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American Journalism Review
News Lite  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   June 1997

News Lite   

Network newscasts are turning away from traditional hard news in favor of entertainment, tabloid topics and news you can use. Is this an abdication of an important agenda-setting role, a desperate strategy for survival--or both?

By James McCartney
James McCartney is a former Washington correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers.     

W ELCOME TO THE TABLOID WORLD of network television news, 1997. It is often a world of UFOs, psychics, daydreams, miracle cures, cuddly animals, O.J. Simpson, JonBenet Ramsey and, from time to time--for at least a few minutes--real news. But real news in 1997 usually comes by the spoonful.

It's a world that CBS anchor Dan Rather has called "news lite" and CBS veteran Marvin Kalb, now director of Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, has compared to the American tabloid newspapers of 150 years ago. It is a trend that has been underway for several years, but that has escalated sharply in the last 12 months. All three of the major networks are guilty, though all deny it.

Some of the most respected names in television have expressed deep concern. The revered Walter Cronkite has said in dismay that "the networks now do news as entertainment." And Robert MacNeil, former coanchor at PBS, has lamented: "All the trends in television journalism are toward the sensational, the hype, the hyperactive, the tabloid values to drive out the serious."

"I would say that the networks have cheapened the news," says Newton Minow, once chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and on the board of directors at CBS. "It's pretty close to tabloid." It was Minow, as FCC chairman during the Kennedy administration, who gained fame by describing the world of television entertainment programming as a "vast wasteland." Now he sees that wasteland moving into news.

Tune in to any one of the major network news shows virtually any weeknight for a sampling.

March 14, Tom Brokaw, on "NBC Nightly News": Another episode in a regular feature called "The American Dream"--about a woman who runs a rescue service for pets, with plenty of pictures of animals.

  • March 19, ABC's "World News Tonight": Sex on the Internet, with graphic pictures to demonstrate just how shocking cyberspace can be.
  • April 3, Dan Rather, "CBS Evening News": A visit with UFO fanatics, some of whom claim to have visited other planets.

    So went seven or eight high-priced minutes of prime time television news. You will have no trouble finding similar samples. Of course the networks do serious stories too, some very well, but the trend toward tabloid is unmistakable, confirmed and documented by the Tyndall Report, a newsletter that meticulously monitors the shows. Andrew Tyndall, who runs the newsletter, says that the percentage of time devoted to hard news by the networks, as compared to features, has decreased sharply in the last decade, by at least 7 or 8 percent. But this decrease in percentage, he says, is probably not the most significant factor in what the public sees. The networks have also cut the time devoted to overall editorial matter on the shows, while increasing the time for advertising. Together, these two factors mean substantially less news.

    These trends in television network news have touched off a great debate in the television industry and among those who follow television news closely. The underlying question is blunt: Are the major network news shows abandoning an unstated, yet implicit, responsibility to provide a reasonably accurate picture of the nation and the world in the service of democracy?

    The networks defend their coverage saying that competition from increasing media rivals--cable news, Fox and now the Internet--are forcing them to find new formulas to attract and keep viewers. And network executives are quick to point out that just because they are focusing more on feature and lifestyle news doesn't mean the issues being covered are not important, or "news lite."

    In addition, network news executives point out that, with so many news outlets, the nightly newscast does not play the central role in disseminating national news stories that it did in the days of Cronkite. Some even say the news itself has changed: With no world wars or Watergate, civil rights movements or Cold War, the news itself is not as compelling as it was in past decades. Given all these changes, the networks are reacting the same way many newspapers have: by "dumbing down" the product.

    Many critics, however, believe the stakes for a civilized, self-governing society are enormous. Although the collective audience for the three network shows has dropped precipitously in recent years, with growing competition from cable and from their own technologically improved local affiliates, the Big Three together--with typical nightly audiences of more than 30 million--continue to be the nation's main source of news. More significant, they are the main source of perceptions about what is important--what matters. In years past these shows have played major roles in defining the national agenda, particularly in times of crisis. Today they appear to be abandoning that role, and there appears to be no substitute.

    T HE LEADER IN THIS FEATURE-LADEN, magazine-style television trend has unquestionably been NBC, which two years ago launched a deliberate effort to redefine network television news. And it has set a pattern for the other two networks. While disturbing to many television veterans, the NBC formula has vaulted Tom Brokaw's show to the top of the ratings in recent months, ousting Peter Jennings' "ABC World News Tonight." NBC won the ratings battle in the first quarter this year for the first time since 1989.

    In recent weeks NBC has devoted time to such subjects as baldness remedies, daydreams and telephone psychics. It has also taken an "In Depth" look at President Clinton's knee and suggested strongly in a series called "The Fleecing of America" that there is fraud in the nation's food stamp program--something the Agriculture Department has acknowledged for years. In a special investigation, labeled "The Family," NBC News discovered that some companies are less helpful than others to women trying to balance careers and motherhood.

    ABC and Peter Jennings are trying hard not to be outdone, though apparently with some misgivings on Jennings' part. And although Dan Rather insists that "news lite is not our game," his show today bears little resemblance to the "that's-the-way-it-is" formula Cronkite exemplified in the golden days of CBS News. The networks insist that they are in a battle for their lives in a new and rapidly changing news world with new pressures and new competition from CNN and cable in general, from their own more sophisticated affiliates, from an inattentive younger generation and from the Internet.

    A typical NBC newscast today leads with five or six traditional hard news items occupying the first half of the show, then turns to magazine-style features for most of the last half--some on serious subjects, some "lite." That compares to 20 or 21 hard news items on a typical show during the Huntley-Brinkley or Cronkite heydays. ABC and CBS have not gone that far, but are clearly headed in the same direction. On some nights the pattern on the three networks is quite similar. NBC has such regular features as "In Depth," "The Fleecing of America" and "The American Dream"; ABC has "Your Health," "Solutions" and "It's Your Money"; CBS has "Eye on America" and many so-called "special" reports or investigations. All three network news shows have cut back on foreign news coverage, especially NBC, and all have cut back their foreign staffs.

    The increase in time devoted to advertising has also robbed the viewer of information. In the old days, by rigid formula, there were 21 minutes of editorial matter, eight minutes of ads. Now, says Andrew Tyndall, the shows have only about 19-and-a-half minutes of editorial content. In Tyndall's mind "the most notable change has been from news to advertising."

    Yet this debate is not necessarily simple and certainly not black and white. On one hand are critics who charge that the network news shows are destroying themselves by pursuing cheap tabloid values, abandoning near-sacred responsibilities. On the other are defenders who argue that they are desperately trying to save the nightly newscasts by searching for new and imaginative formulas for presenting the news, battling to stay in business.

    Says David Doss, executive producer of Brokaw's "NBC Nightly News": "Because a piece is interesting, there is an assumption that it is lite. That is an asinine assumption.... We believe we are doing the news in a far more imaginative way than our competitors. That does not equal going lite."

    Says Peter Jennings: "The difference between the old days is enormous" because the public has many more choices on where to get news. "I think we have come, some time ago, to the recognition that our role has to be a complementary one"--complementary to other sources of news.

    Criticism from both Cronkite and MacNeil has been particularly bitter. Cronkite, now long retired from CBS, has said that the Big Three newscasts "frequently go too soft. Their features aren't interpretive to the day's events, and the time could be better used.... We've always known you can gain circulation or viewers by cheapening the product, and now you're finding the bad driving out the good." He believes the networks are forsaking an important role in democracy.

    Essentially, critics believe the networks are wasting valuable network time on trivia. In doing so, they believe, the networks are bypassing the reporting of significant developments to viewers who play an important role in a democratic society.

    "They aren't telling you what you ought to know about," says Kalb at Harvard, "they're telling you what they think you want to know about"--that is, they are seeking to entertain rather than to inform.

    What's missing, according to virtually all of the critics, is an emphasis on traditional hard news--news of what is happening in the world and of governmental process, which NBC in particular has chosen to deliberately downgrade as not sufficiently entertaining for the masses. The other networks appear to be following suit. But the Constitution of the United States created a governmental process reliant on an informed citizenry. If reporting on that process is ignored, you can't have an informed citizenry.
    "The greatest victim of all this is our political process, and in my view this is one of the greatest blots on the recent record of television news," Cronkite wrote in his memoirs, "A Reporter's Life." "Those who get most of their news from television probably are not getting enough information to intelligently exercise their voting franchise in a democratic system."

    In a speech at the University of South Dakota last fall, MacNeil explained why devoting so much time to the O.J. Simpson story was so significant. "On television when you go with something so excessively, you do not go with a lot of other things.... Everything gets squeezed to the margins. The consequence is that the institution risks losing credibility as a sound source of what is going on in the world."

    And almost all of the critics are appalled by cutbacks in foreign bureaus and the absence of a commitment by any of the networks to reporting and explaining complex world problems that, whether Americans like it or not, are destined to affect them in the future.

    Serious commentary by the networks has also been abandoned. CBS has found no replacement for Eric Sevareid. NBC has found no replacement for John Chancellor. ABC has found no replacement for David Brinkley. Razzle-dazzle, with animals, UFOs, medical miracles, violent crimes and sex changes, is being substituted for what is going on in Congress, the executive branch, the regulatory agencies--the very workings of the democratic system.

    In his speech, MacNeil, retired as a joint anchor of the respected "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" on public television, outlined his fears. MacNeil foresees "the end of news, least the end of news as we know it, because [news] as we know it is already changing so rapidly it could be said to be ending." Broadcast news, he said, has "an important role to play in the democracy," but "the networks have felt forced to make themselves more entertaining and more popular."

    Many former television executives agree, including some from NBC. "I have thought a lot about this," says Edward Planer, a former vice president for news at NBC and now chairman of the journalism department at Chicago's Columbia College. "I think there is almost an abdication of responsibility.... Now a lot of what you see are preplanned features." Planer says he is discouraged by the trends, and "somewhat depressed.... Let's face it, the news cycle has been dominated by JonBenet Ramsey, O.J. Simpson, floods and bank robberies.... They are doing what is easy to do." Planer says, however, that not all of the programs are "lite," and that it's possible that networks are simply experimenting, with the best of motives. He was impressed, for example, with a lead item on NBC's March 24 show backgrounding a Supreme Court case testing police rights to enter homes without a warrant. The show featured interviews with citizens whose homes had been entered without warrants and nothing illegal was found.

    Ed Fouhy, a former news executive for all three networks and onetime producer of "NBC Nightly News," says that the network shows "are getting away from the core values of their craft. There is a question about whether a democratic society can operate this way, without some cohesive view of what is going on in the world from these three shows." Fouhy is convinced that one of the reasons the shows are losing viewers is because "they are going soft.... They are making a very narrow definition of their role.... In my lifetime the network news performed an essential service in times of national crisis.... There was a shared national news consensus." That is no longer true, he says.

    "I don't think these broadcasts are worthy of watching every night anymore because they don't reflect the world that I live in," Fouhy adds. "They are not television you can't miss anymore. In the old days they didn't tell you what to think, but they told you what to think about. No more. I see this as a loss of core values. People have to have information to conduct their lives. That is what we need in a democratic society."

    Bob Mulholland, a former NBC executive and once a producer of the highly respected Huntley-Brinkley newscast, says that "all three networks have clearly abandoned being programs of record.... What's different is that we felt that we were the program of record and we were trying to put on as much news as possible.... The networks now feel that, by the time they get on the air, everybody already knows the news," largely because of the widespread availability of CNN. But he points out that CNN has a relatively small audience. "I feel the networks make a mistake. I still think you've got to cover the news first."

    Still another critical perspective comes from Kalb. He is concerned that the new formulas, which he describes as "tabloid," provide "an unrealistic perception of the nation and the world." By concentrating on stories they believe might be attractive to the public, rather than seeking to help the public understand the world we live in, the networks "skew reality," he says.

    "It is unrealistic because what you see on TV today is politicians who resort constantly to lying, constantly deceiving the public, a society torn by one violent episode after another, you see a world that is much at war, and the world isn't at war anymore. It is an extremely skewed, and essentially distorted, prism through which the world is observed." Yet he feels that the motivation of the networks is understandable--"these people understand that they are on the edge" in a highly competitive news environment, Kalb says. "They are not certain that if it was handled in any other way they will survive."

    N EEDLESS TO SAY, CURRENT NETWORK news executives, and even some from the past, see the picture differently. They freely acknowledge that big changes have been made, but argue that modern technology and competitive pressures have determined the course they are taking. And, they point out, what's happening in television news is not much different from what has been happening in newspapers in recent years. Many newspapers, particularly since the advent of USA Today, have strained to make themselves more "reader-friendly," more colorful, more feature-laden. Even the New York Times has gone much more heavily into features. It can be argued that the nation's media overall have gone lite.

    "Let's face it. One of the things that's happened is that there is very little news," says Reuven Frank, one of the more colorful and plainspoken former presidents of NBC News. "In my life we had the Great Depression, the New Deal, World War II, the Cold War, the civil rights movement, Watergate. Now we've got stories that aren't as compelling, that aren't worth much. We are no longer threatened with annihilation. There is less news of any crisis. We have more and more news outlets, and less and less news. Whether what's going on is 'dumbing down,' I don't know. It is certainly softening.

    "I am not giving three cheers for what I see," he adds, "but I don't know that they have left anything out. I may be bored, but I am not disturbed." The birth pangs of the recent escalation of tabloidism in network television news were first felt at NBC about two years ago. "We began in earnest to rethink what we were doing about February of 1995," says David Doss, Tom Brokaw's executive producer. "There was nothing immediate. We didn't wake up one day and say, 'Today is different than yesterday.' It was a feeling we had all had. We brainstormed for many hours over a long period of time. We concluded that there is a better way."

    The decision was to cut down on the number of stories presented and to try to focus on subjects considered of more immediate interest, closer to home for more people--fewer so-called "process" stories, fewer Washington stories, fewer foreign stories in light of the end of the Cold War. And there were clearly decisions to try to make the packaging more attractive with dramatic backdrops. Brokaw now stands and moves about instead of sitting behind a desk.

    Doss insists that significant news has not been ignored. "We believe if you watch our broadcast you will still know what is going on of consequence in the world. We don't believe we have shirked that at all.... We are trying to do more than the snapshot approach to the news. We are trying to provide some context. We tend to do longer pieces, and we tend to do fewer of them."

    He says the new formula "didn't really take off" until last summer and fall.

    When Dan Rather used the phrase "news lite" in a Philadelphia Inquirer interview in February he was clearly taking a jab at NBC, and Tom Brokaw was angered. "What CBS is trying to suggest is that we're cheapening the news, and that we're somehow making it less important," Brokaw responded in a follow-up piece in the Inquirer. "We're not. What we are doing is not being the wire service of the air anymore. We're picking four or five topics and trying to deal with them in a way that people can feel connected to." He added, however, that "it ain't the news they did 20 years ago."

    Bill Wheatley, vice president for news at NBC, emphasizes that all of the network news shows today are "works in progress," that all are experimenting with new approaches and that the competition is brutal--"more competitive than it has ever been....

    "More and more of what we do is meant to get at the changes in modern lifestyles, the changes that are affecting people's lives," he says. "...It is important that we do not deal with frivolous material on the evening news program, but there have been some lapses.... We did a piece on daydreams one night. That was absurd." Peter Jennings traces much of what is going on to tremors that went through the world of television news in the aftermath of the O.J. Simpson trial, which transfixed great segments of the public--and helped, he believes, to transform NBC.

    "The O.J. Simpson trial was such an anomaly in our lives and had such an effect on competition. I think we have yet to recover from it and to find our own feet.... NBC was giving it an enormous shot, and we and CBS were giving it a diminished shot. We felt that if we gave it an enormous shot it would block out the rest of the news. But it benefited NBC in terms of audience.... We and CBS thought that [the public] could get it on the specialized channels."

    He says the impact of the O.J. story is still reverberating. "You can see echoes of that in the way we nibble at the JonBenet Ramsey case.... Do I think the JonBenet Ramsey story is worth the coverage we give it? For the most part I don't. Do I think we should give better coverage to Zaire--which eventually may become a burden to us? Yes I do. Finding the journalistic competitive balance is an agony every day."

    Jennings agrees with Reuven Frank's observation that there is little news as compelling to the public as in years past. "I think in all the news organizations at the moment there is something of a struggle to decide what we can do on an evening newscast.... I am totally confused a lot of the time.... I struggle with this every day because I don't know what to do about it."

    The changes, he says, "have to do with technology and a changing world order...the changing TV universe." Technology has given local stations access to material that they did not have in earlier times, Jennings says. Each of the networks now provides local stations with "feeds" of national and international stories that those stations are able to get on the air before the evening news shows. Jennings does not accept the argument made by some that audiences already know of major news before the network shows air. "Do I assume that people know the headlines of the main stories? The answer is yes. Do they know the context? I doubt it."

    As for the "responsibility" of the network shows, Jennings says, "Sometimes we don't do as well as we could. But I don't know any journalist who doesn't say that to himself every day." He says he does not believe that producers of any of the shows set out to present trivial material, but that everyone, even in newspapers, likes an occasional soft story.

    A T CBS, DAN RATHER, mired in last place in the ratings, insisted in his Philadelphia Inquirer interview that "we [at CBS] are anti-news lite. It's what we're about. All news, all the time. Like a rock, we are hard news. I like it that the other two are going softer. We have to distinguish ourselves from them. CBS is a brand name. 'CBS Evening News' is a brand name. We want that name to constantly be a beacon of real hard news. 'News lite' is not our game."

    All of which brought something of a horse laugh from Brokaw, who says he thought it "inappropriate for our competitors, who have gone through their own incarnations--including moments like Connie Chung anchoring from Tonya Harding's rink--to judge us.... We're all covering the same stuff. We're doing it in different styles. The differences are on the margins.... Hard news is in the eye of the beholder. Dan's definition of hard news and mine may differ from time to time. But if you look at our lineups, day in and day out, you'll find hard news even in the so-called 'lite' material."

    Brokaw had a point in observing that all three network shows are relatively similar. "Dan accused Tom of doing 'news lite,' " says Emily Rooney, a former producer for ABC's "World News Tonight," "but they are all about the same." Reuven Frank agrees. The differences tend to be differences in the choices of "lite" features, and even those could be interchanged among the three almost any time without anyone noticing. Asked about Rather's insistence that CBS is going for "hard news," Newton Minow says that "CBS is in a state of denial." Andrew Tyndall says, "Rather has a short memory."

    In one recent show (April 3) Rather presented as top news a feature about the "harvesting of human organs" from bodies of patients near death, which turned out to be a lengthy promotion for an upcoming "60 Minutes" broadcast. Later in the show there was another special feature called "Secrets of the IRS," in which Rather reported, in tones suggesting menace, that "any IRS worker can sneak a peak at your [tax] return" by obtaining unauthorized access to computer codes. In the same show a CBS reporter visited a meeting of UFO believers, some of whom said they had lived on other planets.

    CBS executives, however, adamantly reject the assertion that CBS News has changed, that it is going "lite," or that it has abandoned a tradition favoring hard news. Jeff Fager, executive producer of the "CBS Evening News," says flatly: "Hard news is what we are all about. Absolutely. We value hard news.... We aren't conflicted about our mission. I don't think it has changed at all. We put a high priority on covering the world.... We are trying to do the kind of reporting that we think sets us apart. We really have tried to maintain what I think has made CBS special, our legacy. Our job is to make what is important interesting."

    Fager says that CBS values "enterprise" on the part of its reporters and is especially proud of their investigative work. "When you talk of featury material that is in the broadcast," he says, "that is a commitment to reporting.

    " 'Feature' is a word that you have to define. We do a lot of investigative reporting.... What we do more now is we [report] over several days, like a look at the militia movement. To say it is feature reporting implies that it is soft.... It is feature, but it is driven by hard news."

    All of which suggests that Brokaw had it right when he observed that hard news is in the eye of the beholder. But what is remarkable about what is happening on network news is the degree to which the networks have redefined what they are calling news. As Brokaw said, "It ain't the news they did 20 years ago." In fact, it isn't the news they did two or three years ago. By some standards, much of it isn't even news.

    Yes, it's often more tawdry. Yes, it's more featury. Yes, there are fewer stories. Yes, there is less attention to the world outside the United States. Yes, there is a tendency toward conflict and violence. Yes, a substantial share of it is tabloid. But is the republic in peril?

    Bert Rockman, a political scientist at the University of Pittsburgh and director of the Center for American Politics and Society, has put his finger on the essential question. "It's true," says Rockman, "the news looks different, it's softening. But we're not sure what the real content of this softening is.... We need to find out, is it truly trivial, or is it another way to tune in to public affairs matters? ...If they are presenting a substantive package that no one will listen to, then it doesn't do much good."

    This much is certain. The three great networks have changed, and continue to change, the content of their nightly news shows. What they are doing is bound to have a significant impact on the perceptions of millions of Americans of what is important in the nation and the world. And that could have an important impact on the way the democratic system works.

    It is also true that many longtime television news professionals--in a medium never famous for its depth--are appalled at what they see. The 1934 act that created the Federal Communications Commission, the agency responsible for monitoring the use of the public airwaves, stated that broadcast media are there to serve the "public interest, convenience and necessity."

    It is fair to ask whether the major network news shows are straying from even those vaguely worded responsibilities.



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