For me, doing news is a kind of religion.
My theology of journalism is simple, the god we serve is reality, or put more simply, “what’s there.”
Our mission is to give our congregants, -- our readers, viewers and listeners, -- the most direct and complete access, the truest understanding possible, of the people, places, events or ideas which are our subjects.
Thus, my credo: “Reality will provide.”
The beliefs behind this statement of faith are that we will never run out of news, and accurately and memorably covering its particulars and its context is enough. Do this, and do it well, and you will always find, hold and satisfy an audience, not to mention serve the public interest.
Unfortunately, over the 50-plus years that I have worked in the news business, both popular acceptance and professional performance of this faith and the zeal to serve it have been seriously compromised, most frequently by command of management: network management, station management, news management.
Their credo is “Reality is never enough.”
The epitome of this heresy is, alas, the current head of America’s most iconic television news channel, CNN, or as it once was proud to explicitly call itself, Cable News Network. Now, Jeff Zucker wants to renovate his “news channel” by removing as much news as he can from it. As he recently put it to capitalnewyork.com, a new branch of the Politico.com franchise: “The goal for the next six months, is that we need more shows and less newscasts.”
By that, Zucker means, he wants his former “news channel” to be more like a “regular TV channel.” He believes viewers are drawn to star personalities, predictable formats, comforting beginnings, middles and ends, the characteristics of “shows.”
He does not believe Americans have a comparable attraction to the variable imperatives of “what’s happening,” which may not feature celebrity, glamor, conflict, and the imposed order of ending when the clock says it’s time.
Instead of journalistic coverage full of facts and analysis, Zucker says he wants “an attitude and a take.” Reality is complex, and slippery, ever-changing, often discomforting. Today’s television "newschannel" version of “What I think about reality,” is refined to simplicity, ideological fixity, and the assurance to a nation shaken by the decline of American power and pre-eminence, that “if the assholes would only do things my way, all would be well.”
Lying about reality may not change it, but it seems, over the past 40 years, television journalism’s consistent betrayal of reality has changed America. And not for the better.
When Neil Postman wrote in 1985, “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” he meant it as a warning. Now, for CNN’s Zucker and ABC News’ Ben Sherwood and CBS’ Les Moonves, it’s a calling.
Moonves is the guy who destroyed CBS News, chasing away a huge portion of its audience by demanding that Katie Couric do a dumbed-down version of her role on the Today Show as anchor of the CBS Evening News. She, as she proved once Moonves stepped back from his original concept of the nightly broadcast, was more than capable of following in the “news first” footsteps of Walter Cronkite or Dan Rather, but Moonves, a creature of Hollywood and fiction, had other ideas. His viewers knew better, and sought a little more news and a little less leg elsewhere at 6:30 PM. CBS has not recovered that audience yet.
Sherwood, not long after he took over at ABC, berated his staff because their news, as he saw it, lacked the qualities that made thrillers best-sellers. The techniques of fiction, he said, should henceforth be applied to dress up that old drab, news.
But we were talking about Jeff Zucker, and he was talking about, something he clearly knows and cares nothing about: news. News’ problem, he told Capital New York, is that it’s “so obvious.”
“We're all regurgitating the same information,” he said, ignoring the fact that the network news shows deal decreasingly in information, and his alleged “cable newschannel” competitors, Fox and MSNBC, are never the same in the information they offer; not in story selection, not in point of view, not in the kinds of “attitude and take” they traffic in.
For Zucker, those channels, both of which have only increased their margins over CNN since he took over a year ago, are not his real competition. If you can’t beat ‘em, ignore ‘em, and go pester someone else. He’s going, he says, after “viewers who are watching places like Discovery and History and Nat Geo and A&E.”
These are places that use reality, as in the ubiquitous claim (today’s definitive signature of the charlatan) “based on real events.” But truth is, they wouldn’t be caught dead sticking to it. The “real world” by itself is nowhere near amusing enough for their audiences.
Zucker, who as Andrew Roberts cruelly notes, “is the gentleman who took NBC from first to worst during his tenure as president,” seems as ignorant about entertainment television as he is about news TV.
Real news, because it is perishable, is incompatible with any channel that wants to be able to endlessly repeat its programming. Ted Koppel’s Discovery programs on Iran, Iraq and China won awards and good-sized audiences, but only for a single, or at most, a second showing. They had a sell-by date and could not be shown year after year like the shows that make up Shark Week, or Great Sea Battles. That’s why Discovery dropped Koppel like a dead shark.
Covering the news keeps on costing. “Show” costs can be contained within a pre-set and profitable budget. So, as long as it still covers some news, even if it hides this best it can, CNN cannot compete with Discovery or TLC or THC or A+E at the bottom line.
This raises a question I’ve long asked myself. Why do people who hate news, or at least have no confidence in its ability to attract an audience, get into the news business in the first place? Wouldn’t Zucker be happier, and wouldn’t we all be better off, if he kept his skills in the entertainment corner?
It reminds me of another disastrous moment in recent TV news history: when NBC climaxed its premiere edition of Brian Williams’ news magazine Rock Center with 10 minutes of palaver with Jon Stewart, a great talent, but a purveyor of what he himself calls, “fake news.” Stewart, a brilliant and amiable man, and clearly a friend of the equally brilliant and amiable Williams, was clearly embarrassed: “This is how you want to end your first show?” he asked.
Somebody, I’m guessing it was not Williams, did, because they clearly felt news alone would not draw.
Further embarrassments ensued, such as the hiring of Chelsea Clinton, a fake newsperson, to do fake news stories of the “heart warming” variety. These were all “easy pieces,” and could have been done as well, if not much better, by a professional journalist who might have asked more interesting questions and framed the interviews in crisper, better-focused prose. But real newspeople could not sate somebody’s lust for publicity (most of which turned out, justifiably, to be pretty bad.)
I guess it’s fortunate that there were no 2-headed personalities available, since a freak show might well have out-drawn a fake show.
Here’s another bad Zucker idea: to “improve” CNN’s sister channel Headline News, now also stripped of its news label and tossed into the alphabet soup as HLN.
HLN “‘really just had a great year from an audience standpoint,’” Zucker told TVweek,
but, he said, “‘it's not as strong a business proposition, and it's not really what advertisers are looking for. If we wanted to be in the court business, Time Warner would have kept Court TV.’“
So, the NY Daily News reports, Zucker has recruited, “cable veteran Albie Hecht to run HLN. Hecht, who has no real background in news, has specialized in entertainment programming at the helm of Nickelodeon and Spike TV.”
Goodbye Nancy Grace and wall-to-wall coverage of trailer-trash trials; hello…. Hello? What?
Chris Ariens says in Media Bistro, “We hear the plan includes making HLN the “social media network,” bringing the immediacy of social media and translating it to TV.”
The immediacy of gossip and speculation in under 140 key strokes. #ifyourmothersezshelovesyoucheckitout.
Poor Ted Turner. He’s had to watch his real news dream channel destroyed, beginning virtually from the moment he sold it off to Time Warner. Now, he and we who once relied upon CNN for real journalism, covering the world, can witness its complete degradation.
“The plan,” says Andrew Roberts, of uproxx.com,
“is to turn CNN from a network that has gotten bogged down by poorly reporting the news and turn it into a network that poorly reports the news in between episodes of reality shows.”
Roberts has a better idea to turn CNN’s decline into a renaissance: “Be Good At Reporting The Damn News.”
In other words, go “there,” where news is made, lives are changed or lost, ideas are launched or debated. Describe accurately what’s going on and why. See clearly, write and shoot vividly, and communicate to the audience how what’s being reported matters to their lives. Then, be confident: “Reality will provide.”