Commentary

Re-inventing the network evening news

Departure of Rather, Jennings and Brokaw offers networks rare opportunity

By John McManus
Posted Oct. 17, 2005
Network news is under unprecedented strain. (Graphic by Albert Corona, Riverside Press-Enterprise. Reprinted with permission from the Press-Enterprise.)

Lingerie-clad women delivering the CBS Evening News?

CBS Chief Leslie Moonves only half-jokingly suggested using sex to sell a newscast in the Sept. 4 New York Times Magazine. But that he would say such things for national publication shows a level of respect for the democratic responsibilities of journalism -- and for women -- about on par with P.T. Barnum.

The departure of the three authoritative pale males of network news -- Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings -- provides a chance to re-invent network newscasts.

But don't worry. (Or get your hopes up.) Straight-laced Dan Rather won't be replaced by unlaced achoresses. The Federal Communications Commission does not care about boobs delivering news so long as they are covered.

It is likely, however, that Mr. Rather's former newscast -- and those of NBC and CBS -- will accelerate a trend that began back in the mid-80s in the Ronald Reagan era. That's when all three commercial broadcast networks changed hands, becoming parts of larger, non-news corporations. And it's when the FCC --the agency charged with ensuring broadcasters provide public service for free use of our airwaves -- relaxed its oversight of television.

News is being redefined

Since then, we've seen a gradual redefinition of news. Studies have shown that newscasts are moving away from the professional model: journalists selecting and presenting news that helps citizens understand and act on those issues and events that most shape their lives. Instead, executives are migrating toward a market-driven model: reporting whichever events generate the largest audience at the lowest cost.

John McManus

According to the Tyndall Report, coverage of supposedly boring presidential politics on ABC, CBS and NBC has declined over the past decade and a half. The drop was not uniform, but overall minutes of coverage fell about 22% between 1988 and 2004. Further, more stories now concentrate on the "horse race" among candidates than what they stand for.

That doesn't mean the major networks can't rise to the occasion when the market demands serious coverage. Witness the vivid and deep coverage of hurricane Katrina.

But in routine times, to attract the largest audience at the least cost -- particularly the young audience advertisers covet -- network newscasts will probably become more entertaining and less informative.

What the networks ought to do

Here's what they should do:

Recognize that increasing the entertainment quotient of news means competing with every other form of entertainment, a much more crowded marketplace than the market for national and international news.

Choose the NPR approach. No one is doing NPR-style news on television, except the resource-starved "News Hour" on PBS. Networks won't outfox Fox, but can easily outdo the "talking heads" of PBS with their greater video and graphics resources. There's another reason. Listeners to NPR score much higher on tests of current events knowledge than do Fox viewers, according to a University of Maryland study. A return to journalism aimed at empowering citizens rather than gratifying consumers would also justify broadcasters' free use of public property, the airwaves.

The public also has a vital role

There are also some things you, dear reader, must do. As news becomes market-driven, the public must demand the news it needs, rather than passively accepting what it can be seduced to want. To reinvigorate interest in quality journalism, we need to emphasize its importance in high school civics and media literacy courses.

Finally, we need to reform the most important subject of news -- politics. We must end the legal bribery of private campaign financing, and disallow politicians from drawing "safe" voting districts. Both practices boost apathy -- for politics and news.

An earlier version of this article appeared in the Perspective section of the Sunday, Oct. 2, Riverside Press-Enterprise.