[opendtv] Analysis: For Network News, It Was A Year Of Missed Lessons

  • From: Craig Birkmaier <craig@xxxxxxxxx>
  • To: OpenDTV Mail List <opendtv@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Tue, 3 Jan 2006 10:31:30 -0500

Via ShopTalk

For Network News, It Was A Year Of Missed Lessons

David Zurawik
Baltimore Sun Television Critic

It has been a year of mind-boggling change in television news. After 
two decades with the same anchormen in place, all three networks 
underwent change at the top of their tickets.

ABC suffered the greatest loss with the death of Peter Jennings to 
cancer in August, followed by the departure in November of Ted Koppel 
from Nightline. CBS faced the worst embarrassment with Dan Rather 
forced to step down from the evening news.

But recounting the change over and over as such year-end pieces 
normally do tends to leave the mind only more boggled - and never has 
the television industry so needed clarity.

One of the most discouraging stories of 2005 is how little the 
networks and cable channels seem to be learning from all the turmoil. 
If veteran journalists who should know better aren't taking the wrong 
lesson from network-altering events, their bosses are using the 
unprecedented nature of some developments as an excuse for their own 
bad management decisions.

"That's a story: the inability of the TV news industry to respond and 
learn from the change," said Douglas Gomery, professor of media 
history and economics at the University of Maryland College Park. 
"What the network and cable executives are really saying in much of 
their talk about overwhelming change is, 'Don't blame me for not 
being skillful enough to respond to the change, blame the change.' 
There's a wealth of lessons to be learned from case study after case 
study in TV news last year, but for the most part, they don't appear 
to be learning them."

Start with the events of January 2005, when CBS released the results 
of an investigation into a 60 Minutes report that aired in 2004 on 
the military record of George W. Bush. The story anchored by Rather 
and alleging preferential treatment for Bush was based on documents 
that CBS News could not authenticate.

Memogate, as the debacle came to be known, would cost four producers 
and news executives their jobs, as well as force Rather to step down 
from the anchor desk of the CBS Evening News after 24 years. 
Struggling to rebuild its credibility, the news division in November 
named a new president, Sean McManus. He replaced Andrew Heyward, 
another fatality of Memogate.

Yet for all the damage done by their recklessness, Rather and Mary 
Mapes, one of the fired producers, continue to defend their actions 
by saying no one has yet proven the documents fake. That is just the 
kind of thinking that erodes public trust in the media.

Journalism is essentially "a discipline of verification," authors 
Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write in The Elements of Journalism: 
What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect. The burden 
of proof is on the journalist: One does not broadcast or publish that 
which has not been verified.

The other lesson Rather and Mapes are offering to interviewers and 
college students (Rather spoke at the University of Maine and at 
Goucher College in November) centers on the alleged danger of 
politically motivated bloggers like the ones they say maliciously 
brought them down - attacking the documents on the Internet within 
hours of the 60 Minutes broadcast.

But Michael Socolow, a former CNN producer who teaches journalism at 
the University of Maine, believes the bloggers did a good thing (no 
matter what their motives): "What's more basic to journalism than 
fact-checking and accuracy? That's what bloggers are providing, as 
the Bush-Rather story illustrates."

* Another "truth" extracted from the media upheaval of 2005 is that 
we witnessed the "end of the anchorman era" last year. The first to 
question this oft-repeated maxim was Jim Lehrer, anchor of PBS' 
NewsHour With Jim Lehrer: "Everybody's saying, 'Well, it's the end of 
the anchorman era.' But then there's Brian Williams, who's got about 
10 million people watching him every night on NBC, so what the 
(expletive) is that all about?"

Lehrer's comments were made in October to The Sun. He was being 
interviewed for a story marking his 30th year at the anchor desk - a 
post the 71-year-old journalist says he has no plans to vacate any 
time soon. His NewsHour is still seen by about 2.5 million viewers 
every night - an audience larger than any news program on cable.

Gomery, the media economist, says NBC's carefully planned anchor 
succession (from Tom Brokaw to Williams) is exactly the kind of case 
study he advocates. Instead of confirming the end of the anchorman 
era, the lesson to be learned is: The response by GE, NBC's owner, 
"is your classic, conservative, [former CEO] Jack Welch kind of 
strategy: 'We've groomed Brian Williams for X number of years to be 
replace Tom Brokaw in a news program that still seems to be working, 
so why noodle with it?'"

NBC's flagship newscast is still No. 1, with the largest news 
audience on television. While it is true that there are all sorts of 
technological and lifestyle factors ultimately pointing to the end of 
the evening news as it has been delivered for decades, there are 
still hundreds of millions of dollars to be made with an aggregate 
audience of 30 million viewers each weeknight.
* And then came Hurricane Katrina. The analysis that is now all but 
conventional wisdom is that TV news performed admirably - some 
critics have even used the word "heroically" - because anchormen like 
CNN's Anderson Cooper vented their outrage at the lack of help for 
the victims of the storm on government officials whom they 
interviewed. The premise here: After years of excessive deference, 
television news rediscovered a backbone.

But that is theater, not journalism.

"The primary purpose of journalism is provide citizens with the 
information they need to be free and self-governing," Kovach and 
Rosenstiel write.

The information initially provided by American TV news during Katrina 
was deplorable. It included wild death estimates in the tens of 
thousands, along with unverified accounts of looting, shooting and 
rape - the very opposite of the careful, calm, dispassionate 
reporting offered by the BBC in July in the immediate wake of 
terrorist attacks on London subway trains and buses.

* The last and, perhaps, most disturbing lesson of the year came with 
the departure of Koppel from Nightline. While his retirement in 
November from weeknight TV was widely mourned, analysts missed a 
larger truth at the time: the way in which Koppel represents the 
sense of judgment, history, perspective and wisdom now being lost in 
TV newsrooms across the country on an almost daily basis as corporate 
owners try to cope with declining revenues by downsizing and forcing 
out expensive talent.

One can only hope that the manic, glitzy and empty-headed Nightline 
with which Koppel's program was replaced is not representative of the 
direction in which the media is headed in coming years.
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