An Unhealthy Mix
Editorializing is good, but not as part of the
By Deborah Potter
Deborah Potter (email@example.com) is executive director of NewsLab, a broadcast training and research center, and a former network correspondent.
Whoever said everything old is new again might have been thinking about broadcast editorials and commentaries. If they're not exactly back in fashion, they're no longer quite as scarce as they were a decade ago. On the surface, that's a change for the better. But hold the applause. The opinion revival may have a dark side.
Back when the Fairness Doctrine required stations to operate in the public interest, on-air editorials were common. They may not have been hard-hitting, but at least they were an expression of a station's commitment to its community. Then came deregulation. One measure of what happened next can be found in the rolls of the now-defunct National Broadcast Editorial Association. Twenty years ago, the group had some 200 members. By the early '90s, only a few dozen active members remained to be absorbed by the print-dominated National Conference of Editorial Writers. At last check, the group's membership included a grand total of 11 broadcasters.
Why don't more stations editorialize? Simple. "They don't have to," says Duane Cardall, editorial director at KSL-TV in Salt Lake City, which has been airing local commentaries for 40 years. And stations certainly have no economic incentive to do so. Editorial time can eat into commercial inventory, and we all know the importance of profits in local television. Besides, "to editorialize is to invite controversy," Cardall says, and no station relishes the prospect of turning away viewers.
True enough. But it's also possible that a little controversy might actually entice people to tune in. After all, one of the most frequent complaints about local television is that it's boring.
For years, all Post-Newsweek stations have run editorials "to help define our role and identify local problems and solutions," says President Alan Frank. "As important as our newscasts are, we are more than that, and editorials provide an additional window to our viewers."
Now they have company.
In Louisville, WDRB General Manager Bill Lamb launched an editorial segment in 2002 in what he calls "a sincere effort to stir up community dialogue." His "Point of View" on local issues airs twice a week, with free time offered for viewers' opinions. KOMO in Seattle began airing Ken Schram's sharp and angry commentaries four years ago, and they're more popular than ever. Last summer, WSBK in Boston added a regular "Sound Off" segment, featuring commentaries from outside contributors like former ABC executive Emily Rooney.
Emblematic of the editorial resurgence is Sinclair's Mark Hyman, whose "The Point" segments break the old-fashioned mold of timid editorials in favor of clean streets and against high-school hazing. In a little over a minute each night, he names his target and goes on the attack. "National Progressive Radio" gets slammed for its coverage, as does Wal-Mart for its expansion plans. "We think we have a great opportunity to interact with our viewers and address topics that resonate well with the public," Hyman told Electronic Media. But there's a catch. Hyman's segments air on all of the company's 62 stations, so they fail the local connection test. And while they're labeled as opinion, many stations run "The Point" in the middle of a newscast. Maybe no one will confuse an editorial segment with news, but a little distance wouldn't hurt.
What's more worrisome is the virtual blending of opinion and news on the cable networks. Fox News Channel blurs the line all day long but MSNBC is in the same game. While Fox's Shepard Smith may be more overt about his opinions--in the run-up to the Iraq war he said the French should go back to "eating cheese and drinking wine"--MSNBC's Keith Olbermann is a master of the raised-eyebrow school of news anchoring. It's true that the top-rated cable programs draw less than a tenth of the networks' combined evening news audience, but their influence may be creeping.
Case in point: a new morning newscast launched in Boston this fall on WFXT that one of the anchors, Jodi Applegate, describes as "loose and edgy." Applegate, formerly of NBC News, told the Boston Globe, "A lot of news is crying out for a sarcastic remark or a joke." Really? On the air?
In his syndicated newspaper column, Fox's Bill O'Reilly recently argued for more of the same on the nightly news. "The news consumer is almost desperate for someone to define the truth," he wrote. Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather "should be commentators, not news readers." Now there's a bad idea.
Editorials and commentaries, the more hard-nosed the better, deserve a place on the air. But that place ought to be clearly labeled and separate from the news.###