Too Much Talk & Not Enough Action
A TV veteran tells the networks how to clean up their act.
By Marvin Kalb
Marvin Kalb, a senior fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, is author most recently of "One Scandalous Story: Clinton, Lewinsky and 13 Days That Tarnished American Journalism."
It was a highly unusual event. A day before the opening of the Democratic National Convention in New York last July, five anchormen gathered to critique television coverage of the 1992 presidential campaign. ABC was represented by Peter Jennings, CBS by Dan Rather, CNN by Bernard Shaw, NBC by Tom Brokaw and PBS by Jim Lehrer. Rarely if ever had so much talent and ego come together publicly for such a soul-searching session. C-SPAN taped it, and, within a week, broadcast it, time and again.
Although the networks spent months in heroic efforts to improve coverage, enthusiasm for the '92 product was in short supply. None of the anchors raved about it. A few found pockets for praise. Rather, for example, thought reporters were asking tougher questions than in 1988.
What was surprising was that each of the anchors, acting out of a refreshing sense of candor, leveled criticism at one aspect or another of their product, none more bluntly than Lehrer. "I think we're in trouble," he said. "We are losing our credibility." Jennings thought the coverage started impressively but then suddenly, in February, was "derailed" by press preoccupation with scandal, while the public was concerned about pocketbook issues. "Everybody in the press seemed to be interested in Gennifer Flowers," the ABC anchor asserted, "and everybody in New Hampshire wanted to know about the economy." For Brokaw, television news had become so intrusive that it was driving good people out of politics and attracting only those of superficial quality. "I think we've made it almost unbearable," NBC's anchor concluded, "[for candidates] to enter into the public arena."
Never before has so much been expected of television news, and never before has the spotlight of criticism – from viewers, newspapers, universities, even their own bookkeepers – been so relentlessly riveted upon the networks. Were they acting responsibly when they drastically cut convention coverage? (Sixteen hours of network coverage of the 1992 Democratic convention, compared with 34 hours in 1988.) How did they explain the fact that sound bites were down to an average of 8.8 seconds during the primary season? How could they have spent so little time on health care? (In March, only 9.1 percent of 220 TV stories – 20 in all – were devoted to the subject; by May, only 3.2 percent.) Has the pooling of political polling made any sense in other than a budgetary way?
These anchors are journalists of enormous power and influence, tested and intelligent people capable of transforming the news agenda. Yet they only seem able to identify the problems and, after a nibble here and a nibble there, demonstrate sadly that they are unable to solve them. "They are captains in a storm," observes Andrew Glass, Washington bureau chief for Cox Newspapers. "They are lashed to the wheel and able to move it only 5 or 10 degrees in one direction or another."
The fact is they are caught in cruel crosscurrents: between a genuine desire to do the right thing, and, as Rather put it, "brutal competitive pressures" that drive them toward happy, user-friendly news; between a relentless requirement to be objective, cool and detached, and the reality of their increasing intrusion into the political process.
With the demise of political parties and "bosses," the press has moved into a commanding position as arbiter of American presidential politics – a position for which it is not prepared, emotionally, professionally or constitutionally. The press has become a player. Now there are unsettling calls for press responsibility. Some academics and many politicians raise a question: If other institutions, such as the White House and Congress, are held accountable for their actions, then why shouldn't the press be held accountable?
In addition, in this campaign, Jennings, Rather and Brokaw have been transmogrified into the "old news" or "old media." The term was coined by Jon Katz, a former executive producer of "CBS This Morning," and it was intended to be the contrast to the "new news" or "new media" that has risen to stunning importance in recent months. First Ross Perot announced his availability for presidential coronation on the "Larry King Show." Then Bill Clinton, in danger of becoming marginalized in campaign coverage in May and June, lunged for exposure on such unorthodox venues as the "Arsenio Hall Show," saxophone and all, on MTV, on the "Today" show and on morning radio call-ins. Even President Bush, who had at first belittled such shows as "weird," yielded to the new trend as his polls slipped, and suddenly began appearing on "CBS This Morning," MacNeil/Lehrer, CNN and Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network.
Although each candidate moved to the new media for different reasons, they had one thing in common: They wanted to leapfrog the elite corps of Washington-based political reporters, who were considered to be interested mostly in process, polls and "character," and instead take questions from "the people," who were quickly demonstrating their interest in substantive issues such as health care, day care, education, crime and taxes.
How did it happen?
The ground rules for campaigning on TV changed. The candidates became fed up with sound-bite journalism. Just about every academic study showed that most people were invidiously linking the old media with the old politics – and, in their minds, a plague on both! The TV market was no longer dominated by just ABC, CBS and NBC. CNN, C-SPAN and other cable outlets, plus PBS, Fox, and the rise of local news, added strong competitive pressures, forcing the old media off center stage.
By no means have ABC, CBS and NBC been pushed to the periphery, but it is unlikely that they will ever again dominate the center. If people expected a shift of this magnitude to force the networks to readjust their strategic thinking, they were to be disappointed. The network attitude toward the twin challenges of social responsibility and profit-uber-alles remained frozen.
For example, CBS rocketed to first place in prime-time ratings this past year but refused to increase its news budget. Why? Did it have no obligation to the public? As the presidential campaign became more unpredictable with the rise and collapse of Ross Perot, why was there no allowance for boosting the budget to meet this increased need?
In fairness, CBS was no better or worse than ABC or NBC. The networks are filled with extraordinarily talented, educated and committed journalists, none better than the anchors on whose shoulders lies so much of the responsibility for fair and accurate coverage. But because the executive suites are more concerned with profits than public policy, even the journalists have had to adjust their editorial compasses to accommodate the blind corporate obsession with ratings. When questions were raised during the Democratic convention about why the networks had cut back on their coverage, CBS Chairman Laurence Tisch said, in effect, go elsewhere. "It's enough," he said. "No one wants to see people just milling around the floor for hours. If they want more, they can go to CNN."
Can anyone imagine William Paley or Frank Stanton suggesting that viewers go elsewhere for the news?
When the ratings emerged after the Democratic convention, the networks felt vindicated. The ratings were terrible. Together, ABC, CBS and NBC averaged 17.3 percent of the television audience for each of the four evenings of the convention. In 1988, they had averaged 20.8 percent.
Clearly the political parties could produce a better show. But even if the parties failed in this effort, the networks would still have a fundamental responsibility to cover this quadrennial marker in the lengthy process of selecting a president. Not everything is dramatic. Some Super Bowls are 45-14 blowouts. But television covers the entire game. It does not prejudge the outcome. It does not intrude on the viewer's pleasure or boredom. Robert MacNeil of PBS once said that it takes courage to be dull on television. Yes.
As the general election campaign of 1992 opens this month, there is still time for television to make the right decisions – and not be dull. Here are some suggestions:
1. Resist rumor. 1992 may go down in journalistic history as the year when rumor rose to the level of presumed fact. Clinton suffered most from this pitiful decline in professional standards, but so too did Perot and Bush. "I've covered every presidential campaign since 1968," says Jack Nelson, Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. "I have never before seen a campaign where rumors, and I mean strictly rumors, have been used so much to undermine a candidate. I have seen mainstream media lower its standards down to tabloid journalism."
The remainder of this campaign is likely to be a dirty brawl. The American people want, and deserve, careful confirmation of charges and counter-charges.
2. Beware of polls. Polls are powerful narcotics in campaign coverage, often conveying the illusion of serious legwork. What is clear so far is that positive coverage produces positive polls and negative coverage produces negative polls. When Clinton was being lambasted for alleged faults of "character," his polls were down and his "negatives" were up. When the coverage changed and began to focus on his message, his polls went up and his "negatives" went down. The networks have a moral and public responsibility to be balanced, honest, fair, and always mindful of the poll-coverage link.
3. If possible, allow viewers to see and judge the event for themselves. During the Democratic convention, C-SPAN broadcast the speeches and provided occasional commentary when necessary for comprehension. Conversely, ABC and NBC showed virtually no live coverage. During the one hour they allotted nightly to coverage, they felt obliged to highlight their anchors, commentators and reporters, and run occasional snippets of taped speeches. It is a sad day when media reporter Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post observes that "the media's interpretation, it seems, is now more important than the event itself."
4. Keep up the good fight on debates. They will never be more important than during this general election campaign. The networks have been bold in proposing one vice-presidential and three presidential debates.
Ideally, the debates, each 90 minutes in length, should be broadcast at 9 p.m. on Sunday. That's where the viewers are. What with "60 Minutes," football and baseball, it's harder for NBC and CBS to juggle schedules than it is for ABC, but they should be able to manage. If not, ABC should move its political coverage to Sunday evenings, joining CNN and C-SPAN, which already offer this imaginative programming.
5. Between Labor Day and Election Day, the seven major television networks – ABC, CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, Fox, NBC and PBS – should rotate the responsibility and set aside an hour a week for each candidate to discuss one substantive issue.
Better than most other journalists, the anchors can appreciate the hunger for information in what has been an extraordinary election year. They are the most powerful people in broadcasting – or, given their positions, they should be. Why wait until after November to promise that next time, in 1996, the process will be improved? Is this not the moment to take the lead and set an example of creative coverage that meets the needs of an exceptional moment in American history? Is it not their responsibility? And if not theirs, whose? Is this not the time for them to test not only their skill and judgment but their courage? If not now, when? l