ABC News producer Tom Bettag (Nightline, This Week) told an audience at Quinnipiac University in New York that network news departments should stay on top of the difficult, dangerous and expensive story of the Iraq war, resisting the advice of researchers suggesting that Iraq stories are getting to be a ratings drag.
The 37-year news veteran also said he is tired of complaints about "economic pressures on the newsroom" and "hand-wringing about the deplorable state of television news today." It has "always been deplorable," he said, by which he suggested economic pressures were neither new, nor necessarily antithetical to good journalism, so long as the viewer's interests are put before that of network accountants in the ongoing "creative tension" between editorial and business.
Bettag, who received the University's prestigious Fred Friendly First Amendment Award Tuesday, said that in the "good old days," network news departments weren't expected to make money." Then came three businessmen at GE, Loews and Cap Cities, he said, who started expecting them to make money. "To the Hard News Harry's like me," said Bettag, "that was Wall Street greed.... We dug in and acted acted as if we had some First Amendment right to lose money." They didn't.
Bettag said those businessmen had ultimately taught news people how to turn a profit with news magazines that had "no hard news pretensions." But "Hard News Harry" did not did rail against the trend. He said that although many stories had "no particular significance. People simply find them fascinating. Presented responsibly, they are legitimate stories. And they are definitely good business."
Bettag did say the line had been "terribly blurred" between hard and soft news and that it might have been better if the news divisions had been divided into two distinct sections.
Bettag said soft news had had a field day during the Gary Condit overcoverage of the summer of 2001. That full-court-press, he said, diverted news gatherers from the growing unrest that culminated in 9/11, the wall-to-wall coverage of which, he argued, was a defining moment that helped regain the nation's respect for TV news.
He warned that the summer of 2004 could offer a similar scenario. "There will be enormous pressure to turn it into "The Summer of Trials": Michael Jackson, Kobe Bryant, Scott Peterson, and Perhaps Robert Blake. The Iraq story will be complicated, dangerous and expensive.... Ratings researchers are already saying the audience is getting turned off by Iraq."
He warned against a repeat of the summer of 2001. " 'The Summer of Gary Condit' blinded us to 'The Summer of Threat." A national tragedy reminded us of how indispensable, and how good, we can be. We are lucky to have been given a second chance. This summer people will know us by our actions."