by Joel Bernstein
She’s gone, given the brush off after five disquieting years in the hot seat of the CBS Evening News. Crowned with great fanfare, accompanied by a retinue, and awarded a yearly salary reported to be $15 million, Katie Couric arrived at CBS with a mandate to put a shine on the stained glass of the fabled Tiffany Network. Or at the very least, move the Evening News out of last place—please!—where it had wretchedly resided for too many grim years. Alas, she failed to accomplish either task and now prepares to gallop off to the far-flung, lesser land of syndication, there to host some kind of talk show.
Call me sentimental but as a former writer and field producer for the Evening News during the proprietorship of Walter Cronkite and then Dan Rather, it saddens me that a once admirable and respected enterprise, one I took great pride in, has become so incredibly besmirched. Not that Katie herself was to blame. It had been muddied before she arrived. She merely piled the mud higher. Recently, Couric put the blame for her show’s persistent cellar-dwelling on weak lead-ins from local affiliates, a pretty lame excuse.
For me though, the real question is not why Katie failed, but what it is that ails the evening news broadcasts, all of them.
In 1987, over 45 million people watched the three evening news shows every day. During the week of April 11, 2011, the number of eyeballs was fewer than 22 million. (NBC 8.7 million; ABC 7.7 million; CBS 5.4 million.) That’s a steep decline. Why do I use the year 1987 as a benchmark? Because that was the first of my two years as CBS bureau chief in Paris, and though I didn’t know it at the time, I was present at the creation of a new paradigm in network news coverage.
A man by the name of Lawrence Tisch had just taken over as CEO of CBS. In 1987, Tisch and his president of news, Howard Stringer, now Sir Howard and head of Sony, made a fact-finding tour of the news division’s European bureaus. (Yes bureaus: there was one in London, Paris, Rome and Bonn.) I had arranged a dinner for them as a way of their meeting the entire Paris Bureau, which at the time consisted of two correspondents, two producers besides myself, a radio reporter, two tape editors, two staff and one almost full-time freelance camera crews, and four office workers. Questions were allowed at that dinner, and although the book hadn’t come out yet, the feeling in the room was perfectly clear: the bureau was from Mars and Tisch and Stringer were from Venus. Venus would prevail. Change was coming, and soon. The staff began complaining about not getting on the air often enough, suggesting that the evening news be expanded, bragging about the esteemed history of the bureau, and Tisch was thinking the hell with history, you guys are being shrunk not expanded, and if you’re not getting on the air often enough, who needs you? Howard was alternately smiling and shaking his head, sadly.
The Tisch visit to Paris, Rome and London led to massive layoffs, to the closing of bureaus, to a reduction in the news budget of about $30 million, and to the thinking that every network news show, like every network entertainment show, had to constitute a “profit center.” News had to make money if it was to survive. Dismantling became the mantra. And the economic squeeze continued through the years at all the networks, but most severely at CBS. Today, there is no bureau in Paris or Rome or Bonn or even Israel. Nearly every CBS News correspondent is based either in New York or Washington or London. Naturally, the quality of the broadcast began to decline, there was a lack of importance, a lack of depth to the stories, and the audience began to shrink.
There was a time when the evening news shows went on the air at seven o’clock, a time when across the country it became routine for people to return from work and watch the network news, a time when not only anchormen but correspondents were household names. At CBS under Cronkite, even viewers who paid scant attention knew Rather at the White House, Mudd on Capitol Hill, Schorr at the agencies, Kalb at State, they knew Eric Sevareid and Charles Kuralt and Morley Safer and Ed Bradley and John Laurence and Bob Simon and Mort Dean. Today, you have to be a news junkie to know the names of correspondents. There is a randomness not a distinctiveness to those who report network news today, and that is true at all three networks.
Recently, I thought cable news was to be the future, that it would offer viewers what magazines offered readers: Fox would be the right-wing equivalent of The Weekly Standard and National Review; MSNBC would be the left-wing equivalent of The Nation and Rolling Stone. I even wrote glowingly about Rachel Maddow at MSNBC, whose values I shared and who I thought was brilliant, incisive and entertaining. It would be Maddow and Bill O’Reilly, I thought, who would command the attention of the TV-news-viewing public. And that would be okay with me.
Well, I’ve changed my mind. I think with the country being so divided politically and culturally, it’s more important than ever that there be national television news broadcasts that are not biased, that do not represent a political point of view, that tell the news straight, with intelligence and insight, and as objectively as possible. PBS could not possibly do the job thoroughly enough because it has no money.
It’s time for the revival of network news, time for the expansion to an hour of network news, possibly the time for a merger or two. You cannot say that no one’s watching—22 million viewers ain’t hay, and that could just be a beginning.
I know it doesn’t rhyme, and Paul Simon please forgive me, but….where have you gone Walter Cronkite? a nation turns its lonely eyes to you… woo woo woo.
I usually describe myself to my students at NYU as “a formerly famous person.” This also happens to be true. My 15 minutes of fame took place in the 1960s when I was one of only a few women correspondents on the air. Shortly after being hired at ABC News, I fell into an anchor job for a five-minute daily newscast. The evening news, then 15 minutes long and still in black and white, was anchored by Ron Cochran. One day in the fall of 1965, he lost his voice and I was asked to sub. This was big news . . . sort of. It was noted by the New York Times critic Jack Gould that it was the first time a woman had anchored at night. He described me as “a courageous young woman with a no nonsense manner and a Vassar smile.” Not bad for a Middle Western kid who went to Ohio State. Alas, nothing much happened as a result of this ground-breaking experience, but I did go on to a long career in network news, surviving nasty news executives, some dangerous stories and activism in the women’s movement. I had a great time, my family survived it well, and I try to share what I know with, by now, hundreds of students. Looking back, the tough times fade and I remember how lucky I was to have a front row seat for the amazing stories of the tumultuous 60s, 70s and 80s. And I still have that Vassar smile.
From the blogs:
“Republican Announces Candidacy But No One Can Remember Which Republican”
By Lewis Grossberger | Grossblogger.com
May. 23 2011 — 10:26 pm
A prominent Republican said today he would seek the party’s nomination for president but reporters who attended the press conference and viewers who watched it on C-SPAN later found they could not remember who it was.
Several reporters said after being questioned by their editors or producers that they were all but certain the contender was a white male in a dark suit who was the former governor of a Midwestern state but beyond that, they were stumped.
Leading pollsters said the newly announced candidate was most likely leading the GOP field at this point or at the very least was in a six-way tie with Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Hermain Cain, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul.
Many Tea Party members, however, said they would find the candidate’s positions too moderate if they knew what those positions were.