A Prime-Time Player  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    FROM THE EDITOR    
From AJR,   January/February 2003

A Prime-Time Player   

And the importance of thinking big

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


Imagine a world without "Monday Night Football." Pretty bleak, right?

Yet without a visionary named Roone Arledge, that's the grim reality we might have faced. Arledge, who died last month, was one of those larger-than-life figures who made a difference.

First at ABC Sports, later at ABC News, Arledge was the force behind a wide array of initiatives that changed the television landscape.

In addition to "Monday Night Football," which presaged the advent of sports in prime time, he was the man who brought instant replay and slow-motion to the tube. He was the one who saw that the exceedingly smart but often insufferable Howard Cosell could be an effective television presence, then put together the inspired lineup of Cosell, the wonderful Don Meredith and Frank Gifford.

There was much gnashing of teeth when Arledge moved from sports to news, much fear that this shaman/showman was a philistine who would cheapen the sacred network newscast. Yet Arledge surprised everyone. He was instrumental in the creation of Ted Koppel's "Nightline" and "This Week with David Brinkley." He ensconced Peter Jennings in the anchor chair. He propelled ABC News from also-ran to the top of the charts.

Arledge was hardly a paragon. A great manager he was not. His penchant for ignoring phone messages was legendary. And by aggressively going after talent, he helped create the out-of-control salaries of today's TV news stars.

Arledge is a vivid reminder of the importance of visionary mavericks, people with big ideas and the wherewithal to make them happen. Like Al Neuharth creating a national newspaper from scratch, or Ted Turner revolutionizing TV news with CNN. While organization men (and women) and team players are no doubt valuable, we always need some buccaneers to take us in exciting new directions.

Arledge built ABC into a news powerhouse by recruiting top journalists with the zeal of a basketball coach pursuing a blue-chipper. And once he had reeled in his targets, he worked tirelessly to keep them happy. Not, of course, without some excesses, including those aforementioned eye-popping salaries and Hollywood-style perks.

But the basic approach is sound. I've always felt that the keys to journalism management include hiring terrific people who make you look good and creating an environment in which they can do excellent work and flourish.

It's a shame that the paradigm isn't more common.

*

It's hard to believe that Howell Raines has been executive editor of the New York Times for less than 18 months, given the breadth of his impact and the controversies he has stirred up.

Much of that impact has been positive. The paper's coverage of September 11 and its aftermath was nothing short of astonishing, in a good way. The Times has excelled at shifting into overdrive when big stories break. Day after day, the paper is simply excellent, widening the gap between itself and the nation's other top papers.

But the crusade to have women admitted to Augusta National Golf Club, waged both on the front page and the editorial page, has hardly been one of the Times' finest hours.

There's no doubt that the paper is on the side of the angels. But the sheer amount of coverage, and some awfully slight stories displayed on page one, have overkill written all over them.

Then came the ham-fisted decision to spike a couple of sports columns that took issue with the Times' editorial stance, including one challenging the notion that Tiger Woods should boycott the Masters tournament held annually at Augusta.

This was bad news for newspapers everywhere. All it does is reinforce the widespread but generally misguided belief that a paper's editorial position colors the rest of its content. Fortunately, in the face of a barrage of criticism, the Times reversed field and published, with some modifications, the banned-in-Manhattan columns.

All too typically, though, Raines wasn't discussing the issue with other news organizations. At least in this instance Managing Editor Gerald Boyd was available for comment. Too often questions about the paper are referred to a corporate spokesperson, if they are answered at all.

It's time for Raines to follow the example of Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr., who's always available to discuss the paper's actions.

The Times would have little patience with a public official who dodged legitimate inquiries. The steward of our best newspaper, a powerful player in our nation's democracy, owes us the same openness.

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