Striving for Excellence

Guest Commentary

Here is an excerpt from a speech given last week by CBS News President Andrew Heyward, accepting the Radio-Television News Directors Association's Edward R. Murrow Award for overall excellence. He talks about what he called the "embarrassment of niches" now offered by cable and broadcast news. (For more on the Murrows, see page 15.)

By making news available all the time, the 24-hour cable networks have turned routine coverage into a utility, like water: You turn on the tap, and news comes out. At its best—and I think, during the Iraq War, you saw cable, particularly MSNBC, at its best—this is a real service to the public. At its worst—when all three cable networks are glued to the same tabloid story out of fear that leaving it even for a second will mean losing that viewer forever—cable news falls short of its own great potential.

The ability to offer something more to the viewer is, in my view, one explanation for the Fox News Channel's success, which has confounded so many news traditionalists. This is not the place to debate whether Fox's news coverage is indeed "fair and balanced." But what Roger Ailes and his team have done so effectively is identify a niche in the market and patiently build a channel around a consistent, well-articulated vision. The Fox News Channel draws its identity from two sources besides its news coverage: strong, opinionated on-air personalities and the cleverly marketed message that Fox stands apart from the rest of the news pack.

That's the point Fox's competitors have missed. Instead, they've overreacted to the misguided notion that, in order to be successful, all news must be presented with a "point of view." In fact, most viewers and listeners do want the news to be "fair and balanced" (I prefer "fair and accurate," but the idea's the same).

So it's a cynical mistake for news people to wrap themselves in the flag or tailor their coverage to reflect what they think is the public mood. Let's not be intimidated by newly emboldened critics from the right or the left. If the fox is in the henhouse, don't be a chicken. The real lesson of Fox's success in my view is that, in order to stand out, you need to stand for something, something you believe in and can deliver on.

So, for those of us in broadcast journalism, what about standing for excellence: making excellence not the exception but the rule? Yes, of course, I know we all say excellence is our goal every day, but is that really true? Are we really pushing ourselves and our colleagues hard enough to stand out in a world with all those choices for news, where good enough is not good enough any more? I don't think so. I think we can all do better.