There are a few unofficial ground rules we operate under here at CJR Daily: We check our tinfoil hats at the door, we tend to stay away from anything published by think tanks, and we mostly leave op-ed writers alone to pursue their own delusions. But informal rules are made to be broken, and today we’re touching down in two of these normally no-go zones in the same post — but only, we assure you, because our hand was forced.
Yesterday, on the Century Foundation’s Web site, Peter Osnos wrote a rather short piece about how Katie Couric (yes, even think tanks are opining about Couric now) could “transform her arrival at CBS News from an affirmation of womanhood and an occasion for guaranteed gossipy backlash and ratings scrutiny to a real reinvention of the nightly broadcast …”
And how does Osnos propose Couric should do this? By spending her own money on her new CBS News program to investigate stories.
Now, if you think that sounds silly, maybe it sounds better coming from Osnos’ own pen: “She could announce that half of her annual salary (an estimated $15 million) will be spent on original reporting on issues she thinks are relevant to her viewers, from China to china. It would be her money, so Couric would control it, bringing her distinctive experience and style to news in the way that Oprah has come to influence books, lifestyle choices, and values.”
Nope, still sounds stupid.
As if the suggestion that Couric fund her own reporting wasn’t silly enough (even freelancers don’t have to do that), it gets worse. In an attempt to shore up his argument, Osnos drags Peter Jennings into the mix to show that his modest proposal is not as “outlandish [as] you might think.” He says that Peter Jennings’s deal with ABC “allowed him to do long-form programming on issues he chose, like AIDS, the wars in the Balkans, and religion. He even was able to establish a first-rate documentary production company PJP, led by Tom Yellin and Kayce Freed Jennings, now Peter’s widow.”
Well, sure, but it’s worth noting that Jennings was working on ABC’s dime when reporting stories like AIDS and the Balkan wars — both, it would seem painfully obvious, were hardly stories Jennings was alone in reporting — so he was merely doing what anyone else in his position would do, namely, covering the big story of the day. But no one asked Jennings to kick back half of his salary in order to do more “original reporting.”
Which just goes to show why we normally stay away from criticizing opinion-based journalism: Half the time, it doesn’t even seem like the writer is paying attention to his or her own argument. And Osnos’ irrational suggestion stands as a great example.
Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.
Editor’s Note: Actually, taking half of McLeary’s salary to pay for his occasional expenses strikes some here as a stroke of brilliance.