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Saving TV news


This just in: The Network Evening News, who for half a century bound the American TV public into an informed community and linked it to the larger world, according to unconfirmed reports, has been moved from the hospital, where he had undergone an emergency heart transplant, into hospice care. A number of his disciples, men and women whom he had trained as reporters, before they left journalism for the entertainment industry, have expressed sadness, even shock, at his decline.

But now this: Do you sometimes feel that you are not living up to your full potential? Do fleeting moments of discomfort, disappointment or even secondary sadness distract you from projects that could make you instantly wealthy and from meeting new people who could love you more than anything in the world? If so, research suggests that one tiny capsule may have the answer. Ask your doctor about Zum. Can cause side effects if taken with or near other solids or liquids, in public or in private, if the patient is young, old or middle-aged.

Now to our Investigative Report, some “Eye on America” news you can use. Have you noticed that when you buy a new house you will need a lot of money?

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There are three theories on the future of network news.

First, the optimists argue that there’s still life in the old anchormen. For a brief few months, following the attack on the World Trade Center, public interest in international news perked up. There was a war to report, even though the Pentagon kept the press as far as possible from what was really happening, and the networks added a million dollars a week to their budgets to cover it. But the war was a quickie, and ratings flagged, so the anchormen returned our gaze to the economy, child kidnappings and the disease of the week.

Nevertheless, Frank Rich makes the case in the May 19 New York Times Magazine that even though the combined network evening newscasts attract only 43 percent of the viewing audience, compared to 84 percent in 1981; even though both the anchormen and their viewers are “old”; even though younger viewers get their news on the Comedy Channel or on the Internet; even though the morning shows have bigger “stars” (Katie Couric gets close to $15 million); even though the news hole has shrunk to 20 minutes (actually 17) to make room for commercial remedies for the “aging, the infirm, the impotent and the incontinent,” there’s still pep in the old “geezers” -- Dan Rather, 70, Peter Jennings, 64, and Tom Brokaw, 62.

First, their combined audience of 30 million viewers is still greater than the most popular primetime shows, such as “Friends” with 24 million. Second, unlike anyone who would replace them, these anchormen have “gravitas.” As Dan Rather said: “The viewer must have the sense that the anchor has seen enough of life, enough of news, to be trusted with this storm, this hurricane of fact, rumor, misinformation, interviews, news reports coming in to sort through.” It may be part show biz, but Rather, who covered combat in Vietnam, has made it part of his image, in trench coat or flak jacket, to broadcast from storm-tossed seawalls and battlefields.

Third, at their best, the evening news shows have been the “national hearth.” When youngsters outgrow MTV and Comedy Central, they may turn to the news for a sense of shared national experience.

For the second group, the pessimists, the quality of the broadcasts has deteriorated so far, that, like racehorses with broken legs, they should be put to sleep.

In a chapter in their new book, The News about the News: American Journalism in Trouble, reprinted in Columbia Journalism Review, Washington Post editors Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert G. Kaiser present some content analysis comparing the evening news in 1981-83 with their reports in spring 2000.

Because the networks are now owned by huge corporations who don’t care a fig about journalism standards, ratings and profits are everything. Because the federal government, through the Federal Communications Commission, no longer requires that the airwaves be used to serve the public, commercials can go on forever.

In 1981, a CBS newscast had 23 minutes of news, 17 of those on stories from overseas or Washington. In 2000 there were 18:20 minutes of news with the longest story two-and-a-half minutes, 10 minutes of commercial and 80 seconds of “teases” -- don’t flip off during the ad break and don’t forget to watch something else on CBS!

On a typical night the authors found one hard news story (finding the “lost” hard drives with nuclear secrets at the Los Alamos Laboratory) and a speculative, newsless report on whether Osama Bin Laden might attack the Olympic Games in Sydney. The rest concerned gas prices, a drought in Minnesota, folic acid for heart disease, and so on. The only overseas report was on Prince William’s 18th birthday.

At NBC, the strategy is to grab and hold the audience with strong visuals, such as pictures of raging fires, a home video of a roaring Nebraska tornado and “science” stories, like one with sensational footage of an open-heart operation and another on the care of chimpanzees used in experiments. The only foreign story was an announcement of Pope John Paul II’s 80th birthday.

In The New Republic, inspired by the flap over Disney-owned ABC almost bumping Ted Koppel’s “Nightline” to make room for David Letterman, Rob Walker studied the three network news programs for three weeks and concluded that they are so bad that even the cable channel shout-fest talk shows are more informative. The “best” feature he saw on ABC was a tie-in with the film “Time Machine,” where the correspondent interviewed a physics professor who explained that if you drive fast enough, near the speed of light, you would drive “into the future.” Except that we don’t know how to do that yet. Oh.

On NBC, Walker observed that stories seem calculated to get the viewer mad, just for the satisfaction of being mad at something: For example, Pentagon employees have been “fleecing America” by using their official credit cards for personal items -- like the man who spent $4,000 for breast implants for his girlfriend (though he paid it back), and the telemarketer who scammed a woman into spending $64 a month on magazine subscriptions.

The third alternative? Although, because my Jesuit community eats dinner at 6:30, I have not watched network news in years, in mid July I taped the networks, the BBC and the PBS “Lehrer News Hour” for several nights and compared.

BBC was way ahead. The average half hour, with no ads, has about a dozen items presented coolly and directly by an anchorwoman who doesn’t hesitate to mix it up with an interview subject who evades her questions.

When California Taliban John Walker Lindh was allowed to cop a plea, the BBC made it clear that the U.S. government was not anxious for reasons of its own for the case to come to trial. But one of the networks and CNN gave considerable time to interviewing the parents of Michael Spann, the CIA agent killed in the prison revolt in which Lindh was captured. CNN’s Connie Chung prodded them with maudlin questions that played on their bitterness, although there is no evidence Lindh was responsible for their son’s death.

Ironically, one of ABC’s countless ads showed happy arthritic couples dancing with abandon because Celebrex had loosened them up. The same night the “Lehrer News Hour” featured a senator in a drug costs debate waving two bottles of Celebrex: the American bottle cost $2.20 a capsule, the Canadian costs 79 cents. Somehow ABC didn’t cover that debate.

For the time being, anyone who wants good, straight, international news, enough focused on the United States, should find BBC on the local PBS station. Meanwhile we can hope that The New York Times will resurrect plans it had earlier this year to inaugurate its own late-evening, hour-long TV news program on PBS. If the commitment is too much for them, with proper leadership a consortium of the best papers -- like The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times -- ought to join forces on a PBS hour that would allow the nation’s best journalists several minutes each to analyze stories in depth and showcase their newspapers as well.

In the Golden Age of TV news, following World War II, the best journalists moved from print to radio to TV. Maybe they can do it again.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth, professor of humanities at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, is author of Fordham: A History and Memoir (Loyola Press).

National Catholic Reporter, August 16, 2002