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Guest commentary

All the news that's fit to sell

Tony Seton

For the networks, the news is little different from a sitcom.

Indeed, it is the intermingling of entertainment and news that has so vanilla-ized reporting today. The news departments are advised by the promotion departments on what’s socially hot and what’s not, and bang-zoom, the former winds up on the tube in a news context.

NBC’s "Dateline" is one of the most egregious transgressors. Last month it devoted two hours to Donald Trump and his NBC show "The Apprentice," and last week, in the midst of the Iraqi prisoner abuse firestorm, it consumed two more hours of precious air time saying goodbye to the cast of NBC's "Friends."

NBC isn’t the only network at fault. The CBS radio network is plumbing new depths. It referred to the prisoner abuse scandal as "the photo flap" and headlined calls for Rumsfeld’s resignation as "Democrats demand a sacrifice." Such cheapening of the news is so appalling, you have to think the network is trying to compete with Fox, but it’s no excuse.

We’d all be much better off getting our news from Jon Stewart, whose comment about the obscene levels of "Friends" hype was, "I never watched that show and I’m sick of it." Another voice, hearing one of the characters in a radio promo, observed that he’s "still whining after all these years."

The Associated Press ran a feature the other day on the corporate têtes of the Peacock news division mulling and pondering over the momentous, historic and otherwise insignificant anchor shift that’s happening when Tom Brokaw steps down from his anchor aerie late next fall. He’ll be replaced by a cable guy who’s been being groomed for seven years. The executives are hunkering down, to make sure that it’s a smooth transition, which means that they’re hoping their ratings won’t plummet.

NBC has been leading the news pack, ratings-wise, for a while now and the sharper wags say it’s simply because more people have habituated to Brokaw than to the snootier Peter Jennings or the whackier Dan Rather. It’s not much of a choice, especially compared to giants like Chet Huntley, Harry Reasoner and his eminence, Walter Cronkite. When Cronkite left the desk in 1981, the ratings for CBS and for all the network news shows went into a downward spiral. Freefall, actually, so that they are now attracting less than half the audience they were.

And no wonder. Because they’re all about attracting audience -- with special reports, anchors flying hither-‘n-thither in a dither and incessant self-promotion -- when they should, instead, be about performing a vital public service, which is keeping the American public informed.

Tony Seton is an award-winning broadcast journalist and occasional political consultant who lives in Mill Valley, California.

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A project of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State University, Grade the News is affiliated with the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University and KTEH, public television in Silicon Valley.

Monitoring the Bay Area's most popular news media:

Contra Costa Times

Knight Ridder

San Francisco Chronicle


San Jose Mercury News

Knight Ridder

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KRON, San Francisco

KRON, San Francisco

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)


Bay Area media advocates:

Media Alliance
Center for the Integration and Improvement of Journalism at SFSU
Maynard Institute
Youth Media Council
Project Censored
New California Media
Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California chapter
National Writers Union Bay Area chapter

Site highlights


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• Part 3: Free papers' growth threatens traditional news
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• And: The free tabloid that wasn't: East Bay's aborted Daily Flash


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