Katie and Diane: The Wrong Questions

Why can't the print press treat TV news as news?

Michael Massing’s voice has long been part of the Columbia Journalism Review in print. He is a columnist, a former executive editor, an active contributing editor, and a longtime friend and adviser of the print magazine. Now he is trying his hand at press criticism and analysis online. Look for him on Wednesdays, and on other days when the spirit moves him, on CJR.org.

While doing some recent research on the news business, I came upon this remarkable fact: Katie Couric’s annual salary is more than the entire annual budgets of NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered combined. Couric’s salary comes to an estimated $15 million a year; NPR spends $6 million a year on its morning show and $5 million on its afternoon one. NPR has seventeen foreign bureaus (which costs it another $9.4 million a year); CBS has twelve. Few figures, I think, better capture the absurd financial structure of the network news.

This is not a new development, of course. It’s been unfolding since 1986, when billionaire Laurence Tisch bought CBS and eviscerated its news division in order to boost profits. (For a sharp, first-hand account of this process, see Bad News: The Decline of Reporting, The Business of News, and the Danger to Us All, by former CBS correspondent Tom Fenton.) But the issue seems worth revisiting in light of the recent naming of Diane Sawyer to replace Charlie Gibson as the anchor of ABC’s World News. We don’t yet know how much Sawyer is going to be paid, but it will no doubt surpass Gibson’s current estimated salary of $8 million. Sawyer will thus be perpetuating the corrosive, top-heavy system of the network news.

What’s striking is how little notice this received in the flood of coverage of Sawyer’s appointment. With the notable exception of Jack Shafer in Slate, who cheekily urged Sawyer to turn down the job “and persuade ABC News to divert the millions it ordinarily pays its anchor and spend it on 50 or 80 additional reporters to break stories,” the press treated her ascension as a dramatic milestone. “At ABC, an Anchor Shift; for TV, an Image Shift,” proclaimed The New York Times on its front page. “The arrival of Ms. Sawyer will comprehensively alter the long-established image of an avuncular male nightly news anchor,” Bill Carter and Brian Stelter solemnly declared. “With Katie Couric, who took the CBS anchor position in 2006, two of the three main network news voices will be female, a role that in the past has punished others, like Barbara Walters and Connie Chung.” Carter and Stelter prattled on about the competition among the anchors, the ratings implications of the change, and the challenge ABC faces in replacing Sawyer on Good Morning America, which, they helpfully noted, “is by far the most profitable program in the news division and where she is the biggest attraction for viewers.” About the journalism? Not so much. This is sadly typical of much of the Times’s coverage of TV news—a preoccupation with stars, their images, network strategies, and the all-important ratings race.

Not content with that front-page story, the Times three days later made the Sawyer appointment the lead story in its Week in Review section, with the top third of its front page devoted to a giant air-brushed photo of Sawyer, and with a lead that engaged in some remarkably breezy stereotyping.

“One female network TV anchor is a breakthrough,” wrote Alessandra Stanley. “Two become a catfight. That equation is almost inevitable no matter who the women are who make it to the top of television news.” Part of the reason it’s inevitable, of course, is that people like Stanley pay so much attention to it.

But Stanley was just getting started. Sawyer, she wrote with a knowing reference to All About Eve, “is a gorgeous, glamorous television personality who got the top job by waiting around.” She noted Sawyer’s “golden allure” and “teen beauty queen status.” “Time,” she added, “has not altered her appearance—at 63 she is almost absurdly good looking.” Sawyer was “born to be an evening anchor,” a role “that suits Ms. Sawyer’s velvety voice and regal demeanor.”

Howard Kurtz did no better. Sawyer’s appointment, he wrote in The Washington Post, “leaves a sizable void at ‘Good Morning America,’ where Sawyer’s star power will be hard to replace,” blah blah. “Although nightly news ratings have been declining for two decades and the morning shows are more profitable,” Kurtz went on, “network anchors still command considerable prestige and lead the coverage of disasters, political conventions and other breaking-news events,” blah blah.

Not once did Kurtz break from such entertainment-speak to consider how shallow the network news has become, and why. The networks are in a death spiral, yet they keep airing the same tired product. Could they do things differently? Has the anchor system perpetuated the problem? What changes might succeed in luring new viewers? Pondering such questions would surely be of more use to Post readers than Kurtz’s Variety-like musings.

Interestingly, in July, after the death of Walter Cronkite, Kurtz, in one of his regular online Q & A sessions with readers, fielded the following: “Cronkite did not start out as a celebrity, he became one and was likely the last anchor to do so after the Barbara Walters/Dan Rather era started. Do the high salaries of top TV anchors damage the connection with the public that Cronkite seemed to have?”

Kurtz: “I don’t fully know. Katie Couric may make $15 million a year, but she grew up in a middle-class family in Arlington. Brian Williams was once a volunteer fireman. Dan Rather graduated from Sam Houston State College. And it’s not just the anchors—the opinion guys, O’Reilly, Rush, Olbermann, Matthews and the like, make millions each year. Does that mean their values change, that they’re automatically out of touch? In some cases, perhaps, but I don’t think that’s universally true.”

Kurtz could muster no outrage over the salaries these anchors are pulling down, nor even wonder aloud about the state of the rusty shows these journalists are presiding over. At a time when the obscene executive pay levels at places like Goldman Sachs and AIG are stoking anger, shouldn’t the same be true for ABC, CBS, and NBC?

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Michael Massing is a contributing editor to CJR and the author of Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq.