Is “Free Speech” Endangered at CBS News?


Is “Free Speech” Endangered at CBS News?

Free speech may be the animating principle behind journalism, but it doesn't necessarily make for good TV.

That's what CBS News appears to be learning from the less-than-auspicious debut of “freeSpeech,” the 90-second commentary segment on the CBS Evening News With Katie Couric.

Critics instantly pounced on the point-without-counterpoint spiels delivered by the likes of documentarian Morgan Spurlock and conservative pundit Rush Limbaugh, as well as less-telegenic talkers like comedy writer Jim Twohie.

Word from inside CBS News is that the segments have been unexpectedly labor-intensive, requiring some commentaries to be reshot and more than a little coaching for commentators who aren't blessed with Limbaugh's natural charm. And it remains to be seen whether Average Joes and Janes will be included in the “wide range of Americans” given a chance to sound off.

When CBS News President Sean McManus spoke to B&C just after the segments debuted, he acknowledged that “freeSpeech” was a work in progress. “I know 'freeSpeech' is a little controversial, and that is good,” he says. “That it is causing discussion about an element in the Evening News is healthy. We're going to continue to try it and see if it evolves.”

If it doesn't, “freeSpeech” may be dead at CBS News.

WHO's Who

WWHO, the CW station in Columbus, Ohio, is looking for a fresh young face to go with its new affiliation.

The station (known simply as “WHO”) has been auditioning hopefuls to be its “host”—somewhere between a spokesmodel and a mascot. The winner will receive a $25,000 salary for a 20-hour work week that may involve recording on-air promos, appearing at station and community events (screenings, charity walks), and interviewing CW stars at network parties.

More than 100 contenders have turned out for three rounds of auditions in the past three weeks. Candidates—who must be over 18 and preferably are in The CW's target 18-34 demographic—have included college students, young moms, a hip-hop artist who penned a special WHO rap, and a young woman with a hand puppet. A few showed up decked out in The CW's signature bright green.

Station Manager Ellen Daly imagines that most are looking to break into TV while others are just “hoping for a chance to meet [One Tree Hill's] Chad Michael Murray, [Supernatural's] Jared Padalecki or the cast of Gilmore Girls.”

In the coming weeks, WHO executives will whittle the field down to 10 finalists whose on-air skills—ad-libbing a promo or conducting mock interviews—will be judged by a panel of yet-to-be-named local celebrities. The station expects to anoint a winner by the November sweeps.

In the end, Daly hopes the effort will attract that elusive young demo to the station. “You have to have a creative and innovative plan to reach the 18-34s,” she says.

Well, you can't go wrong with a hand puppet.

The Wasteland Revisited

Apparently, the “vast wasteland” has bridged the vast political divide between FCC Chairman Kevin Martin and iconic former Chairman Newton Minow, who coined that phrase to describe TV programming 45 years ago.

Martin, of course, is a deregulatory Republican; the Democratic Minow was a Kennedy appointee.

But Martin recently toasted Minow's “courage in publicly daring the industry to achieve a higher vision”—a stance that Martin has sought to emulate by boosting enforcement of indecency regulations and pushing for new content- control initiatives.

The two were united in more than spirit earlier this month when Martin presented Minow with a lifetime-service award from TV-content ratings group Common Sense Media. Before handing over the award, Martin noted that “it was in reflecting on his 'Vast Wasteland' speech several years ago that I first set forth what I thought the industry should do to give parents more tools to control the media.”

Furthermore, it turns out that Minow's daughter Martha was Martin's first law professor at Harvard.

Professor Minow says Martin was “a good and serious student,” adding that she is “delighted with the connection between my former student and my father.” So how does his regulation of indecency square with First Amendment law? Says Minow, “I leave assessments of communications policy to them.”

With Allison Romano and John Eggerton