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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