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From AJR,   March 1992  issue

Best in the Business   

Related reading:   The Winners

By Elliott Negin
Elliott Negin is a former AJR managing editor.      

WJR's eighth annual Best in the Business poll features surprise, first-time winners and a few perennials.

But perhaps the biggest surprise was the response to our question as to what would be the principal mass medium in the first half of the 21st century. The overwhelming winner: cable television, cited by 44 percent of the voters. Lagging far behind were the television networks (18 percent) and newspapers (15 percent). Just over 12 percent pointed to home computer networks as the wave of the future.

Other respondents came up with some creative write-in predictions, including direct broadcast satellites, facsimile transmissions, and an integrated cable-home computer network. A few believe that there will no longer be mass media or a mass market, while a couple of others, undoubtedly foreseeing a "Road Warrior" future, listed smoke signals and jungle drums as the way our offspring will communicate.

In the Best in the Business voting, one new winner was Katherine Couric, who joined the "Today" show team last spring, named as the best morning TV news anchor/host. She squeaked by Charles Gibson of "Good Morning America" by 2 percentage points. (Couric's co-host, Bryant Gumbel, who along with Jane Pauley won a Best in the Business award two years ago, slipped to fifth place. Did David Letterman's ongoing feud with Bryant have anything to do with his fall from grace?) Meanwhile, ABC's Peter Jennings won best news anchor for the fourth time, rolling over the competition with 60 percent of the votes, and Charles Osgood of CBS nailed best radio reporter for the fifth year in a row. Some readers may soon be calling for term limits.

Another newcomer was Jeff Greenfield of ABC News, who was voted best news media critic by more than 30 percent of the respondents. Tom Shales, who writes about television for the Washington Post and got the top media critic award back in 1986, came in second.

This year's quirkiest winner was the New Republic. Our nominators, either in a fit of indecision or in an effort to rebel against convenient political labels, placed the magazine on our ballot in both the conservative and liberal magazine categories. And it nearly won both awards. It beat out the Nation and Mother Jones as the best liberal magazine by 1 percent and 2 percent respectively, and lost to National Review by less than 3 percent as the best conservative magazine. Does this mean that TNR has achieved that journalistic balance we all are striving for? In any case, TNR clearly would have been a strong contender for best centrist magazine.

The New Republic was also in the running for the most exciting magazine of the year, but 39 percent of our respondents selected Vanity Fair, which last year was voted the best women's magazine (although many voters argued that it didn't belong in that category). The New Republic came in a distant third, well behind Newsweek, which garnered 23 percent of the votes.

This is the third straight year in which two women have won awards. In addition to Couric, Geneva Overholser, editor of the Des Moines Register, copped the best newspaper editor award with 30 percent of the votes. Overholser came in second last year to the Washington Post's Ben Bradlee, who retired last summer.

In the best print foreign correspondent category, the New York Times' Francis X. Clines nosed out his colleague Bill Keller by 1 percent. Keller won last year. The Times editorial page also took home honors with about a third of the votes. The Wall Street Journal's editorial page ranked second, followed closely by the Washington Post's.

In the broadcast category, Peter Arnett of CNN and live-from-Baghdad fame claimed the top spot for best foreign correspondent with 45 percent of the votes. Bob Simon of CBS, who was held by the Iraqis for much of the Persian Gulf War, finished second with just under 20 percent, while Deborah Amos of National Public Radio, who also reported on the war, placed third.

The overwhelming winner for best White House correspondent was ABC's Brit Hume, who received 50 percent of the votes. Susan Spencer of CBS was second with 28 percent. ABC also garnered the award for best TV news interview/discussion program with "Nightline." The program and its host, Ted Koppel, have been in the winner's circle before. WJR readers voted it the best TV news show in 1989 and gave top awards to Koppel in 1985, 1987 and 1988. This year the "MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour," with 32 percent of the votes, came in 5 percent behind Koppel and company. The PBS show had been voted the best national news program in 1989.

As usual, some readers grumbled that the poll is little more than a popularity contest, but many took it seriously enough to vote. In fact, about one quarter of 5,000 randomly selected WJR subscribers cast ballots. The response was slightly higher than last year, which was the first time we asked a board of distinguished journalists to nominate the deserving souls who would appear on our ballots. The categories, however, were not the same; we change them each year to recognize different segments of the profession.

Finally, a closing shot from Jack Betts, an editorial writer and columnist for the Charlotte Observer:

"As a media critic in North Carolina, I frequently unload on polls like these. They're great fun, I grant, but journalistically worthless. Why heap more affirmation upon the heads of those who are already neck-deep in prizes?

"Wouldn't WJR be better off doing some hard research on the best regional and local publications, who often struggle – and occasionally succeed – against odds that would gag a Brokaw or a Rather?

"Of course, all this noble blather doesn't mean I won't read the story when it comes out. I'll read every word." l