program block on its schedule.

The rants of Bill O'Reilly still command the largest U.S. cable audience in prime time, followed closely by Fox News programs hosted by Sean Hannity and Greta Van Susteren (whose husband works as an adviser for Sarah Palin, you betcha). And the archly conservative Glenn Beck? His TV audience has doubled in the past year. (If you don't get Fox News, you can always watch clips from it being lampooned each night on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.)

By comparison, Fox News makes CNN look, well, almost noble. CNN brass have maintained their news programs and the network's hosts will remain bipartisan - something we sometimes take for granted here in the Great White North - but the network is earning more credibility of late for returning to old-school reporting.

The Atlanta Child Murders (CNN, 9 p.m.) is the second of four investigative reports on CNN this month. Helmed by the reliable Soledad O'Brien, the program recalls those dark days between 1979 and 1981 when 30 young African-Americans (between the ages of 9 and 28) were murdered or declared missing. Some of the victims' bodies were found in the Chattahoochee River.

As is known to the world and recapped in the film, the killer was eventually identified as Wayne Williams, who was convicted in 1982 on two counts of murder and sentenced to two consecutive life terms. Williams was implicated in at least a dozen other murders, but has steadfastly declared his innocence from behind bars.

The two-hour film is at once chilling and objective. In her straightforward reporting style, O'Brien reopens the Atlanta Child Murders from every possible angle, which is how Murrow might have done it.

O'Brien interviews the detectives who worked the case, reporters who recall the climate of fear that gripped the city, and the still-grieving parents and relatives of victims. She talks to DNA experts reexamining decades-old evidence and a former police chief still convinced of Williams's innocence.

When it works, it works. This is the kind of reporting they teach at journalism school, and the type of documentary that ordinarily turns up on a public broadcaster, say PBS. CNN shows further range with two other upcoming reports.

Dads for My Daughters (June 19) chronicles cancer-stricken author Bruce Feiler's efforts to find surrogate fathers for his twin daughters; Gary & Tony Have a Baby (June 24) follows the legal and biological wrangles of a gay couple trying to become parents.

Would any of these subjects ever receive coverage on Fox News?

While fewer people are watching CNN these days, the network still deserves some credit for objective reportage, if not for simply sticking to the basics. Fox News pulls bigger numbers playing the great contrarian, but ain't that America?

Good night and good luck.

Also airing tonight:

So You Think You Can Dance (Fox, CTV, 9 p.m.) settles into its regular time period and whittles down the competition. Tonight's show covers the intense auditions and callbacks in Las Vegas and introduces the top 10 dancers. Of course, tears will flow among those who don't make the cut.

Mall Cops of America (TLC, 10 p.m.) is already a ratings hit for TLC and should make anyone appreciate their own career choice. Tonight the minimum-wage heroes deal with a trash-can fire, drunk shoppers and a bomb scare. Kids, stay in school.

Check local listings

jaryan@globeandmail.ca

John Doyle will return.

 

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