TV News Suffers An Identity Crisis

October provided an unusually visible stress test for television news.
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By the time you read this column, we'll know the name of the next president of the United States. However, as I write, the American viewing public is in the final days of perhaps the most contentious election season in the history of television.

October provided an unusually visible stress test for television news. While in the high-pressure crucible of the relentless, around-the-clock demand to be first and competitive with breaking stories around the world, TV news operations experienced first-hand how powerful communications technology is changing the very definition of "news."

FOUR WEEKS IN OCTOBER

A "big picture" snapshot of the four weeks of October shows television news in a turbulent state. While a popular on-air Fox News host generated national headlines in a sex scandal due to a lawsuit filed by one of his female producers, one of the nation's major broadcast groups was inflamed in another page-one meltdown over a proposal to air political propaganda disguised as news.

Entering the fray, a prominent Republican congressional committee chairman declared his intent to "investigate" bias in television news operations after the election by examining the techniques used to make news and information programming. He promised that the investigation would be "fair and balanced," apparently unaware of the media baggage that hot-button phrase already carries.

However, it was a popular cable-television comedian that seized the public's attention with a "Howard Beale moment" after hijacking CNN's "Crossfire" to declare his disdain for the whole sad state of what television news has become. The studio audience--as did many viewers--cheered him on with obvious glee!

By the time exhausted voters went to the polls, one wondered whether the title of "most trusted man in America" had not shifted from Walter Cronkite--the venerable former broadcast news icon from CBS--to Jon Stewart, the "fake news" comedy star who seems more credible and respected than many of today's traditional news broadcasters.

It's hard to make the argument that it has been a good year for serious news programming--whether on traditional or pay television. Stewart, the star of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," drew blood with his "Crossfire" hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala when he bluntly told them that their overheated shouting matches are "partisan hackery."

"I'm here to confront you, because we need help from the media and they're hurting us," Stewart told the stunned hosts. He said CNN's idea of a debate is like saying pro wrestling is a show about athletic competition.

"This is theater. It's obvious," he continued. "You're doing theater when you should be doing debate... You have a responsibility to the public discourse, and you fail miserably... It's so painful to watch... This is such a great opportunity you have here to actually get politicians off of their marketing and strategy."

A few days later, in an interview with CBS News on "60 Minutes," Stewart commented that the Television Critics Association voted "The Daily Show" the best news and information program of the year. Stewart responded, "I think in some respects, they were 'punking' you [the broadcasters], as opposed to praising us."

Stewart felt the CBS controversy over questionable National Guard documents during the campaign was overblown and not worthy of being tagged another Watergate-level affair.

RATHERGATE

"I can't believe that the National Guard memo scandal is the only scandal in four years that has gotten elevated to the status of having a '-gate' attached to it," Stewart told CBS reporter Steve Kroft. "Rathergate. For God's sake, we launched a war based on forged documents. That doesn't get a -gate. How do you not get a -gate outta that?"

It was clear that Stewart hit a chord with television viewers. Within days, Internet users downloaded the 13-minute video clip of Stewart's "Crossfire" appearance more than 1.5 million times. The volume of downloads outpaced CNN's recent ratings numbers for the actual show, which was said to have attracted more than its usual 867,000 viewers.

Occurring simultaneously was a bizarre episode with the Sinclair Broadcast Group. The company's plans to air a controversial documentary critical of John Kerry on its 62 stations just days before the election caused a massive headline-grabbing controversy.

It resulted in the abrupt firing of Sinclair's Washington bureau chief (who helped expose the corporate plan), a backlash from investors, the threat of an FCC investigation, and ultimately, an embarrassing public retreat.

After airing a watered-down news special that drew little more than the contempt of critics, Sinclair was left with the expectation of shareholder lawsuits and denied accusations that top Sinclair executives engaged in insider stock trading. The group's reputation was severely damaged. The controversy almost certainly will come back to haunt Sinclair stations at license-renewal time.

Even before October, over-the-air broadcasters were under intense pressure to improve election year news coverage. FCC Commissioner Michael Copps noted that from 1996 to 2000, coverage of the presidential race on the network evening news dropped by one-third.

"The average presidential candidate soundbite in 2000 was 8-9 seconds," he said. "In the 2002 election, over half of the evening local newscasts contained no campaign coverage at all. Coverage of congressional, state and local races is even worse."

The dismal performance of TV news this election year may generate special scrutiny as the FCC and members of Congress consider in the months ahead what public service obligations are required of licensees for digital broadcast stations.

BARTON TO THE RESCUE

Perhaps more annoying for broadcasters are threats such as the one by Rep. Joe Barton, the influential Texas Republican and chairman of the House Commerce Committee, to conduct a post-election hearing to look into TV news operations.

Barton recently told MSTV, the engineering trade group that broadcast network news divisions "need to have safeguards to prevent reporters from infusing their opinions into news reports."

He threatened to introduce legislation requiring TV news operations to impose safeguards against partisan bias in TV reports.

Though it's hard to imagine how such legislation could pass First Amendment scrutiny, that appears not to concern Barton, who sees "real issues" with news being TV personalities who did not begin their careers as "real journalists" working for newspapers and other print media.

Barton, however, noted that he had no plans to "reinvent journalism ethics or whatever."