Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The death of news

Over the weekend, I saw "Good Night, and Good Luck" -- the story of CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow's head-on collision with red-baiter Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. Ah, the good old days of journalism, when comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable was a noble cause. Television actually had some real journalists who believed, more or less, that truth was a greater national treasure than, say, Al Capone's vault.

And I couldn't get it out of my head: The latest heir to Murrow's legacy at CBS is ... Katie Couric. Shoot me now.

The cult of celebrity in the news business isn't "news" anymore. But can you imagine Jon Stewart as editor of the New York Times? Al Roker taking the helm of USA Today? Oprah Winfrey as the news-decision maker at the Washington Post? Howard Stern as the chief of NPR? Other than newspapers' lingering devotion to covering news and not making it (and sometimes we've slipped there, too) that's what elevating entertainer Katie Couric to "managing editor" of CBS News has done. Although Murrow (and Dan Rather and Mike Wallace) became a celebrity, too, he did it on the strength of his reporting expertise.

Yeah, yeah, I've heard it from every corner of the giddy blogosphere -- where having a computer sometimes is more important than having an education -- that newspapers are dying. I don't buy it. Sure, hard-copy, newsprint newspapers will certainly find a more efficient, more earth-friendly forms in the near future, but the need for responsible messengers will be forever. We have always valued those people in our cultures who could go out and see on our behalf, then report back accurately and honestly, so the best decision could be made. That won't change.

Is that Katie Couric ... or is it the unknown-to-you staff of the New Orleans Times Picayune, my one-time colleague Jim Sheeler of the Rocky Mountain News, or David Finkel of the Washington Post? Know them? You should: They all won Pulitzer Prizes yesterday.

Former Los Angeles Times writer Bob Baker, at his Web site www.newsthinking.com, wrote something I've pinned up near my computer at work. He said:

"I don't know about you, but I'm tried of listening to our obituaries. I accept death: Everybody dies sometime. If newspapers are going to die, as most 'smart' people seem to think, let's go down swinging. Let's go down like the Texans at the Alamo. Let's publish the best, most interesting, most audacious stories we can, on our own terms. Let's not be businessmen. Let's be artists. Let's put our art -- the stories we love to write, edit and publish -- on the market and see who buys it."

The news business is neither as bad as cynical Americans think, nor as good as our own advertising. It certainly isn't a good sign when celebrities call themselves journalists and readers/viewers believe it. And if you want to rely on messengers such as Katie Couric, Bill O'Reilly, Jon Stewart, Barbara Walters and their ilk, you're a willing dupe.


Michael Gillespie said...

I'm withholding judgment until Couric has been in the anchor chair for at least a couple of weeks. Who knows, she may reinvent herself as a broadcast news professional. I'll be the first to admit that it's difficult to imagine her filling Walter Cronkite's or Bob Schieffer's shoes, but she deserves a chance. There have been some gutsy women in TV News. Unfortunately, the entertainment industry bureaucracy that owns and operates network news organizations cashiers women journalists who dare to speak truth to power even quicker than print media editors axe men who summon up the courage to write with an eye to integrity rather than the next paycheck. When was the last time you heard anything of MSNBC's Ashleigh Banfield, who found the gumption to question the networks' shameful emulation of Fox News' mindless jingosim during the run up to the invasion of Iraq? And when was the last time you heard of your former colleague at Rocky Mountain News, foreign affairs correspondent Holger Jensen, who dared to report on the crisis in Israel/Palestine from a perspective that is forbidden here in "the land of the free and the home of the brave" where the First Amendment reigns? At least give Couric a chance before you write her off.

Ron Franscell said...

Point taken. Although if CBS News executives wanted a solid, proven newswoman, I must believe they would have hired one, not rolled the dice on the "reinvention" of a chirpy, perky lightweight. Katie might surprise us ... but I'd be surprised.

It's probably not Katie herself, however, that grates, but what she symbolizes: The continued amalgamation of entertainment and news, breeding like sex-starved jackrabbits. It affects the newspaper industry, too, so this is not a TV rant. In my old age (and I'm actually Katie Couric's age) I am growing less and less concerned by what a reader will buy than what he probably should know in an increasingly complex world.

Gosh, I suppose that means I won't get promoted to Publisher soon. Or these days, even Executive Editor.

(PS: Jim Scheeler worked at the Denver Post when I was there, and moved across town to the Rocky Mountain News. Clearly, it was the Post's loss if Jim had a Pulitzer Prize in him!)

Hinheckle Jones said...

Did you ever try to swat a fly with a computer?

Michael Gillespie said...

I have to agree with you, Ron. CBS could have hired a woman who made her reputation as a news professional rather than as a media personality. But they didn't, perhaps because they are more interested in style than substance, an emphasis on entertainment rather than news. I suppose it's the idealist in me that hopes against hope that Couric will rise to the occasion. Couric did spend some of the early years of her career as an broadcast news assignment editor and reporter. Women are often moral standardbearers, and Couric has shown that she can be innovative in focusing attention on important public health issues, which strongly suggests an appreciation of the public service role in television programming. She may surprise her critics. She certainly has a golden opportunity to do so.

SingingSkies said...

While Katie Couric probably wouldn't have been my choice as news anchor, I am glad that at least one of the Big Three made a concerted effort to put a woman in the anchor chair as a solo. I share your concern, though, that the news desk is becoming an entertainment desk. That's why my primary news sources are through print media.

Just out of curiosity, which woman telejournalist would you have chosen?

Michael Gillespie said...


Ann Althouse has an interesting blog entry on women as news anchors.

Anonymous said...

I guess I'm wondering whatever happened to Connie Chung. Did she get too old? After all, she and Rather were originally partners. And speaking of partners... we used to have groups like Huntley and Brinkley. Why not go back to that concept and put TWO women in there?

Bookworm said...

Newspapers in their paper form may be on their way out. I stopped subscribing years ago, as my home became overwhelmed by paper.

Corporate news sources are enormously helpful because they have the finances and structure to go places and ferret out news, something no individual can do. However, they must clean up their acts. For a long time, they've been allowed to present as neutral a viewpoint that is, in fact, biased. I want them either to (a) strive for real neutrality (to the extent that's humanly possible) or (b) admit their biases and just go on from there. I think blogs are helping force these honest choices on them and, while the choices are difficult, they'll benefit in the end.