Via ShopTalk For Network News, It Was A Year Of Missed Lessons <http://www.baltimoresun.com/features/custom/aetoday/bal-ae.eye01jan01,1,525657.story?coll=bal-aetoday-headlines&ctrack=1&cset=true> 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. ---------------------------------------------------------------------- You can UNSUBSCRIBE from the OpenDTV list in two ways: - Using the UNSUBSCRIBE command in your user configuration settings at FreeLists.org - By sending a message to: opendtv-request@xxxxxxxxxxxxx with the word unsubscribe in the subject line.