Katie Couric raised the hackles of a few journalists last week when she embarked on a six-city “Eye on America Tour,” meeting in private town-hall sessions with “regular” folks, assorted mayors and others to learn what they'd like from a network newscast. It's not a radical idea.
What bugged some reporters was that the meetings were closed to the press. They were a “well-orchestrated media event that excluded the media,” said the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.CBS Evening News Executive Producer Rome Hartman assured the Los Angeles Times that Couric's appearances in Tampa, Fla., Dallas, Minneapolis, Denver, San Diego and San Francisco weren't meant to let the vox populi dictate the topics Couric will tackle nightly come September, but only to spark ideas about how to cover news better or differently.
We say good for Couric and CBS News. Talking to viewers is a simple, invaluable tool that some journalistic enterprises eschew because, we suspect, they know they wouldn't like what they'd hear.
We also suspect that television news outfits are misreading the public when they indulge in mediathons like the disappearance of Natalie Holloway and spend virtually no time on the Supreme Court's ruling of the Clean Water Act. News executives reflexively point to ratings that confirm the public's appetite for the sensational over the substantial. But when fast-food is the only thing on the menu, the only alternative is to starve.
Keeping the press out makes sense, too. Couric and Hartman went trolling for candid analysis and suggestions. We're avid “sunshine” advocates, but sometimes candor—in this case, from CBS News as much as the public—is only possible when doors are closed.
According to accounts that reporters gathered after the events, the people weren't shy. Hartman seemed impressed that folks in Tampa wanted national news organizations to tell them more about North Korea's nuclear threat. In Denver, an attendee told the Associated Press, “There was a lot of discussion about sensationalism, instead of just giving us the news.”
Vaughn Ververs, who writes the Public Eye blog on CBS.com, invited readers to e-mail their suggestions for CBS News. When we last checked, just about every response implored Couric and CBS News to toughen their efforts to scrutinize the powers that be. That's no surprise: Internet regulars generally tend to believe the mainstream media has been co-opted long ago.
Yet the tone of the responses is constructive. And as Couric and Hartman learned, the town-hall discussions proved that the folks in the “flyover” states have the same yearning for competent, hard news reporting that journalist “sophisticates” on the coasts do. We hope CBS uses the information wisely.