I caught a great arm-wrestling match on the tube last week. No, summer television has not gotten so bad that I am really watching arm wrestling, unless of course it's the unparalleled cinematic masterpiece that is Sly Stallone's Over the Top.
Actually, this match was between Jon Stewart and Brian Williams, part of a spirited Daily Show segment featuring the duo exchanging good-hearted verbal jabs. But there was a metaphor in there: a contest of strength between the anchor of the NBC Nightly News and a comic who is, I fear, the source of news for more people than we care to admit.
That appearance was part of a stretch that also included the passing of Walter Cronkite, and me happening to catch a local newscast that exemplified the changing rules of broadcast journalism.
There's no question that traditional journalism as we know it is under siege. The more poignant query is whether the medium is evolving or devolving. We all like to say it is the former. But let's be honest: We all deeply fear it's the latter.
Cronkite's death can't help but magnify the changing role of the major network news anchor, a persona that has become infinitely more accessible, either by their doing or that of the media. From Williams' usually hysterical appearances on entertainment programming, to Dan Rather's lawsuit—which re-entered the news last week—to the media's coverage of the personal lives of everyone from Katie Couric to Anderson Cooper, the news anchor has obviously come far down off the stoic pedestal of old.
And that has been great for entertainment value, such as last week's Daily Show clip or Couric's genial turn hosting our own B&C Hall of Fame gala last year. But I do find myself wondering, amidst all the silliness that has seeped into the news, if many of us wouldn't still like to get the most important happenings of the day delivered from a pedestal. Have an anchor tell viewers, “Take your Twitter and shove it; I know what damned questions to ask a politician, thank you.”
Wow, do I sound old. And, I'm sure, in the minority.
Then a brief segment from a local Los Angeles newscast caught my eye last week. Within that block, one B-roll clip was from YouTube and the other from an amateur camera, both at a very poor level of quality. In a third clip, the interview subject was actually holding the microphone, instead of the normal practice of a reporter or producer holding the mike for the interviewee.
If you are a product of a journalism program like I am, those three occurrences happening in tight succession can be pretty jarring. I understand it's a sign of the times, and that few viewers would notice or care. Still, that doesn't excuse it being substandard journalism in the traditional sense.
Of course, when crotchety broadcast journalism traditionalists like me complain, it often leads to vilifying the Internet and cable news as big culprits. But if you're really looking to cast blame, turn to Wall Street. As much as people like me love to glorify journalism as a higher calling, every big media company has to care about one thing only at the end of the day, no matter what they tell you: the bottom line. And that goes double in a recession.
So we can bitch about devolving journalism or the networks over-covering Michael Jackson all we want, and ponder what Walter Cronkite would have done in the same situation. But remember that news organizations, like everyone else, are all about profits.
We just don't have to like it.
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