When will network news executives and their anchors (and the mainstream media that occasionally reports on the state of network news) speak honestly and accurately about why they continue to lose their audience?
In yesterday's Reuters article "CBS Sticking with Couric's Ailing Newscast," reporter Paul J. Gough perpetuates the mythology that network news has only two paths: either modernize (new set, new format, new type of anchor, etc.) or cling rigidly to a traditional format (no couches, no interview segments, no shots of anchor's stockinged legs, etc.).
In other words, to apply lipstick to the pig or not to apply lipstick to the pig? That is their question. Only that isn't the question. And it's certainly not the answer.
In reality, every network news executive would do well to grab a marker and write in big bold letters across the walls of their respective war rooms: It's the Quality of the News, Stupid.
Beneath that, they should add the subhead: Quality Reporting Demands Accuracy, Honesty, Context and a Willingness to Report the Hard Truths.
Nevertheless, here's Gough from his Reuter's article:
Couric's stint at "CBS Evening News" started with promise, a new approach to the traditional newscast that the network hoped would bring in and keep the millions of viewers who have turned away from the evening newscasts. But it has turned into a $15 million-a-year disappointment so far for CBS, which has found itself remaining in third place even with the former morning star in the anchor chair.
But CBS isn't throwing up its hands. The makeover of "" has been spiked and executive producer Hartman reassigned in favor of veteran Rick Kaplan, who has made the newscast much more harder-edged and newsy [emphasis mine]. That has been a constant theme since Kaplan took over in March, one that easily was in evidence to dedicated viewers long before Couric and Kaplan left for Iraq last week.
Without the least bit of irony, Gough commends Couric's broadcast for being more "newsy." Yet what Gough, Kaplan and the mainstream media at large fail to recognize - or refuse to admit - is that being newsy is precisely what's killing them.
We want news.
There are plenty of newsy programs clogging the airwaves. But newsy ain't news. Newsy doesn't cut it anymore. And if network executives don't embrace this reality, they will continue to hemorrhage viewers (note I didn't say consumers) who are appalled and fed up with newsy. Viewers who want to know, especially during a time of war (defying conventional Beltway wisdom), that their journalists are beholden to the facts rather than to an administration's narrative.
Newsy is what led, and continues to lead, so many people to consider The Daily Show - a satirical news half-hour on a full-fledged comedy network - more newsworthy than our "serious" national news programs.
Newsy and Stephen Colbert's "truthiness" are joined at the hip.
Newsy is the funhouse-mirror reality of far too much mainstream reportage that we in alternative news circles spend the bulk of our time wading through - dispelling inaccuracies, prevarications and lies; providing necessary omitted information and context; and exposing sloppiness, stenography and outright propaganda.
Viewers will increasingly find what they're looking for. If network
news executives continue to dwell in this
tone-deaf realm, they will also continue to forfeit their credibility as
viable news sources and drive millions of more viewers to tune them out
From the same Reuters article, this might give you an example of how out of touch network news executives remain:
"I look at us right now being in the top of the second inning at the latest," CBS News president Sean McManus said in an interview last week. "This is a long, long process, and I'm extremely pleased at the quality of our show. I put our show up against any national newscast [emphasis mine]. I'm very proud of it."
Someone should tell McManus it's not 1985, or 1995. Or 2005, for that matter.
The time for network news to buck decades of deficient reporting is long overdue. Maybe his rosy assessment helps keep his stockholders at bay for the moment. But the cognitive dissonance here is deafening: McManus acts as if other national newscasts are presenting us with anything even resembling quality. He also fails to recognize (or concede) that his competition is not merely other national newscasts but the explosion and popularity of alternative news sources.
Apparently, Katie Couric's recent reports from Iraq are evidence of her more newsy approach.
Speaking with Bob Schieffer on CBS' Face the Nation this past Sunday, Couric, in the course of mainly relaying Gen. David Petraeus' talking points on the "surge," said, "And so, you do see signs of life that seem to be normal. Of course, that's what the U.S. military wants me to see, so you have to keep that in mind as well."
An extremely rare admission (whether intended as such or not) into the reality behind the predominance of our mainstream Iraq War coverage. Had Couric then reported on some things the U.S. military didn't want her to see (obviously nothing that would compromise our troops' safety), it would've been news. As is? Newsy.
In Couric's report filed Tuesday for CBS Evening News, she tells Petraeus, "Some people might be watching this and saying this is a nice dog and pony show. Yeah, there are some areas of calm, but if you look at the country as a whole, it's still a nightmare." Predictably, Petraeus responds, "If you look at the country as a whole, there is an unacceptable level of violence. But that level of violence, the number of ethno-sectarian deaths, you name it, the number of incidents [Sunni-Shia] has been reduced dramatically. That's not to say there are not places where it is very, very tough. The question is which way is it headed, and I think it's headed up."
Yet Couric doesn't challenge Petraeus' claims, which the Government Accountability Office (GAO) report refutes. And keep in mind the GAO report came out prior to Couric's airing of her stroll with Petraeus. Nor does Couric mention the Associated Press report, also available before her broadcast, which found, "Civilian deaths [in Iraq] rose in August to their second-highest monthly level this year" and, as the Los Angeles Times reported, "the second month in a row that civilian deaths have risen."
So, in effect, the "nice dog and pony show" comment serves a dual purpose: it shields Couric and CBS from such criticisms while bolstering the credibility of Petraeus', well, dog and pony show. This calls to mind the magician's assistant, who, in assuring the audience it's not being had, first splays open the box in which she will soon be sawed in half before being made whole again.
This kind of reporting continued Wednesday as No. 2 U.S. Commander in Iraq General Raymond Odierno led Couric through his leg of The Surge Is Working tour.
But prior to airing her stroll with Petraeus on Tuesday, Couric showed what was up her sleeve (if not Petraeus') when she spoke with local CBS News anchors to promote her big interview:
COURIC: He [Petraeus] took me to Fallujah, which is in Anbar Province in western Iraq. And this is considered a real role model of something working right in Iraq. We hear so much about things going bad, but real progress has been made there in terms of security and stability. I mean, obviously, infrastructure problems abound, but Sunnis and U.S. forces are working together. They banded together because they had a common enemy: al Qaeda. And now many more people have joined the Iraqi security forces. The spike in police has really been significant since last year. And the number of violent incidents, really, in Anbar Province, which is one-third of Iraq, in the west, have gone down dramatically as well. So General Petraeus took me on a tour of Fallujah and we had a long conversation about a lot of things about Iraq in general. And he gave me a bit of a preview of what he'll talk about next week with the president and on Capitol Hill.
Hmm, I wonder what he'll say.
When asked if she was seeing an improvement in the living conditions of the Iraqi people, Couric, before describing one family's struggle for electricity and water, said:
"Not really. I think everyone I talk to agrees that restoring basic services is really an imperative step in bringing stability and some kind of sense of society to Iraq.
Holy Freedom Fries flashback! That just might be the journalistic understatement of the year. Didn't we hear how "restoring basic services is
really an imperative step in bringing stability and some kind of sense
of society to Iraq" back in, oh, 2003? Couric's not only drinking the Bush administration's Kool-Aid, she's apparently entered a time warp as well.
Now that's newsy.