Praising Network News
The all-news channels waste my time
By P.J. Bednarski, Editor -- Broadcasting & Cable, 11/24/2002 7:00:00 PM
I'm a news guy, but, as I've been realizing lately, I'm not an all-news guy. It's not that I don't want to know. But I don't want to know a lot of what all-news insists on telling me.
Last week, all-news did an hour on whether CBS's Victoria's Secret special was "soft porn." It asked, again and again, whether Michael Jackson's career was over, now that he had dangled his baby over a hotel railing. All-news yelled at each other about whether it was all right for Roger Ailes, the leader of fair and balanced Fox News, to write a post-9/11 strategy letter to President Bush, the leader of the free world. All-news lives in its own world; unfortunately, we get to watch it.
All-news, a couple of weeks ago, kept showing me a building that exploded in Walton Hills, Ohio. All-news last week was hot on the trail of two surly guys on the run from the law, and, a few weeks ago, it offered extensive coverage of a Federal Express truck that caught on fire on an interstate. It looked just like a terror bomb had ripped through that truck. Except it was just a fire. Still, it looked pretty significant.
On all-news, a routine news update is a News Alert, which is the horrible phrase CNN now misuses regularly. A News Alert, you might think, would be telling us something that just happened, but, at CNN, a News Alert is news that you have been told about before but not too long ago. It was from a series of News Alerts last week that I kept learning that a school bus had crashed into a house in Elgin, Ill. I don't care, and I don't like being jolted to attention to find out something that, truly, I don't have to spend one tiny shred of alertness on.
That is why, in the past couple of years, I keep gravitating to the good old, deader-than-a doornail nightly network newscasts. Here's the gimmick: The news starts with an important story told in several really informative sentences. The last story of the night is usually light and amusing, and Tom Brokaw or Peter Jennings or Dan Rather, when the piece is over, seems to be looking dreamily at the monitor. Then he signs off.
The three network newscasts have some other things that make them distinct from the all-news networks (starting with the fact that 21 million people watch the evening news; the least-watched network news show still has a much larger audience than anything on cable news at any time).
These newscasts are written: Listen to a Rather newscast, and you'll discover this perfect economy of language because the evening newscast is working with something like 20 minutes start to finish. Dan and Peter and Tom, unlike anyone you'll hear on cable, speak sentences that are extraordinarily to the point. They have to be.
Rather likes to end his newscast by saying, "That's part of our world tonight" to remind us that there are other stories out there but these were the stories CBS News thought we really needed to know about. All-news feels little need to edit; in fact, it spews more "news" on the bottom of the screen that is even more insignificant than the jawing often going on above.
I like that the evening newscasts apparently put some thought into what stories are the most important ones for us to know about. It's no longer fashionable in the news business to admit that journalistic organizations ought to decide anything (hence Fox's "We report You decide" mantra). In fact, consumers should demand that news organizations make the decisions.
Network news is expensive, and the audience is old, and it has been a long time since any of the anchors had the kind of influence Walter Cronkite did. Stick a fork in them, the critics and beancounters say. Or they deride the newscasts because of the denture-cream commercials within them.
But before you write off the network news, watch one again and note the work it does—so quickly, neatly and intelligently. The evening news gave birth to the all-news networks, which, compared with their parents, are mouthy, bratty, bickering kids.
Bednarski may be reached at email@example.com
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