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E-Media Tidbits from the Poynter Institute is group blog by some of the sharper writers about online journalism and publishing. A good way to keep up

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May 10, 2004

This Summer Will Tell Us If We're Serious: Tom Bettag Brings Realism Before the Tribe of Murrow

The once-mighty tribe of Edward R. Murrow was gathered at the Metropolitan Club in Gotham last week. There was a speech. Tom Bettag (Nightline's producer) came to terms with the tribe's defeat by new owners in the 1980s. He also said: we failed the country in 2001. But there's a chance we can recover this summer, if we don't take our cues from cable.

“Over our dead bodies,” we said. And that’s the path they took.Tom Bettag.

The intelligencia of television news—plus Geraldo Rivera—gathered at the Metropolitan Club on the East Side of Manhattan Tuesday night (May 4th) to visit with the ghost of Fred Friendly, and hear one of their own give a speech about television news.

But it wasn’t an ordinary speech. It was a lesson in the higher realism.

Tom Bettag, senior executive producer in charge of Nightline and “This Week with George Stephonapolous,” is a man at the top of his profession, much admired by people who know television news. He was speaking to other people at the top of that profession. His platform: this year’s winner of a top award in the profession (the Fred Friendly First Amendment Award) which is named for a giant of the profession, Fred Friendly, former president of CBS.

Friendly—a real person, also an icon in network television—spoke the big language of professional conscience, which he inherited from the most mythic figure of all in network news, Edward R. Murrow of CBS, who passed the baton to Walter Cronkite, who gave it to Dan Rather, who was in the audience at the Metropolitan Club, along with Ted Koppel and many others they call their peers.

As winner of the Friendly Award (past recipients Rather, Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw, Ted Koppel, Bill Moyers, Lesley Stahl, Robert MacNeil, Jim Lehrer, Don Hewitt and the like…) Bettag got an official share in the inheritance: the public service tradition in television news, American division. But he had to give a speech to get his inheritance. Part of it was about failing the country:

If there were warnings throughout government about al Qaeda, let the record show that on the three network evening news broadcasts that summer and Nightline, the name “al Qaeda” wasn’t spoken––not a single time. The record will show that on the week of August 20, three weeks before the attacks, the story most covered on the three network evening news broadcasts was Gary Condit. It got twice as much coverage as the next story.

Who failed the country? Unquestionably we in the press did:

People were even trying to point us in the right direction. Consider the words of Paul Bremer, then speaking as former chairman of the National Commission on Terrorism. At a journalism conference in February, 2001, after the attack on the Cole and six months before 9/11, he said: ‘The new administration seems to be paying no attention to the problem of terrorism. What they will do is stagger along until there is a major incident…. Maybe the folks in the press ought to be pushing a little bit.

Which is a quote that journalists, in another context, might call a smoking gun. “Now we’re doing stories about who in government is to blame,” said Bettag. “We in the media need to ask ourselves, ‘What’s our excuse?’ Where were we? The attack, after all, didn’t come out of nowhere.”

While we were talking about the death of hard news, about the “national fog of materialism and disinterest and avoidance,” the biggest conspiracy in the history of the country was being hatched. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld says people were running around the Pentagon “with their hair on fire.” National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice says major military options were being drawn up against al Qaeda. But we had decided that there was no real news.

Listening to this were people like Jeff Greenfield of CNN, David Westin, president of ABC News; Geraldo Rivera and Rita Cosby from Fox News; William Small, former president of CBS News; Dave Marash from “Nightline”; Robert Bazell of NBC Nightly News; and many more producers, correspondents and bosses— one’s people, as it were.

Bettag told his people they had failed during the Summer of Threat (on the awareness meter their performance was worse than government’s) but this was not the entire point. Network news has failed the country many times, and if it were a failing operation overall, then the American people would not have turned to the traditional networks—and their anchors—immediately after the planes hit the Towers. But on the whole people did. The cable channels saw their tiny numbers shoot up. The networks held the bulk of the audience.

“Given the choice between one of the three cable-news networks and one of the big three broadcast networks, three out of four viewers chose the broadcast networks––Brokaw, Rather, and Jennings,” said Bettag. Why, if these are organizations in decline?

Here he was on to something about the inheritance. Public trust, which is the real commodity network news deals in, has its own chronometer. Trust can be created by the networks one year, and come into play twenty years later. In crisis moments the whole transaction speeds up, and the business has to know how to react:

Remember how the “believability” rating of the big three networks’ news had dropped from 80 to 60 percent? During the week of 9/11, an unprecedented 89 percent of viewers gave the media a “positive” rating. Networks canceled advertising for days and lost revenue. In return they got back something priceless––the viewers’ trust.

Bettag’s basic description of network news is a master work of rhetoric, and a realist’s view. News on network television is a business— period. Get every other starting point out of your head, he advises. If you begin another way, like “news is a public trust” or “separation of church and state,” you will only confuse things, and delude yourself. “You work for a television company, an entertainment company run by people who may, or may not, give a damn about news.”

Bettag says to young journalists what Noam Chomsky would say: “it’s about the money.” (A phrase he repeats for emphasis.) But this is not a simple observation. For “to be of any use to the company, the loyalty of the newsroom must first be to the viewer, and only second to the business.” There’s the rhetorical switch-a-roo.

The public service tradition, which is the Murrow Tribe’s claim to authority, comes into the news again, but not on the ground floor. “Television company”— that’s the foundation. News is not a raison d’etre for the network, but it can still have a protected space, and the tribe can flourish there. Since for Bettag the news cannot be protected from the business, it will have to be protected by the business. This was an original part of the “gospel of Murrow,” as he put it:

Responsibility can easily be placed, in spite of all the mouthings about giving the public what it wants. It rests on big business, and on big television. It rests at the top… And it promises its own reward: good business and good television.

Why is this so? Because the advertiser is purchasing not only “viewers,” but viewers gathered around something informational, which they must be able to trust, or the whole business breaks down. Advertisers’ needs fluctuate. Certain Americans are more valuable than others as targets for ads. News is different; it values all viewers equally— that is it should. And if it does the networks will have an enduring commodity to sell.

The truth of the matter is that the evening news, the half hour summary of the day’s events, is the most popular program on television year after year. Basically the same news runs simultaneously on three networks, each settling for one third of the audience. No network dares give up its third. Letting the competition divide that audience two ways would be bad business.

And this is easily seen by recalling events on the morning of September 11th, when the secret history between people and their television sets sped up. Imagine yourself the network president who, years earlier, took a public relations hit, and eliminated the costly news division. The financial press cheered you. But on that day of national emergency, after the bombs fell, you and your spouse and everyone else you know clicked right to your competitors. You had no product, no presence in the national ordeal. So do you really have a network?

“Letting the competition divide that audience two ways would be bad business.” In fact, it would end the business. No one in the broadcast networks wants to give up news, because news authenticates television. It also puts the nation into a TV network— branding that is more important than ever, since the network is likely to be owned by a transnational company with global interests and global reach.

It’s all one product, said Bettag about the three evening newscasts. (This is a candid statement.) And network news is still a successful product, he argued— despite cable, despite the rise of Fox, despite local stations doing their own news, despite the Internet, despite the criticism, despite a steadily falling share of the audience, and despite big embarrassing failures like Condit Summer.

But it cannot succeed by selling its viewers short, and this means potential viewers as well as the existing—and aging—audience. Bettag raged against treating the young as a unique category of viewer. “To be loyal to only those viewers dictated by advertisers is to be loyal to no one but the advertisers,” he said. “Madison Avenue would have us discount more than half our viewers. That’s bad journalism, and it also may be bad business.”

We who produce hard news programs have to be clear about why we can’t go down that road. It would be arrogant to ignore advertisers’ needs, thereby shooting ourselves in the foot once more. For many good reasons, we can and should engage young people, but that need not—must not—be at the expense of other viewers. We can attract young people by being outrageous or setting new standards for bad taste, but that’s selling them short. Young people like programs that are smart, creative, original––just as much as, if not more than, older people.

This was Bettag’s message: tough realism for news people (it’s about making money) and for business people (it’s about keeping trust.). His advice to journalists: Make peace with the business; go to war for the viewer. Fight the advertisers off and you obey the bottom line. It’s about the money, never forget that. If you keep the money in mind, you can keep this other thing going, the “gospel according to Murrow,” the public service tradition that draws people into news, which was also the ghost of Friendly (Bettag’s teacher at Columbia J-School) and which was now, officially, his inheritance.

Say what you will about well paid and famous people giving each other awards and clinking glasses with the “competition.” (Bettag: “Over the years I’ve accepted lots of awards…”) It doesn’t bother me, if at the end of the evening someone stands up and tries to tell the truth about television. He did that. The history he told was revisionist. It came to terms with a defeat, and relocated responsibility in the victorious power— “big business.” This defeat came during the 1980s when the news divisions met new-minded owners—Loews and Lawrence Tisch at CBS, Capital Cities at ABC, General Electric at NBC. Bettag describes a rout:

By their standards the networks were fat, lazy, and ripe for the picking. In their world every division was expected to make a profit and they made no exception for news. To the hard news Harrys like me, that was Wall Street greed, pure and simple. We didn’t believe we could meet their requirements. We dug in and acted as if we had some First Amendment right to lose money. “Over our dead bodies,” we said. And that’s the path they took.

In the rout that followed, many of us hard news types lost our bearings. To the businessmen our sputtering, “We aren’t businessmen, we’re news people,” came off as intransigence. One said: “How can I responsibly turn over a budget in the tens of millions of dollars to someone who says he isn’t a businessman?” It was open season on news divisions.

Bettag is saying that he and his colleagues were ridiculously high-minded and drastically out of touch; they were able to demonize “greed,” but too slow to analyze their new predicament. Instead of asking themselves a realist’s question: “can serious news make money for the network, and what does it need from the network to do so?” they just quacked: “news isn’t about making money! how dare you mess with the First Amendment.”

In this they had misremembered history. Edward R. Murrow—the tribe’s founder —had been forced out by business pressures. Fred Friendly resigned in protest over a default in corporate responsibility. It was always about the money, but there happened to be fat years when the networks were making so much money elsewhere they could afford to treat news differently. Once upon a time CBS’s president and CEO, Tom Wyman, said: “I assure you no one in this corporation has the slightest notion that the news division will ever be a profit center.”

By the 1990s that was all gone. News magazines (like 60 minutes, 20/20, Dateline NBC) and the morning shows became the profit centers. “Magazines were so profitable that finance types at the big three networks asked, “Why does the network need hard news at all?’ It was obvious, they argued, that hard news would soon become the exclusive domain of the twenty four-hour news channels.” While that might have happened, it didn’t. Bettag says this was partly because of the stature—indeed, the latent power—of the anchormen, Rather, Jennings and Brokaw.

They held their ground despite huge pressures to do away with the evening news or to turn it into a magazine posing as hard news. Fortunately each has been able to say, “That’s not who I am; if I tried to do that I’d come off as a phony.” The plates of the earth shifted, but the center held. At any number of executive meetings the argument that the anchorman could never be budged carried the day. Those meetings usually ended with someone muttering about “the eight-hundred-pound gorilla.”

I think this is accurate, not in the lionization of the anchors but the gorilla part. The public face of the network is a difficult person to fire, unless there’s scandal or disloyalty. The anchors are big figures because they connect big. They have gravitas, almost in the literal sense. They could hold ground at times within the network, and this made a difference in the years when the Murrow Tribe was being routed. But the Summer of Condit was self-defeat. Bettag recalled it:

That summer CNN was preparing to lay off many of its foreign bureau staffers and to launch a new anchor, Andrea Thompson, a star of NYPD Blue and high school dropout.

We who do hard-news broadcasts have discovered the blessings of limited airtime. Having only thirty minutes means we have to set priorities, make choices, make sense. But that summer we bought into the cable agenda. We lost our nerve. We lost our sense of proportion.

That summer hard news demonstrated extraordinary loyalty to the corporation.

This summer, with Michael Jackson and Kobe Bryant on trial, but also an election and so much at stake in the world, the descendants of Murrow, Friendly and Cronkite will be tested. “We are lucky to have been given a second chance. This summer people will know us by our actions.” We understand better now, said Bettag. It’s a changed tribe— changed by its defeats.

Today we are news people who understand business. We know “it’s about the money.” We know we have to work and fight to hold our own in a constant but valuable tug-of-war with the business side. We know we need to explain ourselves in a thoughtful but committed way to corporate bosses. There must also be no confusion. We are not business people who understand news. Our first loyalty is to the viewers––all viewers.

And another name for all viewers is the public. In Bettag’s realism there is a place for resistance, for push back by journalists. But he wants to replace “don’t be greedy,” with “don’t be reductive.” He’s on to something when he says to corporate: do factor in the mysteries of trust before you put a value on the news division. He knows that he and his colleagues erred when they ceded the profit puzzle (and its knowledge streams) to the “business side.”

How often has it been asked: Should television news give people what they want or what they need? Murrow Nation got itself lost somewhere in the territory around that question. Bettag points forward. Television news is good business when it puts the interests of a viewing public first. A public has wants, and a public has needs. The point is: who shall interpret them?

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links…

Tom Bettag’s speech at the Metropolitan Club, May 5, 2004. (On winning the Fred Friendly First Amendment Award presented by Quinnipiac University’s School of Communications.)

Novelist and weblog writer Roger Simon comments on this post: “I suspect the press corps didn’t want to believe Islamic fascism was all that bad, wanted to see it as a tiny disgruntled minority, because it went against their multi-cultural premises—wishful ideas that I shared and still share.”

In March of 1966, Friendly argued vociferously to management that CBS had a journalistic obligation to carry extensive live coverage of the first Senate hearings to question American involvement in Vietnam. When the network opted instead to air re-runs of I Love Lucy, Friendly resigned from CBS in protest. (Museum of Broadcasting bio.)

The apparent irony between Edward R. Murrow’s life and the way that he is subsequently remembered today is that the industry that finally had no place for him, now holds Murrow up as their model citizen — the “patron saint of American broadcasting.” (Bio.)

John Moore (from Useful Fools) in comments:

Do we really believe there are only a few people in this country of 300,000,000 with the ability to be a Dan Rather? I’m sure Dan Rather thinks he is special, but I see Dan Rather as no different from Tide laundry soap: he is a brand, and as such, doesn’t have any special insight into the world or greater logical abilities or intelligence than the rest of us….

I know that Sam Donaldson long ago became convinced of his superiority over not only mere mortals, but also over his fellow journalists. Too many journalists who have become brands are as misguided as the many Hollywood stars who imagine their popularity and enormous salaries confer upon them expertise in environmentalism or war or oppression or some other issue.

Posted by Jay Rosen at May 10, 2004 2:10 AM   Print


So get with it. There are lots of reasons for the way most Iraqui prisoners were being treated, not the least of which were you didn't want to see your buddies in the field being creamed for lack of info. No one has ever even touched on this; it is all blame game and were I back in the service I would be FURIOUS at the newsbusiness today.

But the biggest story by far today is the utter corruption and uselessness of the UN, as to Rwanda, Liberia, and now Oil for Food, run by the dictator himself. You don't even touch on it. If you want these organizations to reform, improve, there must be the bright light of the news shed on them. BECOME RELEVANT: I stopped watching network news over two years ago, because there was never anything on it which offered anything thst was relevant to improving our country first and the lot of mankind after that. Worse than that, I never saw anything that was given on network news that even suggested that the networks felt any obligation to their country, to the betterment of mankind. Our family spent 10 years in Vietnam, doing magnificent service to the people there thru medicine and surgery, with our soldiers bringing in people and caring for them by the thousands, and all you did is run them down, the finest, most caring people in the world - our servicemen. And you wonder why or how you made yourselves unbelievable.Dick Matern, MD, FACS

Posted by: HR Matern, MD at May 10, 2004 11:40 AM | Permalink

Bettag's recognition of business principles is belated but good, particularly the element of trust between news broadcasters and 'consumers'.

But his portrayal of some golden age presided over by a pantheon of proto-talking-heads is still marred by the omission - mark that word - of the egregious media bias of political nature that developed and flourished during that golden age. Selective omissions show the worst hands of the editors, and likewise cost them the most in viewer trust - particularly among those whose sources for information extend beyond the sacred networks, and inform them of the omitted items.

The reason for the recent success of cable news and blogs is largely their illumination of the parts of the news excluded by the networks.

Posted by: Insufficiently Sensitive at May 10, 2004 11:41 AM | Permalink

Fortunately, all it takes is a change of mind.

Posted by: sbw at May 10, 2004 11:57 AM | Permalink

Here is a question for the big media. Why wasn't the nation spurred to action by the first WTC attack in 1993? How did the fact that it was an attempt to kill 50,000 people get lost in the shuffle and end up reported as a story of 6 deaths. I wonder if the media and the administration weren't more concerned with preventing the people from getting worked into a lather with all the attendant inconvenience of having to formulate a proportionate response - i.e. to actually launch a war on terror. Anybody looking into this?

Posted by: Rob in Massachusetts at May 10, 2004 12:54 PM | Permalink

I'm confused. Bettag admits that editorial omission of the terrorist threat level in the summer of 2001 (and what the administration was or wasn't doing about it) was a failure because it did not prepare for (or raise public awareness of) a potential 9/11.

But when 9/11 hits, that failure (violation of public service) does not translate into a loss of trust to provide information.

So, omitting important information the public needs to provide less important information the public wants is a necessary balancing act in modern media/press relations. Bring on OJ and Condit, ignore bin Laden and Hussein.

But that's not where the credibility gap comes from IMO. An analysis of terrorism press coverage between 1993 and 2000 will expose a very different press than the one in the 9 months before 9/11.

The press coverage from 9/11 to Dec 2001 is very different from the one that preceded it and followed the Jan 2002 SOTU.

But for some reason, there is no recognition of responsibility for such discontinuity among the pack mentality/bird on a wire organizations that provide "[b]asically the same news runs simultaneously". There is a lack of admission to consumers of their very human, and blinding, desire to protect their icons and brand.

Who will trust a tribe that admits they're as fallible and "coorporate" as the tribe's targets in their role as self-appointed, extra-constitutional watchdogs? Who will trust a tribe that admits they misled their viewers from 1998 to 2002, or allowed themselves to be misled, only to admit they were again misled from Fall 2002 to Spring 2003?

The "big three" should not confuse their advantage in ubiquity/access with trust. They should not confuse viewership with a lack of skepticism.

Posted by: Tim at May 10, 2004 1:09 PM | Permalink

Bettag doesn't get the pre-9/11-post-9/11 mindset of the public. It's a different ballgame now for the mainstream media. They are essentially non-factors in public opinion these days. No matter how they try to undermine this war and the president, they can't. They are now in the same boat as Democrats: nobody takes them seriously. Thank the 'Net and especially blogs for this. We don't need the MSM anymore. We get our own truth from many sources. We are better editors than all of the grizzled wire editors working on copy desks around the country, trying hard to put out a paper that is identical to the NY Times. The fat lady is singing.

Posted by: rivlax at May 10, 2004 1:22 PM | Permalink

this is not new!

Posted by: manu at May 10, 2004 6:12 PM | Permalink

That the intelligencia of television news--plus Gerald Rivera need be reminded that news is a business is pathetic. This state of affairs can only be due to their long ago arrogation of self-importance and "independence. This was greatly inflated by the vast power first shown in the Vietnam War reporting and Watergate. They don't like to consider themselves mere employees. Some, in fact, are not – they are assets in the sense of being marketing brands.

A truth that many "media personalities" need to understand is the implication of branding. The same applies to others such as Hollywood stars. The popularity of an anchor comes from the development of that person's on-air persona (or print equivalence) as a brand. Becoming a brand is a combination of mostly luck and a little skill, and often a willingness and ability in the field of back-stabbing. The mention of CNN's almost hiring of a high-school dropout as an anchor should make this obvious.

Do we really believe there are only a few people in this country of 300,000,000 with the ability to be a Dan Rather? I'm sure Dan Rather thinks he is special, but I see Dan Rather as no different from Tide laundry soap: he is a brand, and as such, doesn't have any special insight into the world or greater logical abilities or intelligence than the rest of us. I am not interested in being lectured on how I should think by a Tide soap box. Likewise, I really resent it when a Feminine Hygiene Brand like Ted Koppel does it.

I know that Sam Donaldson long ago became convinced of his superiority over not only mere mortals, but also over his fellow journalists. Too many journalists who have become brands are as misguided as the many Hollywood stars who imagine their popularity and enormous salaries confer upon them expertise in environmentalism or war or oppression or some other issue.

The rise of blogging shows that there are many people who are not only capable of investigative reporting but active in doing so, and many, many more who are skilled editorialists. Not that most blogs rise to this level, but enough do to show that for no pay at all, and no journalism training, they are as good or better than the brand-name editorialists and talking heads, and often reporters.

For example, why did professional journalists not discover that Kerry was attempting to hide the fact that he was in the Navy during all of his anti-war activities - an attempt which started with an odd date gap in his official biography and was followed with the removal of those dates entirely when his actual records were published? Why did that take the blogosphere?

I don't expect blogging (or its successors) to make a big impact in the evening network news audience for quite a while, although the impact of technology like the internet is hard to predict (who expected that the highest paid medical specialty, radiology, would be outsourced to India?).

I long ago stopped watching the evening news, because it had stopped being "hard news" and instead was somewhere between "news analysis" and "editorial" - if there is a "between" there. I occasionally peek in at the evening news and in the faint hope that it is changed. But usually I find a Tide Box telling me what to think or yet once more reporting on an issue that is utterly trivial to any but those obsessed with those causes universally favored by the mainstream news media.

The daily news agenda is determined by the censors who determine which of the myriad of possible stories to investigate, and which of those to show, and with what emphasis and “angle.” The term "censor" is of course not preferred because of its pejorative association, but it describes one of the main functions of an editor or producer.

The pressure of a half hour show means there must be a censor. The uniformity between the shows is, I believe, not only due to the business strategy of evenly splitting the market (the safe choice) but also the group-think of the censors and the media "intelligencia" in general – the same stories are “obviously” important.

Rupert Murdoch saw an unfilled market niche when he founded Fox News. Anybody who knows Murdoch or who knows people who have worked closely with him (as I do) understands that he is first and foremost a capitalist, with his political views far less important. After all, what conservative would arrange for his network to not cover the amazingly large Hong Kong freedom demonstrations (I am making an assumption here, of course, that Murdoch did indeed make that choice because of his business interests in China).

But Murdoch recognized that there are at least two ways to take market share - copy a successful business (CNN) or create a differentiated business: a network with a conservative slant, genuinely intelligent anchors who sometimes do real field reporting - not the Ted Koppel highly scripted perfect costume and setting performance; unabashed and genuinely felt patriotism; a dash of T&A; and, creative original programming like Oliver North's "War Stories."

The First Amendment anticipated a diversity of viewpoints in the news. Nobody expected a single ”objective” viewpoint, because such objectivity is not within human nature. The news media take’s Heinlein's "Fair Witness" fiction and believe it applies to them.

Fox News is an example of the United States finally acquiring diversity in the news. It should be embarrassing that it took a former Australian to do this.

Not that Fox won't fixate on the human interest story of the day - especially trials, where most of their anchors including Geraldo have training and experience - they haven't just covered trials, they have been "been there and done that". But when breaking news occurs, there is usually already on air an anchor who is capable of thinking his/her way out of a broken teleprompter; an anchor who is at least of reasonable intelligence and has probably worked outside of journalism in the past.

I find it amusing that Geraldo is singled out by Dr. Rosen as not being a member of the "intelligencia of television news." That is especially ironic given the nature of the speech under discussion, because I would be surprised if any professionals doubt that Geraldo understands the position of money in the business. He gave up a lot of it to join Fox.

Geraldo is an unusual individual. He is not an unintelligent person - few unintelligent people get degrees in law. Geraldo is a paradigm breaker. His approach to journalism, and today he is operating as a journalist, is unique and (at least to me) well worth watching.

Of course, like anyone else, I cringe a bit at some harmless exaggerations (in Afghanistan, the famous "died at this very spot" gaffe), but Geraldo deserves a lot more respect than he gets. Just like the rest of "mainstream media," Geraldo has a cause that he favors. But unlike them, he doesn't pretend to be objective. When you watch Geraldo, you know his attitudes and his personal feelings. Furthermore, unlike them, his cause is a non-cynical patriotism, a love of the troops he embeds with, and a genuine, un-nuanced view of the evil we deal.

Furthermore, he feels no pressure to adopt a staid, boring but "gravitas" bearing "professional journalist" guise when on camera. Instead, for once, we have a human being - a rather manic one - who gets excited, gets scared (well, I'm not so sure about that), gets angry, gets proud and is very empathetic.

When I watch Geraldo in a war zone, I call it "Geraldo's Magnificent Adventure" because this man is informing me in a way nobody else does, and frankly, I'm envious of him.

As I say, he is a mold breaker. Whether that will prove a successful business approach is, of course, important. But at least Fox is willing to try the experiment.

If I could pick the newsmen I want to investigate and report on the world, Geraldo would be far above many of the major network personnel. There are some others at Fox (not including O'Reilly) whom I would also choose, because Fox, unlike the mainstream networks, uses people with real world demonstrated as its talking heads, and along with traditional journalists, uses soldiers as its war correspondents (Oliver North, Greg Kelly).

I have hyped Fox here before, because I think they bring a major lesson that journalists need to hear: you pride yourselves in racial diversity in your newsrooms, but you have no diversity in your viewpoint. Fox is clobbering its competitors for exactly that reason. And Fox is owned by a hard headed media tycoon, who wants money, not adulation.

Posted by: John Moore (Useful Fools) at May 10, 2004 7:18 PM | Permalink

The mechanic at my gas station, the checker at my grocery store and the lady at the cleaners all offer more balanced insights into the news than do the 'talking heads' of mainstream media.

Mainstream media has failed America in their one-sided coverage of the Iraq War. They are shaping hearts and minds in the Middle East - and their mission is to lose the Middle East and to tear down America wherever possible. They are responsible for the loss of American lives just as surely as if they were the terrorists themselves.

Rather is 74, Jennings is 66, Koppel and Brokaw are 64. They are old turds floating down the river of our time and someday they will sink to the bottom and melt into the silt. Can't wait.

Posted by: Xixi at May 10, 2004 9:03 PM | Permalink

You are assuming Network News is interesting to watch or relevant, which it isn't. Everyone knows it's a joke and the only reason anyone watches is to see the moving pictures or hear the old booming voice of the "important" anchors. Missing the boat on terror is not a small incident, it is symptomatic of the failure of the nightly news folks to provide anything other than a televideo version of one of those thin, free daily newspapers that recycle AP stories.

Network News is dead. Let it go.

Posted by: Matt at May 10, 2004 9:11 PM | Permalink

"There are a whole bunch of Monday morning quarterbacks who live in Washington and feed a lot of these reporters. People use the press as a giant instant-message board."*

People? What people? Not the grocer or mechanic Xixi mentions.

The self-infatuation with themselves and "newsmakers", plus the voracious demands of 24/7 cable turns the press into IM for the corporate and connected.

The grocer and mechanic use blogs.

Posted by: Tim at May 10, 2004 9:42 PM | Permalink

Jay, I'd make peace with the business side of TV news a lot sooner if the business side weren't being subsidized to the tune of billions of dollars' worth of publicly owned broadcasting spectrum for which they pay not one cent.

Posted by: Lex at May 10, 2004 9:55 PM | Permalink

The business case to be made to the owners by the purveyors of hard news is implicit in Bettag's speech. It is:

Why would anyone turn to your network?

It's all about eyeballs. If people aren't watching, the ads aren't seen, the products don't move, and the advertisers don't come back. One datum is an anecdote, but count me among the ones who aren't watching -- because network news has become Oakland. There's no there there.

Yes, you only have half an hour, and yes, that means judgements have to be made. But network news has made it clear: if it supports American ideals, if it's serious, if it involves anything complex, it's not newsworthy. If it's spectacular and disagreeable, if it casts American life and ideals in an unfavorable light, it's featured. If it bleeds, it leads.

They've lost me. I don't think I'm alone. And if I won't turn on CBS or NBC or ABC -- even to look at pictures of the latest catastrophe -- why should I turn it on at any other time? In a very important way, network news is the ad for the rest of the network. Currently that ad says it sucks. Why should people not respond?


Posted by: Ric Locke at May 10, 2004 9:58 PM | Permalink

Wishful thinking about the summer. The blanditocracy is about to be displaced by hysterical petit-bourgeois neo-fascists with blogging skills.

I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!

The edited cannot hear the editor.

Posted by: loopy at May 10, 2004 10:04 PM | Permalink

Oh, come, now, loopy. There'll be plenty of neo-Fabianites and neo-marxists in the mix. Us neo-fascists (for which read: non-socialist, non-relativists) won't have it all our own way.

Unlike the network news, where Noam Chomsky is a centrist.


Posted by: Ric Locke at May 10, 2004 10:42 PM | Permalink

People, who on weblogs, use the term "relativists" are unreservedly insane.

The ultimate example of moral relativism would have to be the torture of Iraqis by Americans in the same prison that Saddam tortured Iraqis; that is, relative to our status as Amercians, torture is OK!

Posted by: loopy gyre at May 10, 2004 11:28 PM | Permalink

Should television news give people what they want or what they need?

Who gets to decide what they need?

I'm starting to resent the word "journalist." I think you'd all do better if you stuck to "reporter." You spend too much time fretting over whether you're enlightening the public sufficiently to make true democracy function as it ought.

I think democracy would work just fine if there were more diversity of opinion coming out of our J-schools and our media, and those in them would resist the urge to be instructive. We were better off when newsmen weren't millionaires and worrying about meeting our 'needs.' You seem to think that what we need is what you want to tell us.

Posted by: AST at May 11, 2004 2:57 AM | Permalink

"if the business side weren't being subsidized to the tune of billions of dollars' worth of publicly owned broadcasting spectrum for which they pay not one cent."

Common disinformation there, combined with the wishful thinking of a collectivist. The public didn't create it, and if anyone should be collecting those 'billions of dollars' it should be the heirs of the scientists who discovered and put the spectrum to use.

The rant in quotes is intended to lead to the conclusion that a government Bureau of Truth, all too similar to the grossly biased NPR, should allocate broadcast spectrum to politically correct 'content originators' - or hire a squad of their cronies to do the broadcasting.

Posted by: Insufficiently Sensitive at May 11, 2004 2:45 PM | Permalink

Given the pressures ABCCBSNBC face in terms of competition, I wonder how soon it will be before the nets and the NYT/WaPO/LAT get together to require (via federal mandate) licensing procedures for journalists. Meaning, you can't work as a journalist unless you go thru our "licensing" process.

When it comes to protecting the brand, don't put anything past any corporate business, even if it directly interferes with the First Amendment.

Posted by: Brad S at May 11, 2004 4:15 PM | Permalink

Hugh Hewitt makes an argument that the "bigs" made an editorial decision to not report Sen. Kennedy's controversial statements on the Senate floor, and in doing so engaged in the "pseudo-journalism" Los Angeles Times' John Carroll warned about in his Ruhl Lecture (although he only applied it to Fox News). Hewitt argues this is either an ethical gaffe out of ignorance born from a disconnect with "average America" or an act of political collusion in an ideological conspiracy with the Kerry campaign/Democrats.

I'm not convinced that Mr. Hewitt believes the omitted statements are important information the public needs to know, or important information he wants the public to know.

But I can't help but wonder if it is not just a business decision to avoid (unnecessarily?) shocking the sensibilities or expectations of brand loyal readers. For example, not only that the "bigs" (including Carroll's LATimes) chose to omit Kennedy's more volatile quotes, but that the quotes chosen by the Wash-in-compost were meant to elicit reflexive nods that come when one's worldview is being reinforced.

Isn't this the nexus of Carroll's pseudo-journalism and Bettag's good business that the "bigs" provide daily? Isn't it this selective, sometimes erroneous reporting with obtuse disconnected corrections, that reinforces the trust of brand loyal readers? How many subscriber sensibilities are likely to be shocked by the omission of Kennedy's more controversial statements?

Is it Carroll's pseudo-journalism or Bettag's good business when Hugh Hewitt (FoxNews, WashTimes, etc.) "reflect" the outrage of their "average America" consumers at the brand loyalty of the "bigs" and over-the-top rhetoric of Kennedy? Are they not reinforcing the trust of their own brand loyal readers/listeners/viewers?

So what have we learned?

1. Carroll, unsurprisingly, gave a hypocritical lecture on journalistic ethics.

2. Bettag's recognition of public service failure in the summer of 2001 was the result of omissions that reinforced brand loyal consumer's worldview.

Why shock the sensibilities with distressing stories about Arab and Persian Islamic extremists plotting a fate for America that is only shared by Israel, when your brand loyal readers expect storylines depicting Arab and Persian victims of Israeli oppression and American globalization/imperialism?

As long as the relative acts of violence by these victims are limited strikes against pseudo-Americans (military, diplomats, tourists) beyond our borders, whose trust is being violated?

How many brand loyal subscribers of the "bigs" are in Iraq today? How much circulation loss is the result of omissions violating a trust to provide a public service.

Posted by: Tim at May 11, 2004 10:50 PM | Permalink

Loopy: "The ultimate example of moral relativism would have to be the torture of Iraqis by Americans in the same prison that Saddam tortured Iraqis;"

No, that's irony. You should learn to tell the difference.

Loopy: "...that is, relative to our status as Amercians, torture is OK!"

And that's relativism, specifically cultural relativism that equates things that are not even similar, let alone equal. It really isn't all that hard.


Posted by: Ric Locke at May 11, 2004 10:52 PM | Permalink

Coming Soon. It won't happen overnight. Just as CNN took several years to be planted and several more after that to leapfrog past Broadcast Networks, so too a new form of TV News Media will be created on the web -- and then morph into the equivalent of "watching TV" as bandwidth increases and compression technology continues to advance.

This is just a preview, and is not functioning yet. But GTV will enter the fray -- initially as a directory/portal/aggregator of web-based independent news & video production... Then add advanced tools that create a custom TV newscast (MSNBC is doing this already)... then advanced search... and eventually a new paradigm for editorial guidance, based on news milestones and benchmarks, vs the daily flood of news -- perceived by Americans as "all of equal value and nutrition".

Beware dinosaurs. You have for too long curried favor with your corporate masters -- ever since the "entertainmentization" of TV news began with Roone Arledge applying proven techniques from ABC's Wide World of Sports -- and eventually light-news magazines and faux-debate shows became profitable. Once that happened, all journalistic integrity ceased -- and news divisions were now expected to be profit centers. And they are. And that's why all the king's horses and all the king's men cannot put TV journalism back on track. They will remain apologists until convergence and critical mass adoption renders them obsolete.

Ted Koppel -- you used to really impress me. But you'e all over the map today. One day you're taking a stand, as with "The Fallen"; the next day you're cowtowing to the Administration so as not to offend them. Not good enough.

It's meaningless now, but watch in a few years...
GTV Online |

Posted by: Richard Hoefer / at May 12, 2004 5:13 AM | Permalink

24th Annual Ralph McGill Lecture

Back in the day of Edward R. Murrow, news was delivered as a public service. Broadcast news divisions, especially, were not expected to make a profit. But after more and more news outlets were concentrated in the hands of publicly traded companies, that changed. The demands of stockholders are such that news organizations are pressed for higher and higher dividends. That means less emphasis on costly news-gathering and more emphasis on delivering a cheap product that news consumers will enjoy.

Sound familiar? Urban legend? Derivative snippets, order rearranged, follow:

News organizations gave up their historic roles as government watchdogs and conduits of critical information to give news consumers what we believed they wanted. Foreign news coverage disappeared from the big threeTVnetworks and shrank on the pages of mainstream newspapers. Neil Hickey, of Columbia Journalism Review, examined the cover stories of time magazine between 1987 and 1997. In 1987, Time had eleven covers relating to foreign news; in 1997, only one.

After all, the united states might have been better prepared for the terrorist attacks of September 11 if the press had done the job it should have been doing in the last decade. As Washington post columnist Richard Cohen recently admitted, he ignored pleas from officials last year to write about efforts to combat terrorism.

Cohen wrote: "I know a guy who was on one of those government terrorism commissions who used to say I ought to talk to him. I never did." I was busy, not just with Bill and Monica but with other things as well. . .Anyway, I never wrote about the terrorist threat to this country. I was negligent. ‘But I was not alone. The press in general did a miserable job preparing the American people for what happened on September 11,’ Cohen said.

After this admission of failure as a conduit of critical information, however, the press emphasizes its self-appointed government watchdog role siding with CAIR, ACLU, HRW, environmentalists, and UN thugs. You see, the government needed to be checked in this war, and the extra-constitutional 4th estate was revving up for the challenge. We were going to fight the war on terror by the media's rules, by golly, win or (if at all possible) lose.

Any signs of patriotism were to be challenged and belittled, any enlistment of American corporations in the war effort were to be met with cries of "profiteering" and "globalization", any increases in law enforcement met with cries of civil rights abuse, and an immediate effort to shift the focus from foreign threats by returning to spreading suspicions of domestic right-wing threats:

For a while after the 1995 bombing of the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma, journalists did follow that crucial news story. Right up until the arrest of Timothy McVeigh. Then, the story lost its glamor. Except for his trial and later execution, we forgot about that major terrorist attack, failing to sustain our coverage of the right-wing hate groups that were briefly highlighted after McVeigh’s arrest. Wouldn’t it be fascinating - And frightening - If the current anthrax attacks are coming from one of those home-crown hate groups?

The media missed the foreign threat because post-counter-revolution, post "New Muckrakers", pressthink is more comfortable reporting the "diseased, hate-filled minds" of Americans, and prejudiced to only seeing the "right-wing" variety.

With the end of "evil empire" (a term that met much media and Left derision and goes back to Kerry's, "I think it is bogus, totally artificial. There is no threat. The Communists are not about to take over our McDonald hamburger stands."), the foreign threat was minimized as only militants, insurgents, guerrillas, or some other moderating descriptor. There was no enemy of serious concern to the Leftist pressthink, and therefore no critical information, that warranted giving over their costly conduits. The government wasn't aggressively protecting us from Islamofacists, so there was no watchdog interests in we as "bad Americans" were mistreating our enemies.

The crimes of Abu Ghraib fit the watchdog model. The murders of Americans and terrorism in Iraq fit the "bad news sells" if presented through a what's wrong with us watchdog's filter. Progress in Iraq is not as newsworthy as the progressives' agenda. There is no reported difference in scale or moral perspective between the suicide bombings, beheadings and mass murders of our enemies and the efforts of our military in pressthink.

Wait, that's not true. For the watchdog, we're worse.

Posted by: Tim at May 12, 2004 11:18 AM | Permalink

Professor Rosen, this is a bit off topic, but I find many Americans asking this, and believe it should be examined by journalists and us, their customers.

An Indian gentlemen yesterday told me that we didn't see the real gore of war. His conclusion was that our media is hidingthis because, had it been shown, we would have never invaded Iraq. His analysis is incorrect, but to support his assertion he pointed out that in his part of the world, all of the gore was shown. This is true in most of the world.

Americans, on the other hand, face censorship.

If an Iraqi child dies as a result of our gunfire, we should see the horror, because there is real information in photos and videos of the event - not the dry information that a child was killed (sad in itself) - but the powerful message of what such a death looks like and means.

If a person jumps from a burning World Trade Center and is instantly transformed into a bloody hunk of meat, that is also important information, but it is censored, leaving to mere misleadly undramatic words.

When an American is beheaded, let us see the full horror, not a censored version.

Why is a profession censoring the true nature of violence from the most effective media for delivering that information: photographs and video.

The American public should not be uniquely incapable of dealing with reality. Consistently censoring it leads to a disconnect in the minds of relatively safe Americans from the violence so common in much of the world. Furthermore, it is an example of the power of a monopoly which can and does withhold an important truth in context - the real nature of violence no matter who commits or suffers it.

Our public should not be pampered - if the rest of the world views this information on their normal television news, why not Americans? Is it any wonder why Americans have trouble understanding other cultures and their reaction to the War on Terrorism? Our media is letting us down.

It would appear that American journalists are inappropriately sensitive, hiding too much important information in its most effective form behind the following admonition from their Code of Ethics:

Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.

As a business proposition, somebody could set up an "it bleeds" channel (if distribution would carry it). This already exists in the Video-Tape/CD/Internet world).

Unfortunately, that would be pandering to the violence, not spreading useful information in the appropriate context. It's initial watchers would certainly include many curious Americans, who have not before seen what the world sees routinely, but ultimately it would become a product consumed by some of the sickest in our society. Furthermore, it would not reach most citizenry, who need to see the information in context to help form their understanding of the nature of the world we live in, the horros mankind is capable of, the true consequences of violence, and the kind of heroism, suffering, brutality and butchery that is going on every day.

Shielding Americans to this information is, in a way, like Holocaust denial.

On a completely off-topic subject that deserves discussion... I wonder how many Americans realize that the Code of Ethics for professional journalists has nothing (that I could find) requiring journalists to even take into account damage to their country (not politicians) in deciding what to report and how.

Finally... a couple of procedural points:

I don't have an editor to read and proof this, and have to get back to my day job, so please excuse typos and grammatical mistakes.

I probably will post this on my own website.

Posted by: John Moore (Useful Fools) at May 12, 2004 5:50 PM | Permalink

The reason that viewership at the networks spiked on 9/11 and then dropped afterwards seems so obvious that the hand wringing of people like Bettag astounds me. I cannot believe he's serious.

On 9/11 and for a few days thereafter, events came so fast and furious that all the networks had to do was point their cameras and read the facts about what was occurring. They were great; they transmitted information almost in real time.

Once things slowed down, the "analysis" -- or spin, as we civilians call it -- commenced, and we gravitated to other medi sources.

Posted by: PJ at May 13, 2004 10:25 PM | Permalink

Just had an exchange with a local newspaper editor concerning the Abu Ghraib coverage compared to the Berg coverage and other terror abuses. His point:

"It is not news that terrorists are bad guy (sic).

"It is news that sometimes we are."

So, what was the failure pre-9/11? Is the press failing to prepare us once again for the next 9/11 (or worse) because it is not news that the bad guys are bad guys?

How is what's happening now different from not staying on Islamic militancy worldwide after the attacks on the US embassies and USS Cole in order to cover more interesting domestic stories?

Is the press repeating its failure prior to 9/11? Are we being well-informed about how Islamic militancy has morphed over the past 2 1/2 years since 9/11 in response to our efforts? Do we understand how leadership losses and replacements have impacted these loose organizations? Do we have a better understanding how states in the Middle East, Europe and Asia have modified (for better or worse) their relationships to Islamic militancy? How much of the well publicized opinion polls translate into actually fighting against us or the terrorists?

Is the press informing us that we're the bad guys because that's news, and the bad guys are really the good guys since no news is good news?

How would that be different than the pre-9/11 press?

Posted by: Tim at May 15, 2004 10:51 AM | Permalink

From the Intro