Sunday, December 25, 2005

TV: The year 2005 in news

We'd circle up and do highs and lows but the reality is that there haven't been a lot of highs in TV news in 2005. There have been a lot of lows.

Where to start? Let's start with the cable chat & chews hosted by persons claiming to be journalists. They provide entertainment (to someone apparently), not news and they're not doing a thing that Johnny Carson didn't do (with better guests). Johnny Carson was a "host" not a "journalist." So in 2006, let's hope we can all agree that Joe Scarborough, et al aren't "journalists" -- they're TV hosts.

And that goes for the "commentators" as well. Whether they, for instance, host a Sunday chat & chew or something else. Parlaying a pundit job into your own program doesn't make you a journalist. Those whose first names are Nancy or George should especially pay attention to that.

With that, we've basically dispensed with cable and the Sunday "public affairs" programming.

What's left?

The evening news? For all the talk in 2005 about the brave changes made in the selection of new anchors, we aren't seeing it.

Elisabeth Vargas will now host ABC's World News Tonight. That's apparently a "breakthrough" to hear people talk of it. A woman! As host!

Well, co-host.

It's so brave, it's never been done! If you're not old enough to remember Connie Chung as co-anchor on CBS' evening news or, dropping further back, Barbara Walters doing the same thing in the seventies at ABC. Yes, Virginia, women have been co-anchors before. A woman as sole anchor during the week (not filling in for a vacationing anchor) is the thing we still haven't seen on broadcast TV. Will broadcast TV die (The New York Times editorialized it's death this month) before a woman anchors an evening news program during the week?

Some are placing their bets on Katie Couric (whom both of us know) and CBS is seriously interested. NBC is seriously interested in making sure she doesn't leave. Which is why you see all the anti-Katie stories in the last year. NBC did a similar thing when David Letterman was thinking of jumping ship. For the network, it's a curious balancing act. They need to raise Couric's negatives enough to make CBS question their own interest while not raising so many negatives that it effects viewership of The Today Show. Currently, execs still wonder if The New Yorker profile didn't cross the line. (If Good Morning America continues to rise in the ratings and takes over Today, that article will take the blame.)

The raising of negatives on Couric remains the one news topic no one wanted to tackle. Apparently some still hold to the belief that some things are just not done in the new biz. So, if it helps to get the conversation started, let's note that the entertainment industry has invaded the news biz and what's been done to Couric is no different than what the networks have long done to various talents.

Ever watch a show written/created by someone who did the "hot" show right before? You wonder why this new show, on a different network, airs on one of the worst nights for the network it's on, why there's no promotion for it. Don't they want to have a hit? No, sometimes they just want to tie up talent. That's only one way it works in entertainment television (another is development deals that tap the creative juices of all involved as each idea is "almost" what the network's looking for, so work on it some more . . . and some more . . . and some more . . .).

So let's be really clear that the "useful" sources who've come out in the past year to take some of the shine off Couric aren't whistle blowers, they're corporate patsies doing the bidding of their network.

The biggest news story on the TV news industry of the year? Two actually. The first is Dan Rather, the second is Peter Jennings. Both left their anchor duties this year. Dan Rather "retired" and Peter Jennings passed away. With Jennings' passing a large portion of ABC's committment to news passed as well. Some people are "shocked" at the new Ted Koppel-less Nightline which seems to be about many things but rarely about the news. Did they miss the "tribute" to Peter Jennings? Peter Jennings Reporter was about everything but reporting. It was about "tone," it was about looks, it was about a love of the Constitution, it just wasn't about news. Everyone at ABC isn't acquiescing, but the media coverage has.

Dan Rather was a) ready to go or b) burned. If you accept the latter, the general consensus (put forth by commentators and Mary Mapes) is that CBS was knocked for a loop by the bloggers. That's a pretty little fairytale but a fairytale none the less. The bloggers were the assassins, the ones who hired them were of the same group of Republicans that have plotted Rather's downfall from day one. What made them successful was a corporate parent (Viacom) that wasn't interested in news, let alone defending news. From a review committee that decided journalism was based upon something other than the basic guidelines (which we saw CNN do in the nineties as well) to a gag order on those involved, CBS wasn't interested in the actual report. Ten years ago, CBS News could have fought back. The times aren't a'changing, they have changed.

Which is how we arrive at Brian Williams, an "objective" anchor who can brag about listening to Rush Limbaugh and writing Richard Nixon as a child. NBC knew his "committment" to the news before Tom Brokaw retired, it was on display in an interview with Jay Leno where Williams opined that, as a father, he felt a responsibility to airing apparent kid friendly stories. In another time, he would have been informed that the network was looking for a newsperson, not a parent. In our present time, it was cause to "oooh" and "aaawe" over Williams disowning a committment to the news. Williams is the younger, slightly more attractive Brit Hume. Translation, he's not a news person.

What does that leave? The news magazines and "news" magazines as well as the documentaries? The documentaries?

Well if you want religious musings, 2005 provided you with "news" documentaries. A whole generation (two?) have come of age never grasping that news documentaries once explored serious topics such as pollution, sexuality, graft, poverty and much more. These days, we're supposed to be happy with trips to the "holy lands" (Vatican and Jerusalem) and Barbara Walters and guests musing about heaven. There was a time when news documentaries were supposed to help you comprehend the world around you, these days they're too busy selling you the after life.

News magazines? There's 60 Minutes. You can make jokes about the age of the on air talent (and many do) but if the alternative is Steve Croft, let's all hope the others hang on awhile longer. 60 Minutes II is gone and that's probably not a bad thing. After refusing to air the story on the Niger (fake) documents relating to "yellow cake" before the election, they never redeamed themselves and may have hit an all time low with Scott Pelley's report on Giuliana Sgrena (April 13, 2005).

"Let's take this piece by piece," Pelley stated after Sgrena said that she thought the claims of the US military, that they had fired warned shots to alert the vehicle she was traveling in, were lies. America waited for Pelley to take it piece by piece. They were disappointed.

Pelley states the shots came from the front and that the engine block was the target (of the warning shots?) and then offers a spokesperson discussing how hard, outside of films, it is to shoot the engine block of a moving car. "Piece by piece" would have included exploring Sgrena's statements that the car was shot from behind. As Pelley pieced it together, he never raised that issue.

So 60 Minutes II bit the dust in 2005. 20/20 remained. The show where Elizabeth Vargas demonstrated that she knew how to "play nice" with nonobjective "reporters" (via John Stossel). 20/20 hit the crapper long before Stossel became a regular. Since he's become a permanent fixture (and co-host), it's never left. The network that's long felt George Will provided "balance" to reporters (well that's how some see Cokie Roberts!) on This Week feels that Stossel does the same on 20/20.

20/20? The platform of choice when you want to spin because there are no hard questions, no uncomfortable moments, for the powerful. Which is why Walters got the "get" with Colin Powell. Where else could he be assured of such loving treatment? His large role in lying the country into an illegal war?

Powell: Well it's a, it's a, of course it will. It's a blot. I'm the one who presented it on behalf of the United Nations, uh, United States, to the world. And it will always be uh, part of my, uh, my record.

What's the obvious follow up? "How did this happen?" Oh, no, not on 20/20. Here's how Walters immediately "pursued" that topic:

Walters: How painful is it?
Powell: (shrugs) It was -- it was painful. (shifts, shrugs) It's painful now.

Oh, how hard it was for him, how lucky he was to have the Mother Confessor, the person who gave touchy-feely it's bad name, to nod sympathetically, to let her eyes mist over and to toss common sense out the window. That approach served Colin Powell very well.

What's left? Prime Time Live that's never known what it is but is called "televised Herpes" by some due to its pattern of regularly disappearing only to pop back up. There's 48 Hours which really should partner up with Vanity Fair as it continues to "bravely"explore the true crimes of the rich. And there's our friends at Dateline and their severe case of the warm fuzzies.

2005 presented one news magazine (60 Minutes) and a lot of news-ish magazines. The news-ish magazines offered slighlty more newish gossip in an hour than the morning "news" programs did. That's about the best that can be said for them. Considering that each network now appears to believe that the morning "news" programs exist as a video version of TV Guide (as they rush to promote their own shows), that's not saying much. But until the night that John Stossel feels the needs to pontificate on the "values" at work in ABC's Desperate Housewives, that still puts the news-ish magazines slightly ahead of the morning news.

"Wait, wait," you say, "that's rather harsh! And you're forgetting PBS!"

It is harsh. TV news is in an ugly state. (New Orleans appears to have changed nothing but the paychecks of a few.) As for PBS . . .

Their flagship is The NewsHour which actually outperforms Fox "News" in viewership. For those who don't like scream-fests, The News Hour provides them with something. Mainly the ability to see the right debate centrists who are presented as liberals. But they also get anchors and reporters who shy away from asking the needed questions. Sometimes that results from a fear of rocking the boat, sometimes it results from an undisclosed personal friendship with the person being interviewed. (Yes, Gwen, we mean you.) Think of it as The Access Hour and realize that The NewsHour exists to present official sources and official arguments and, most importantly, the only thing "public" in public television is the public's ability to watch.

"Okay, okay, maybe that is true of The NewsHour but there's Frontline!"

When you've become better known in the industry for the stories you killed than for the ones you actually aired, it may be time to stop pretending your interested in the news.

Are we overly harsh? This is the year that the Downing Street Memos were huge news . . . online if not on your TV screen. Bill Frist and Tom DeLay's current troubles haven't resulted in the feeding frenzy that surrounded Gary Condit. If DeLay were accused of fooling around with an intern, would that be news? He's been indicted and that's really not registered on your TV screens where "balance" means the charges against DeLay are aired and then attacks on the prosecutor. And the press? Do they did around to find out the truth? No, they stand on the sidelines waiting to see who "wins."

The public loses. And this passes for news.

The reach of television news, even with eroding bases for the network news, is still impressive, far greater than anything a blog or group of blogs can reach in a single day. But CBS wants you to believe Dan Rather & company were taken down by (independent) bloggers. It's an easy out.
You can sell it to stockholders when they complain about the ratings. It's just not reality. You can argue that bloggers filled a silence that CBS imposed and, therefore, won the war. You just can't rationally argue that the mighty CBS News division couldn't hold their own against bloggers in a fair fight.

The Dan Rather tale, for those who missed it, revolves around the September National Guard story that aired on CBS' 60 Minutes II. "Did the Bully Boy serve his obligation or not?" was the question of the segment. Building on Ben Barnes' statements and the public record, the story was supplemented with documents (which have never been proven to be fakes). The documents were attacked. CBS could have fought back. They had the resources. They certainly had the public record on their side for the argument that Bully Boy did not live up to his obligations in the National Guard. But when the right-wing attacks, the networks rush to make ammends. (Which is how you end up with George Will on ABC in the first place.)

They've done that for years, decades now. (So have many in the print business and, of course, NPR.) Many now speak of a 'hostile' climate and fret about 'tone' (aided by gatekeepers from other outlets). We're not overly fond of Hillary Clinton right now but her statement on Today re: a vast right-wing conspiracy did finally wake up some on the left. As the left rushes in to argue their own case (in a variety of voices, through a variety of means) now there's a hostile climate? Now there's a hostile climate? Now?

The way it's worked for years, the reason for why we are where we are now, is that the right hollers bias and the networks rush in to woo a Newt or a Will or take your pick. The whole room moves to the right and that's been okay for decades. The left finally wakes up (some on the left were always awake) and it's time to tut-tut and whine. The "great and powerful" Koppel can bring on a Not So Swift Floatie and let his spin go unchecked. And a struggling book author wants to whine about the "tone"? Those are the sort of non-issues that result in Mark Shields and others playing a liberal on TV when they're anything but.

When not appeasing the right, they like to hide behind Judith Miller. As though she were the only one putting out administration talking points. We don't remember her on NBC airing false charges about Paul O'Neill that merely reading the introduction to The Price of Loyalty (the book the reporter was reporting on) would have refuted. (No, Stretch, we have not forgotten.) Miller wasn't a CBS correspondent or an ABC one either. When she appeared on any network, PBS for example, it was as an invited guest. When she wasn't on, there were plenty of "reporters" willing to to ape her lead. They're still not being held accountable.

So forgive us for not being excited. But it's Christmas, for those celebrating, and we'll say one kind thing about TV journalism: if you're fortunate enough to get Democracy Now! on your TV screen, you are getting one news program. You may watch on a PBS, or on a public access channel, or on DISH network: Free Speech TV ch. 9415 or on Link TV ch. 9410; DIRECTV: Link TV ch. 375 but, if you're seeing it on a TV screen, take a good hard look. That's what TV news can be as opposed to what it too often is on the networks.
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