Let’s think more about how America gets the news.
The network news organizations and their old flagship shows, the evening news, are in flux: falling ratings, an aging demographic, competition from cable, a general loss of prestige, Rathergate.
But it’s foolish to think the network evening news shows don’t matter anymore. Dan Rather’s show, which has long come in third in a three-way race, gets on an average night eight million viewers. Bill O’Reilly’s show, No. 1 on cable, gets three million viewers on a great night. The networks continue to have greater penetration, higher numbers, bigger budgets.
They’re important; they aren’t over, and they shouldn’t be. Especially during a crisis—and we live in an age of crises—they have a crucial role to play. It is actually in the nation’s interest that network news get better at gathering and telling the news.
Here, offered as a public service, are three suggestions for the owners of the networks. First, stop being mesmerized by Cronkiteism. Second, put your money in the field. Third, put down that copy of the New York Times.
Do these things and good results will follow, including higher ratings.
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Last year NBC spent a ton (reportedly $10 million) to get a new anchorman, Brian Williams, to replace Tom Brokaw, who also cost a ton. Next week Dan Rather steps down from CBS, and those who run that network will be told to pay a ton to get a star.
Why do they do this? Because they’re mesmerized by a myth—the corny and no longer relevant belief that the anchorman makes the evening news, that if he’s popular it’s popular.
This is the myth of Cronkiteism. Decades ago everyone in the news came to believe the “CBS Evening News” was No. 1 in the ratings because of the magic of Walter. The truth is Mr. Cronkite took over the evening news in 1963, a bland, plump fellow, a veteran of United Press International with a nice voice. He took over from Douglas Edwards, who covered World War II with Edward R. Murrow. CBS News in those days was the Tiffany network, and they had a great evening news show. Cronkite fit in.
Then John Kennedy was shot, and suddenly, for the first time in the TV era, all eyes turned to television—to the Tiffany network, with the best coverage. And Walter did good work. Soon corporate headquarters realized the evening news could be a moneymaker, a profit center. They pumped more money into the news division, which was still dominated by the ethos of the Murrow Boys, the great journalists who witnessed and took part in Ed Murrow’s one-man invention of CBS News. They created the best broadcast. Mr. Cronkite was its front man. He came to be broadly respected because his show was broadly respected.
Mr. Cronkite became the first megastar TV anchorman, and a generation of programming executives misunderstood why. They thought this was the lesson: first the anchor, then the popularity. This was the opposite of the truth: first an excellent broadcast, then the anchor’s popularity.
Soon CBS will replace Dan Rather. They should hire a reasonable journalist at a reasonable price and then build a sterling, stellar broadcast around him. They should save the money they’d spend on a star and put it in the show.
They should forgo the temptation to blow out all the stops and drag the new anchor to every market in America as the new face of CBS News. They should forgo the temptation to spend a fortune on commercials promoting him. Just put him in there and let America find him. Then let him do interviews. At that point people will actually care what he has to say. People in America like to find stars on their own. Let them.
CBS should also forgo the temptation to spend millions and millions on a new set, new graphics and new theme music. Message to the executive producer: No one in America cares about a new set or new graphics. When focus groups say they notice such things, it’s only because such things have been shoved in their faces and a response requested. New anchors get new sets because anxious producers need something they can point at. The executive producer thinks he has to tell the news division president, who has to tell the company CEO: “We’re doing something big, changing the look of the show.”
It’s a way of covering up the fact that you don’t have a clue.
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So take all that money and get yourselves some talented, hungry correspondents. A lot of them. They should be all over Africa, South America, the Mideast and Europe, with talented crews.
Stop with the Stepfordism. Don’t get bright young blondes named Kimmy, Kubby and Koopy. Instead, rehire the great old guys and women you started laying off in the 1980s because they were getting a little fat, a little old, a little untelegenic. They didn’t pop, so you popped them.
Hire them back. They’re all teaching in journalism schools, and they miss the game like you wouldn’t believe. They’ll be thrilled with a second chance, and they’d bring back some of the authority the networks have lost. This is a whole country that enjoys looking at Sipowicz on “NYPD Blue.” This is a whole country that’s aging. We don’t want to watch cupcakes on network TV. That’s what local is for. (Added benefit: when you rehire all these old pro’s it will be a story, get publicity, and the Disney Co., itself eager to return to its roots after decades of cynicism and scandal, will make a hit two-hour movie about it. Because it’s a good story!)
Then open it up—trust your correspondents in the field. Let them tell you the story. Don’t tell them what the story is from New York, after you’ve read the Times and the Washington Post. Let them tell you the story. Let them be our eyes.
What really happened today in Iraq, what are U.S.soldiers doing, what’s the mood in the green zone among people who’ve been there a while? What are they selling in the local candy store in Tikrit, what are young men doing for jobs, what are mothers making for dinner, what’s available to put in the pot, how are the schools going, is it usual for an 8-year-old girl to go to school each day or has that gone by the boards because of war? What do American soldiers think of what Americans back home think of the war, what is their impression of our impression? What does a “letter from home” look like now? Is it a DVD? What is it like to live in a place where everything’s been fine and calm for 10 days and you know you’ve turned a corner and just as you’re thinking this there’s an explosion 10 blocks away and suddenly you hear sirens and people are cowering in doorways?
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If you allowed your fine and grizzled correspondents to find the answers and tell us, you would get a fresh and refreshing broadcast. But this does involve putting down your copy of the New York Times.
I worked at CBS 20 years ago and what was true of us then is true now, and true of every other network newsroom: They key evening news coverage off the front page of the New York Times. In Ken Auletta’s piece in The New Yorker this week on Dan Rather’s goodbye he has Mr. Rather in a “Front Page” mode, briskly asking his executive producer what the lead will be that night. Iraq, he answers, and part of the package keys off today’s Times report.
Why do they do this? Is it because the Times knows everything? No. And network producers know it doesn’t know everything. But the bosses of the producers read the Times. And the owners of the network read the Times. And the subordinates of the producers read the Times. They do this because it’s there. If it’s in the Times, it’s real. This is a thought-hangover from 30 years ago, but it lingers.
Thirty years ago this thinking was more understandable. The Times, infuriating on any given day or not, was acknowledged as the nation’s great newspaper. But the Times is now simply an esteemed newspaper. And more and more it plays to a niche, Upper West Side liberals wherever they are. It is not the voice of the age, it is a voice. So less reason than ever to key your coverage off it.
Worse, it kills creativity and enterprise. And it makes the news boring. Who wants a 7 p.m. newscast that reflects the newspaper that hit the Internet 18 hours earlier? The old excuse was, Yeah but we got moving pictures. Now however those pictures have been all over the news by the time it’s 7 p.m.
Turn this bad old habit on its head. Don’t make “It was in the Times” the reason to do a story. Make “It was in the Times” a reason not to do it.
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To sum up. Beef up the correspondent staff, hire the best, spend bucks on bureaus, be more independent and creative in your coverage, settle back and let America discover your show.
People will notice in time. In time they’ll become regular viewers. This is the way to prestige and profits. This is the way out of embarrassment and scandal.
For the anchor, get a reasonable journalist and surround him with a great show. Soon enough, as respect and numbers grow, your anchor will be called a Cronkite. That’s how you get a Cronkite. You make the show the star and he becomes a star.
And do this to better serve the American public, which owns the airwaves that provide the platform for your product. Give them a better product. As a public service.