Decline and Fall

Saturday, April 30, 2005

In his recent book Bad News, longtime CBS correspondent Tom Fenton indicts the three old networks for shortchanging hard news, particularly from abroad. It is not a new charge, but Fenton provides lots of details about serious story proposals being shot down and important pieces simplified to the point where much value is lost or, in some instances, never run. Throughout, he writes with the sort of conviction that demands respect.

As he was putting the finishing touches on his book this past January, Fenton’s former boss, CBS board chairman Les Moonves, was meeting with reporters in Los Angeles. At the time, the Rathergate scandal was reaching its crescendo. With his anchor of 24 years forced to step down, no credible long-term replacement evident, and his Evening News program losing more viewers than France loses wars, Moonves shared his vision of what it would take to get the flagship news program back on its feet. A rededication to hard news? A reopening of foreign bureaus closed by the brutal hand of cost controllers? A commitment to the values of fairness, integrity, and objectivity so palpably violated by Dan Rather, producer Mary Mapes, and a crowd of acolytes?

None of the above. With no rival anchor like Tim Russert, Diane Sawyer, Ted Koppel, or Katie Couric to snatch, Moonves would turn to ruse, not news, as the salvation. No more “voice of God” in the anchor chair, he declared. Now CBS would go with two, maybe even three, anchors, perhaps creating the sort of “ensemble” effect that seems to be working for The Early Show. And for good measure, why not give Jon Stewart of The Daily Show a real news gig? After all, Comedy Central belongs to CBS. Let’s use it.

The course Moonves laid out is, of course, wacky. The ensemble that works in a two-hour format with short top-of-the-hour newscasts followed by interviews with avalanche survivors, Michael Jackson trial analysts, parents of missing children, Hollywood stars, and diet faddists simply doesn’t fit into the 18-minute news hole on the evening broadcast. And Jon Stewart? Where would you put him? After the terrorist bomb that killed 105 or the new AIDS virus story? Or perhaps let Jon ridicule the one or two legitimate enterprise pieces that fought their way into the show. William S. Paley, the legendary CBS founder, had his comics, too. Only, as Fenton reports, he used them to support, not undermine, the news division.

“You worry about the news,” Paley told his correspondents. “I’ve got Jack Benny to bring in the profits.”

Paley and the founders at the other networks had big hearts, deep pockets, and a commitment to public service, if not always a detailed knowledge of the news operation. I was present at the 1980 Republican convention in Detroit when former ABC chairman Leonard Goldenson pumped Ted Koppel’s hand warmly and said, “Ted, I just love your new program, Lifeline.

Fenton joined CBS News in 1966. By then, the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite had passed NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley for first place in the daily news race. Names like Eric Severeid, Roger Mudd, Marvin Kalb, and Dan Rather were making the network a dominant news force. Morley Safer had captured the essence of the Vietnam tragedy in a series of stunning reports from the villages. The young Turks—Richard Threlkeld, Bob Simon, and John Laurence—would soon be presenting accounts from the battlefield suggesting shattered morale, insubordination, purposeless sacrifice: all images that would infuriate the military and lead to a generation of conflict over media access to combat.

Fenton—tall, British tailored, and well informed, with an efficient writing style that radiated self-assurance—fit nicely into the CBS family. For most of his tenure abroad, London was his base, but he was no less at home in the rest of Europe or the Middle East.

“When I first went to work for CBS News,” he recalls, “we had a Rome bureau staffed by three correspondents. Now we have only three foreign bureaus staffed by correspondents in the entire world.” Four of those correspondents are based in London, not because much news happens there but because that’s where the product is “packaged.” Footage shot elsewhere in the world by services available to paying news clients is fed to London, where a generic story line is written and the package distributed. A CBS staffer might then edit the copy with a correspondent standing by to track the piece and sign off from London, having contributed zero to the reporting involved. The practice, Fenton correctly argues, “can also lead to omissions and errors.”

The cutbacks reflect the steady decline in viewers since the early 1980s, when 75 percent of all television sets in operation were tuned to the flagship evening news programs. By 2003, the number was 40 percent and still in free fall. That’s still about 29 million people; but the demographics are even worse, with the median evening news watcher pushing 60, a long way from the 18-to-40 concentration sought by the more stylish advertisers. Nothing that bad could be attributable to a single cause. Certainly, the reasons for the network news decline include competition from cable and Internet operations, conservatives vexed by the networks’ habitual liberalism, and a workforce of eclectic lifestyles. Other reasons include the liberation of women from chores binding them to hearth and home and programs that arrest the tastes (if not the brains) of young people before any serious interest in public, let alone foreign, affairs can take hold.

Fenton argues that the cutbacks were a cowardly and, ultimately, self-defeating response to adversity. New corporate owners saw expensive foreign bureaus as easy targets. News operations became profit centers, abandoning their commitment to public service just as federal deregulation was erasing the requirement for any such commitment. Ratings became the obsession; the media consultant, the doctor; focus groups, the diagnostic procedure; and a light diet of crime, celebrity, and health stories, the cure.

Fenton maintains that the networks must shoulder their share of blame for the lack of public vigilance that left the country unprepared for the monumental tragedy of 9/11. “In the three months leading up to September 11,” he writes, “the phrase ‘al Qaeda’ was never mentioned on any of the three evening news broadcasts—not once.” Fenton had tried unsuccessfully during the late 1990s to sell an Osama bin Laden interview to his bosses. Specific reference to bin Laden in a colleague’s piece on Saudi-financed terrorism was scratched because a producer did not want to distract the audience with a batch of Arab names. (Of course, the New York Times wrote a Pulitzer Prize–winning series on al Qaeda in early 2001, with no demonstrable impact on either public or government consciousness.)

Fenton also says that the networks were no less guilty in letting the Bush White House spin the nation into an ill-considered war with Iraq, serving up a “shifty rationale,” from Iraq’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction to the general desirability of regime change to “the noble goal of bringing democracy to the Mideast.”

Among other newsmen, Fenton interviews the three network anchors—two of them now former anchors—who earn in the vicinity of $10 million per year. They speak disdainfully of money per se, a not-uncommon tendency of multimillionaires. They equate it with power and status, but none of the three has expended much in the way of money, power, or status to save the structural integrity of his news operation. Fenton outlines for them his idea to put correspondents back on national and international beats, where they can recapture the hard-nosed contextual reporting of yesteryear: an hour-long newscast. This would not simply be a longer evening news headline service but include a format that might feature interviews, background essays, and other material to draw viewers back to the networks. The anchors embrace the idea, but none is naive enough to suggest it has any chance of acceptance by the corporate boys, the real network powers. Of course, Fenton, too, has been around long enough to realize that, in terms of network television, the hour news show idea will also lack critical support at the affiliate and wholly owned subsidiary levels.

“No amount of Pew studies or damning stars will shake the owners’ addiction to the formula that cheap news equals healthier profits,” Fenton concedes. And even in their heyday, the networks could never get their affiliates to relinquish an additional half hour from their lucrative local news hours. When, in the early 1980s, both ABC and CBS formally announced plans to go with an hour-long evening news program, the message shot back from the affiliates was “We won’t clear it.” The idea died.

Regulation to force the issue is out of the question, as the FCC has become, in Fenton’s words, “a toothless tiger.” An hour-long show later in prime time is out unless it has the audience-grabbing glitz of a magazine show with, perhaps, an element of reality television thrown in for good measure—say, starting out with Moonves’s anchor “ensemble” but with one anchor voted out of the program every half hour.

Frustrated at every turn, Fenton goes quirky. “Why not a lobby that monitors and insists on news quality and quantity?” Because unless those behind the lobby can bring back the lost audience for the evening news shows, nothing the lobby says will have any resonance. Besides, those who might compose the lobby are now something of a lost tribe, having last been seen in Vermont’s Green Mountains battling for the right of Buster the Bunny to drop in on a lesbian family.

Fenton’s real problem is captured engagingly by Evan Cornog in the January Columbia Journalism Review. Journalism, both print and electronic, is today threatened by a problem far graver than corporate greed or government regulation. It is, writes Cornog, “the decline of public interest in public life, a serious disengagement of citizens from one of the primary duties of citizenship—to know what is happening in their government and society.” The networks may be guilty of pandering to the public taste but not of misinterpreting it. As Fenton suggests, run a piece on the proposed oil route through Azerbaijan, followed by an exposition of confessional politics in Lebanon—both timely stories—and you will not only fail to bring back the youthful MTV crowd but possibly lose more from the adult-diaper set as well. Cornog may be unduly pessimistic in suggesting that there would be no home in today’s daily or weekly press for a discourse as magnificent as the Federalist Papers—the Times, the Wall Street Journal, and a handful of others might come through—but there can be little doubt that the decline of serious journalism reflects the decline of serious news consumers.

Fenton may one day get the kind of evening news program that routinely covers infighting among the Kurds, Syrian mischief in the Bekaa Valley, and the series of Russian provocations designed to destabilize their former republics—but probably not on the old networks he loves. Cable news, which he mainly ignores, could eventually come closer to delivering what Fenton wants because its user fees and all-news format make it somewhat less ratings dependent. CNN, which has never managed to deliver a coherent, well-produced news hour, will soon be trying again. Fox has a class operation in Brit Hume’s Special Report, but its focus on Washington political news obscures some solid reporting from a number of well-staffed domestic beats. MSNBC tried to use its early Iraq war coverage to launch an hour-long show with Brian Williams at the anchor desk. But the product simply looked like what it was: a traditional half-hour newscast stretched to fill an hour. With an audience barely big enough to populate a small shoebox, MSNBC pulled the plug rather than giving it a chance to develop a personality. But with NBC news personnel to draw on, and the aggressive Rick Kaplan now calling the shots, MSNBC could at some point try again.

Still, a return to Fenton’s vividly remembered glory days is unlikely. Even in the best plausible scenarios, the seasoned network or cable correspondent will need support from a web of far-flung stringers and freelance correspondents and crews necessary to make the economics work. These, in turn, are likely to be complemented by print reporters whose journalistic skills include the use of phone cameras and laptops that access the satellites used to feed breaking news reports.

One day, if the public once again demands a top-of-the-line product, old-timers like Tom Fenton can provide the institutional memory of how it was done.