The Lesson From 'The Gary Condit Summer'

Guest Commentary

Last week, Tom Bettag, senior executive producer of ABC's
Nightline and
This Week With George Stephanopoulos, received the 2004 Fred Friendly First Amendment Award from Quinnipiac University at a ceremony in New York. In this excerpt of his speech, he talks about the lessons of the summer of 2001—or as he called it, "The Summer of Gary Condit," referring to the California representative.
The Condit case appeared to be part O.J. Simpson, part Clinton-Lewinsky. Never mind that there was no trial, not even a charge. It dominated our news programs. Shark attacks ran a close second. We convinced ourselves that it was a slow summer––that viewers were in their kick-back vacation mode. We said that a New World needed a new set of news values.

The clearest expression of what many were thinking came from the president of a cable news channel. He declared that there was a "national fog of materialism and disinterest and avoidance."

He put it this way: "For our parents' and grandparents' generation, it was relatively straightforward. We were in a dangerous Cold War era, our shores were not considered safe; we could still remember the Depression, so the actions of our government in Washington were crucial."

Not so the younger generation that "grew up much more skeptical of Washington, feeling less threatened, much more secure both economically and physically." Thus, he concluded, "we have a much broader definition of what's relevant."

Initially, this kind of thinking was driven by the insatiable appetites of the 24-hour cable channels. Unlimited airtime turns out to be a curse. The only thing that seems to slow down the channel surfers are big red letters on the screen that scream "live." …

We who do hard-news broadcasts have discovered the blessings of limited airtime. Having only 30 minutes means we have to set priorities, make choices, make sense. But that summer, we bought into the cable agenda. We lost our nerve. We lost our sense of proportion.

That summer, hard news demonstrated extraordinary loyalty to the corporation. The Gary Condit story and shark attacks were cheap to cover, and both could fill airtime. In fairness, the anchors did resist as much as they could. But, when Dan Rather refused to run the Condit story, he got blasted with two barrels. He was either showboating or guilty of liberal bias.

That was just before the second, and bigger, earthquake.

Four airplanes, 3,000 dead. That Sept. 11 morning shook the nation as deeply as did the Kennedy assassination.

The days leading up to 9/11 will not go down in history as "The Summer of Gary Condit." The 9/11 commission hearings have given them a proper name: "The Summer of Threat."

Now we're doing stories about who in government is to blame. We in the media need to ask ourselves: "Where were we?" The attack didn't come out of nowhere. There had been earlier bombings at the World Trade Center, in Saudi Arabia and Africa, and then against the USS Cole.

People were even trying to point us in the right direction. Consider the words of Paul Bremer, then speaking as former chairman of the National Commission on Terrorism. At a journalism conference in February 2001, after the attack on the Cole, he said, "The new administration seems to be paying no attention to the problem of terrorism. What they will do is stagger along until there is a major incident. … Maybe the folks in the press ought to be pushing a little bit."

If there were warnings throughout government about al Qaeda, let the record show that, on the three network evening news broadcasts that summer and Nightline, the name "al Qaeda" wasn't spoken––not a single time.

If indeed the problem is of our own making, I believe that we have a chance to start turning things around. We can begin by going back to square one; our first loyalty is to the viewer. Much of what we did that summer doesn't stand up to that test. We can't fairly say, "We were just giving people what they wanted." … Truth is, we sold our viewers short.

I say all this as someone who has, along with my colleagues, learned some hard lessons. Today, we are news people who understand business. We know "it's about the money." We know we need to explain ourselves in a thoughtful but committed way to corporate bosses. There must also be no confusion: We are not business people who understand news.

Our first loyalty is to the viewers. We have a made-in-heaven opportunity to reinforce public trust. What better public-relations campaign than to say that, while we serve our advertisers, our viewers will always come first? Our stock in trade is credibility. If we ever lose the viewers' trust, the business side will collapse.