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October 19, 2005

Andrew Heyward: The Era of Omniscience is Over

Guest posting at PressThink, the President of CBS News says: "On most matters there are multiple points of view out there as opposed to a single, discoverable truth." With reactions from Terry Heaton, Andrew Tyndall, Susan Crawford, Tim Porter, Mitchell Stephens and Ken Sands.

In Some Bloggers Meet the Bosses From Big Media (Sep. 29, 2005) I described how Andrew Heyward, President of CBS News, told a group of us that the “illusion of omniscience” was hurting the big news providers. We should drop it, he said. (That’s when Tim Porter and I exchanged glances.)

Omnsicence is of course related to objectivity, and to the silent belief in an Archimedean point for news. Wikipedia calls this “the ideal of ‘removing oneself’ from the object of study so that one can see it in relation to all other things, but remain independent of them.” Archimedes was the guy who said he could lift the Earth off its foundation if he had a place to stand and a lever long enough.

Some call it the voice of god. My term is “the view from nowhere.” Heyward actually spoke against it, which was a first for me in listening to national news executives. He said “omniscence” was outdated; CBS would be better off without it. He talked about news that was more truthful because it was less certain, less definitive, less simple.

There is no Archimedean point; it’s not real. But there are points of view. They’re real. We have to bring that reality into our news, he said, without losing the idea of fairness. Jeff Jarvis called it “a big moment, reflecting a cultural change in meanstream news.” I said it was the surprise of the meeting, “an actual shift in press think” at the top. But all the bloggers had different versions of what he said.

On October 5, the following week, I saw Heyward again at The Media Center’s WeMedia conference. He had read PressThink’s account of the meeting with bloggers at the Museum of Television and Radio. I told him his remarks there were of some importance for those of us who study journalism and critique it. I invited him to re-fashion what he said into a post for PressThink. “Let me see what I have and get back to you,” he replied. I didn’t know if he would, or not.

A few days ago he sent me the text: “Even though my hastily scribbled notes no longer exist, I was able to track down the three points you asked about from our earlier discussion at the Museum — ironically, they were on your blog.

Well, yeah… That’s how we do things, Andrew. You do ‘em, you say ‘em, we write them down, put them in our blogs if they’re interesting to users. Pretty soon lots of people know, and it’s a free-for all!

“You grabbed a few sentences from Terry Heaton citing them. The context was a discussion of ways mainstream broadcast news has to change in response not just to bloggers but to consumers newly empowered to react, interact, and even report.”

Right. And for similar context—Big Media dealing with the newly empowered—see the earlier speeches by Tom Curley, head of the AP, and Rupert Murdoch, CEO of News Corp.

When in 1996 Bill Clinton said “the era of big government is over,” he knew that just saying it wouldn’t reduce the size of any federal program. But it did affect what Democrats in the future could say: “The era of big government is back?” Not likely. I view Heyward’s statement in a similar light. It doesn’t change a thing about CBS News. But it makes it harder to go back.

Clinton actually said, “The era of big government is over.” (Applause.) “But we cannot go back to the time when our citizens were left to fend for themselves.” I think it’s clear: the era of omniscience is over in Big Media. (Applause.) But we cannot go back to a time when truth was left to fend for itself.

What do you think?

After Heyward, six writers with distinct points of view react, so stick around. “I look forward to continuing the conversation,” Heyward said in his note to me. Let’s hope that happens.

Special to PressThink

Oct. 19, 2005

The Era of Omniscience is Over
by Andrew Heyward
President, CBS News

One: Truth is a Plural

We have to abandon any claim to omniscience. Walter Cronkite used to end his broadcast with “That’s the way it is.” Dan Rather pulled that back, appropriately, to “That’s part of our world tonight.” The digital journalist, if he or she were being honest, would say something like “That’s some of what we did our best to find out today.”

This means not just recognizing that on most matters there are multiple points of view out there as opposed to a single, discoverable “truth,” but also — and this is just as important — acknowledging that the world is a complicated place, and the stories and issues we cover are not always reducible to simple, television-friendly explanations.

However, that cannot be an excuse for us to shrug our shoulders and abdicate our core responsibility to strive for the highest standards of accuracy, fairness, and thoroughness. We broadcast to a large and diverse audience, much of which does see mainstream news as “definitive” whether we acknowledge its limitations or not. And we cannot shy away from following the facts—and yes, there is such a thing as a fact—where they take us.

Two: Yes to Point-of-View Journalism

We have to figure out a way to incorporate point of view, even while protecting the notion of fair-minded journalism dedicated to accurate reporting without fear or favor. Put another way, point of view and even bias have to be something we report on even while we fight to recognize it in our own reporting and story selection. This is a really complex and nuanced area, not subject to glib solutions (like “Just acknowledge your own bias and everything will be fine.”).

Three: News Has an Authenticity Problem

We have to break down the tired formulas of television news and find a more authentic way of writing, speaking, and interacting with the people and subjects we report on. Artificial inflections and vocabulary (Pontiff instead of Pope, blaze instead of fire), predictable sound-bites, often-generic video, and stick-figure caricatures of human beings (victim, bureaucrat, cop, businessman, soccer mom) have turned the worst of television news into a kind of newzak— in one ear and out the other. The strongest exemplars of mainstream commercial television news—60 Minutes, CBS News Sunday Morning, the network newscasts at their best—stand out not just by original reporting but also by avoiding these traps. And I’m convinced a consumer-empowered marketplace will reward authenticity over artifice.

Andrew Heyward has been President of CBS News since January 1996, the second-longest of any president in the 47-year history of CBS News. (Richard Salant is number one.)

I asked six writers—friends of PressThink—to react to Heyward’s, “The Era of Omniscience is Over.” Their responses follow.

In the consultant-driven homogeneity that is television news, we developed strategies and tactics to “position” anchors as in-charge and the most knowledgeable people in the newsroom. We called it “building the command anchor.”

Thus, the name of the anchor was added to the titles of the network evening news broadcasts. It’s easier to sell a person (or personality) than images of truth, justice and the American way. If there exists in television journalism the notion of omniscience with anchors, the industry itself put it there to assist with marketing.

In James L. Brooks’ 1987 classic film, Broadcast News, William Hurt’s character was directed to help coach Albert Brooks’ character on how to anchor. “Here’s the trick,” he said. “You’ve got to sell it.”

Television news is all about the fine art of selling, and the problem in 2005 is that people are tired of being sold. The dirty little secret is that viewers are increasingly hip to the tired formulas of which Mr. Heyward speaks, and so audiences for news are shrinking. “Revenue isn’t the problem,” I tell my clients. “Audience is the problem. Fix the problem!” I’m always stunned by the unwillingness of broadcasters to speak with people who no longer watch them, but that’s exactly where they need to begin in order to fix the problem.

For example, I was watching one of my favorite shows last night, when the local anchor came on and said, “Another Saturday Night Live comedian is dead. The story at 10.” This is called a “tease,” and it’s the most hated thing about TV news among those who no longer watch. Memo to broadcasters: You can’t get away with this anymore, because if I’m interested, I’ll go to the Internet and not wait until your program.

Of course, the biggest threat to the status quo posed by Mr. Heyward’s propositions is this idea of “point of view” in journalism. Of all of the frauds perpetrated on the American public in the 20th century, journalism’s artificial hegemony — objectivity — is at the top of the list. I believe, as Chris Lasch so eloquently wrote in 1990, that the decline in participation in the political process in the U.S. is directly linked to the rise in the professionalization of the news business. Lasch wrote that argument, not point of view, was what was missing in contemporary professional journalism, and it’s this that Heyward is actually suggesting.

The blogosphere is returning argument to journalism, and it’s scorned by the professionals who buy Walter Lippmann’s self-serving crap that the people need an elite class to lead and guide them. Lippmann is the father of professional journalism, and the apple never falls very far from the tree.

What happens when argument returns to journalism? People get involved, and the democracy thrives. “We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore.”

The sound that Andrew Heyward hears is not that of Pandora’s Box opening; it’s the rush of fresh air that freedom brings with it.

Terry Heaton (POMO Blog) was news director at six TV stations in 13 years; he now does new media consulting, writes essays, and keeps a weblog. He was at the roundtable where Heyward originally spoke.

Pride is a sin. For any journalist to claim omniscience would indeed be a sin of pride. Heyward is too hard on Uncle Walter, however, to ascribe such hubris to CBS News’ one-time anchor.

Heyward may construe “That’s the way it is” as a claim to omniscience. I read it another way. And Heyward implicitly acknowledges that much of his “large and diverse audience” agrees with me. We expect the CBS Evening News to be “definitive.”

By the term “definitive” I understand that a mainstream nightly newscast tries each evening to fulfill its part of the following compact with viewers: “If you give us half an hour of your time, we shall make a good faith effort to decide what are the most important national and international developments of the day and to inform you of them. We are the source a citizen can rely on for a baseline of knowledge each evening, so as not to be illiterate in the public square.”

In their quest to make such definitive judgments, CBS News must select its choice for the day’s news agenda. Its rundown reflects the relative importance or triviality of the day’s developments, the balance between foreign and domestic, political and social, breaking news and less urgent features. It can signal a crisis by devoting saturation coverage to the day’s top headlines. It can signal a lull by ending its newscast with a heartwarming feature about wild ducks rescued from their diminishing habitat. In Cronkite’s day that same function was assigned to Charles Kuralt.

Such a newscast taps the glass, as it were, to measure the pressure of the day’s events and reports on whether it is heavy or light. “That’s the way it is” is more like a reading of the day’s global news barometer than a claim of Olympian knowledge. Heyward predicts that as CBS News goes digital it will shrink its ambitions from such a daily reading to the less ambitious “that’s some of what we did our best to find out today.” Surely his sights should be set higher than that.

Because broadcast television audiences are in decline, the networks’ half-hour nightly news format is criticized as the anachronistic relic of the legacy medium that created it. “Commodity journalism” is the pejorative for its diminished clout, implying lowest-common-denominator reporting with no value added. The true value of the nightly newscasts was never economic, however; it was always civic. In that sense, commodity is a virtue for news—information uniformly accessible at minimal cost to all members of the democracy, communicated in the vernacular.

In Heyward’s third point (I will leave comments about his second point, on “point of view” to another day), he bemoans the worst of television journalism and, correctly in my view, points to the best traditions of quality at CBS News in avoiding artificiality, predictability, generics and caricatures—newzak as he puts it. To this day, a two-minute produced package on the network nightly newscasts is better written, more densely sourced, more tightly edited, more visually stimulating, contains more background, analysis and context than a comparably-sized report anywhere else on television or in any other medium, for that matter. Perhaps that is why, to this day, the networks’ nightly newscasts still have a larger audience, by an order of magnitude, than any other single news product.

On the one hand, Heyward’s invective against “tired formulas” is stating the obvious: namely that authentic reporting is superior to cliches. On the other, he provides a hint about how CBS News can continue to fulfill its legacy mission, to provide definitive commodity journalism, in a fragmented digital world—how to continue to produce news for a mainstream audience when mainstream media no longer exist.

“I’m convinced a consumer-empowered marketplace will reward authenticity over artifice,” he says. It is an aspiration to be proud of.

Andrew Tyndall is inventor and publisher of the Tyndall Report, which monitors the evening newscasts of the major networks. He has watched all the newcasts of the Big Three networks since 1987.

Andrew Heyward is correct — mainstream media must change their practices. But it’s going to be difficult because our values have become almost inextricably linked to our practices, which rely heavily on the “broadcast” form of communication.

My experiences in Spokane, for example, lead me to the admittedly sweeping generalization that it might be easier for bloggers to become journalists than for journalists to become bloggers. (Setting aside, for a moment, the pointless “blogging-vs.-journalism debate.)

Bloggers seem to understand intuitively the power of aggregation and synthesis that is central to explanatory journalism. They embrace immediacy and interactivity. News as a conversation is corrected and amended along the way. The collective knowledge of many is more powerful than the skill of a Pulitzer-winning reporter.

Journalists, however, tend to be tethered to a one-to many, “broadcast” form of communication. Instead of being omniscent narrators, we should become the catalysts of meaningful conversations. Any threat to that tether is frightening, though, and journalists typically react defensively. They know how to write a 20 inch story or produce a 30-second TV piece on deadline, but how do you deal with a “story” that doesn’t have a finite deadline, and the readers are the sources, too? The truth is, we’re no longer in control of the information flow. We just haven’t realized it yet.

While I applaud the fact that mainstream media are experimenting with blogging, very few of the MSM blogs take advantage of the potential for immediacy and interactivity. (I also would argue that a certain “point of view” already exists. For example, American media coverage of international news is U.S.-centric to an amazing degree.)

As Heyward suggests, technology finally has enabled a consumer empowered marketplace to begin developing. For decades, the mainstream media virtually ignored the fact that the flood of information had outpaced meaning. People need aggregation, explanation, analysis to have a clear understanding of complex issues. Our daily news reports rarely provide this context, instead focusing on the latest developments of that particular day, or yesterday, in the case of newspapers.

Bloggers, driven perhaps by the same sort of ego that motivates journalists, have graciously volunteered to fill the void. There still is a vital role for journalists who embrace change, who view evolving media as a thrilling opportunity rather than solely a threat to core journalistic values. Many of tomorrow’s journalists may be employed as editors, aggregators, facilitators of conversation.

Newspaper editors in Lawrence, Kan., Spokane, Wash., Greensboro, N.C., and a few other cities have launched trailblazing efforts. The news industry, as a whole, though, is not responding well to the “disruptive technology” that threatens our future relevance. Frankly, I’ve wondered at times whether TV executives even noticed what was happening. Thankfully, Andrew Heyward has demonstrated a clear vision and is in a position to make historic changes.

Ken Sands runs, the online division of The Spokesman-Review newspaper in Spokane, Wash. He’s been at the newspaper in various reporting and editing roles since 1981.

The three points that Andrew Heyward made were delivered with firm emphasis and short phrases. He was hunched over the table, looking up at us as he read, and when he was done he leaned back definitively. He had been watching the proceedings with some bemusement, and he knew that he was saying something important.

Heyward understands that framing the discussion as one about how “bloggers” and “journalists” interact is hopelessly shortsighted. The role of media news is under assault from many directions – people don’t trust newspapers or even the evening news the way they used to. He understands that we now live in an age of networks that don’t belong to CBS. And so he is willing to suggest that we are far from the time of a trusted, omniscient Walter Cronkite, and he accepts that an authoritative, smooth-faced news voice no longer resonates with the American public. So he calls for authenticity, acceptance of complexity, and multifaceted coverage.

But he is not willing to acknowledge real changes. Heyward is a very smart man, but he’s being dragged into this new world and his strong beliefs were fixed some time ago. Notice that his three points shore up the role of “real” journalists (“accuracy, fairness, and thoroughness,” “reporting without fear or favor,” “strongest exemplars of mainstream commercial television news”). He believes that journalists will continue to do the job of news reporting, with some tweaking to ensure they’re using colloquialisms and having a point of view. He is willing to take one step down from the pedestal, but he still believes that the pedestal exists and is important. He does not understand that the “people formerly known as the audience” (in Jay’s lovely turn of phrase) now have the upper hand.

Heyward’s remarks came towards the end of a quite polite, almost clubby exchange of views between acceptably middle-aged and well-behaved bloggers and media executives. Most of the bloggers cared deeply about the culture of mainstream media, and were looking for ways to help out. Absent from the room were the twenty-somethings (much less teenagers) who could have brought life to the room via a few rude remarks or stories about their own relationships to “news”. In this context, Heyward’s three points sounded brave.

In the swirling world of bits and constant exponential technological change that exists outside that clubby room, Heyward’s three points may end up sounding like the last deep chants of a vanishing priesthood.

Susan Crawford (Susan Crawford blog) is Assistant Professor of Law at Cardozo Law School, where she teaches cyberlaw and intellectual property law. She was at the roundtable Sep. 28 where Heyward spoke.

When people like Andrew Heyward begin playing taps for journalistic omniscience and sounding reveille for incorporating point of view in the news, change is definitely in the wind – but how strong that wind is blowing and in which direction I can’t yet say.

Heyward’s comments represent a growing recognition at the highest levels of the traditional news business that reinvention—from the newsroom to the boardroom—is no longer just a panel topic for the annual conventions. It is mandatory for survival.

Last week, during one of those whither the future of news panels, Susan Golberg, editor of the San Jose Mercury News, a newspaper forced to cut 15 percent of its news staff, agreed when I said the notion of journalistic objectivity was outdated.

And the other day, I wrote about an exchange between Jay Rosen, Melanie Sill (editor of the Raleigh News & Observer) and some readers. It happened on her blog and it was an extraordinary display of communication, albeit defensive, from within the newsroom that would have been unthinkable even two years ago.

We’re witnessing news executives test-driving new ideas and reaching for language that can define new journalistic ventures that still retain what they see as critical values – fairness, completeness, accuracy. Hence, Heyward’s distinction between facts and truth, and his stickiness about “core responsibility.”

The journalists don’t want to give up their journalism, but they’re not yet sure how to remake it with a new set of parameters – questions instead of answers; context instead of competition; the best truth-telling possible instead of just facts.

Change does not come easily to successful people, especially those in rigid businesses like news, which depends on a fixed hierarchy, identifiable rules and a predetermined set of players. Top executives like Heyward don’t suddenly wake up one morning and refute the principles, practices and processes that made them successful. (“Hey, everything I know is wrong!”)

If it is true that change begins at the edges, in Heyward’s comments, Sill’s blogging and Goldberg’s questioning of objectivity, I see the middle beginning to move.

I am optimistic— to a point. This year, I tweaked the American Society of Newspaper Editors for not confronting the reinvention dilemma at its annual convention (and Rupert Murdoch reminded them of their oversight). Suddenly, though, the demise of the news industry is all the rage and you can’t scratch a news executive without uncovering a would-be change agent.

But this has happened before without noticeable impact. A 25-year campaign for diversity at newspapers still lags its goals. A concerted effort at renewing credibility failed – 45 percent of American still believe little or nothing they read in newspapers (the number for CBS News is 37 percent).

I can guarantee that change, reinvention and innovation will be at the forefront of next year’s convention of newspaper editors. They’ve gotten religion and the choir is forming. That’s a beginning at least.

Tim Porter (First Draft) is a former editor at the San Fransico Examiner who quit to think, blog and consult about the future of newspapers. He was also at the Sep. 28th roundtable where Heyward spoke.

One wants to celebrate the moment: This is, after all, CBS News — once so serious, so trusted, so earnest, so epistemologically confident, so eager to balance even that which was too multifaceted or too one sided to be balanced, so energetically—with just a handful of notable, even historic exceptions—inoffensive. (For example, the grace, thoughtfulness and conviction with which designated opiner Eric Severeid managed to say approximately nothing.) Now here is this venerable organization’s president, Andrew Heyward, stating, “We have to abandon any claim to omniscience.”

One notes that at almost precisely the same moment the New York Times—the only competition CBS News had for the center of the mainstream in my youth—has made a similar acknowledgement in the old fashioned way: by, on a matter of some constitutional importance, screwing up. One notes (since one is stuck in this locution) that, in a sense, Heyward is calling for a return to the more individual, more outspoken style of journalism characteristic of newspapers in this country until about a century and a half ago.

One could even use Heyward’s note to mark the end, not just in journalism but in the larger culture, of the era of objectivity—when facts were seen as sufficiently discernable to be available to the omniscient; his statement might serve as the death knell for a kind of naive realism that hung on in journalism long after it had expired in art, literature, philosophy and beer commercials.

However, it is hard to make these points without sounding, well, omniscient.

So let’s pat Mr. Heyward on the back for his openness and good sense: It is not easy, while steering such a large organization, to be present-looking, let alone forward-looking. Let’s give some credit to all of those — from bloggers, to Jon Stewart, to a few generations of press critics — who helped demonstrate that the facade erected by our Cronkites and Rathers, our Salants and Heywards – though it was very often compelling and politically valuable — was always too thin and flat and narrow to bear much resemblance to “the way it is.”

Let’s consider what a postmodern journalism might be. (I have some thoughts on the subject, a pdf file.) By all means let’s try a new Evening News that is not so easy to confuse with the Nightly News or the World News Tonight. Let’s hope Heyward will do more than sit a Republican next to a Democrat on the set, call a pope a pope and put more money into the Website; let’s hope that some of this edge and potentially offensive “point of view” will be allowed into the video reports that form the heart of TV news.

But let’s not pretend that this business of eradicating omniscience will be easy. If it ain’t the voice of an omniscient God (omnipresence and omnipotence were lost a while ago to budget cutbacks and the rise of cable) booming out from 57th Street at 6:30, then whose voice or voices is it to be?

Mitchell Stephens is a professor of journalism at New York University. He’s the author of A History of News, and the rise of the image the fall of the word.

My thanks to all participants, and especially to Andrew Heyward.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

UPDATE: A week after this post ran, Andrew Heyward announced that he was resigning from CBS News:

CBS News President Andrew Heyward announced Wednesday morning he plans to leave his post when his contract expires at the end of the year. Heyward will be replaced by CBS Sports President Sean McManus.

“After nearly ten years in this job … it’s time for a change, both for the News division and for me,” Heyward wrote in an e-mail to CBS News staff.

The New York Times article on the change. There was also this from Times correspondent Bill Carter:

Leslie Moonves, the CBS chairman who made the switch to Mr. McManus, had stirred the pot most aggressively by stating last January that he was looking for something radical and even revolutionary to replace Mr. Rather - a move away from what he called the “voice of God” anchor. At one point Mr. Moonves was quoted suggesting that he would like to blow up CBS News entirely.

Yesterday, Mr. Moonves said that comment was never serious and he had made it “out of frustration.”

See this profile of Moonves in the New York Times magazine.

All headings and titles for Andrew Heyward’s piece are my own, not his.

Jeff Jarvis responds: “Here’s hoping that the management and culture of CBS allow Heyward to start enforcing his laws.” CBS News-ers reading this feel free to speak up in comments.

CBS’s ombudsman-like blog, Public Eye, re-prints Heyward’s statements, plus excerpts from this post. Vaughn Ververs writes: “The back-and forth is informative and stands on it’s own. But it is worth noting that you are reading this on Public Eye, a CBS property. That fact alone speaks as loudly as all the comments above.”

I think he’s right. Public Eye is a statement about the twilight of omniscience. Of course, it’s worth noting the president of a network news division just did a guest spot on an independent blogger’s show. Speaks too.

Brian Stelter, the 20 year-old college student who runs MediaBistro’s TVNewswer— and has more blog readers than Brian Williams:

CBS News president Andrew Heyward guestblogs about the future of the mainstream media. It’s a must-read. I wish Heyward had spent more time expanding on number two, “yes to point-of-view journalism.”

Excellent idea for a follow-up essay: what is point of view in TV news? Susan Crawford boils it down at her blog: “What news organizations can do for us is aggregate, judge, visualize, and order — use their expertise to make it easier for us to get reliable news. But that may involve opening up to (and, indeed, encouraging) other sources of information that haven’t been generated by the news organization itself. This will take leadership.”

Related essay: Jay Rosen, “Part of Our World: Journalism as Civic Leadership” (from 1998)

Some years ago, while watching the CBS Evening News, I was startled to hear Dan Rather say, “And that’s part of our world tonight.” Mr. Rather then thanked me for watching, but it was I who wanted to thank him— for frank acknowledgment of what he and his colleagues actually do.

…”And that’s part of our world tonight” is a very civil thing for an anchorman to say. It admits: “This is not the final word, or the whole truth, or a mirror we’ve made, just the best we could do in crafting our nightly report.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at October 19, 2005 1:01 AM