Now that Tom Brokaw is gone and Dan Rather is on the way out, “everything seems to be on the table” when it comes to revamping network news, according to the Los Angeles Times. What constitutes “everything?”
“Networks might push newscasts to later in the evening to adapt to family schedules and commuters,” says the Times. “Anchors such as [Brian] Williams will increasingly turn up on early morning shows and Internet chat rooms to gain more exposure, and broadcast executives hope, viewers. And yes, they will make frequent guest appearances on entertainment programs like ‘The Daily Show,’ which has become a proxy newscast for many young viewers.”
So the hot new ideas for reversing the loss of viewers and influence afflicting network news are…a new time slot? Peter Jennings in a chat room? The prospect of Brian Williams chatting with Katie Couric on “The Today Show?”
How, ummm, revolutionary. Really. Because the reason Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly have had such success is their tireless forays into the world of Yahoo! Chat.
It’s not just that these ideas are bad. It’s that they’re tentative. Incremental. In the words of my high school football coach…well, let’s not use the words of my high school football coach. Suffice to say he wouldn’t be impressed.
Broadcast networks are resistant to real change, and when it comes to network news, they’ve got reason to be careful: Despite the hemming and hawing of pundits, the nightly news isn’t actually dying. It may not occupy the central place in American lives it once did, but it still garners more viewers than its cable news competitors, and it still makes money. Considering those facts, executives are much more likely to tinker cautiously than to overhaul.
Which is too bad, because they should overhaul. And not simply because two of the big three anchors are moving on. The real reason the time is right for change is that the rise of cable news, the Internet, and the insidious persistence of he said/she said journalism have come together to offer the nightly news a real opportunity to reconnect with Americans.
Journalism has lately become as tentative as the ideas television executives have for revitalizing it. Talking heads may holler at each other in flamboyant disagreement, but there are few authoritative voices definitively pointing out the all-too-common falsehoods embedded in the national discourse. As we’ve noted all year long, major papers and cable news channels have become so wary of media bias charges that they treat the most dubious of positions with respect, despite the fact that even a cursory analysis would show the overwhelming preponderance of evidence favors one side or the other of an issue. American news consumers are being put slowly but inexorably to sleep by an ostensibly objective debate of the issues that isn’t objective in any real way.
Consequently, they’re increasingly on the lookout for something better. The institutional limitations of our press corps, however, have made that difficult to find. Newspaper reporters are reticent to point out when a public official lies, since they might lose access, or face other repercussions, for doing so. Cable networks have to provide content around the clock, so they lack the time — not to mention the resources — to do the work necessary to discover the truth behind conflicting spin. The Internet has helped address the problem, and in the process satiated some turned off by the mainstream media — but it also remains a hotbed of rumor, underreporting and bias, particularly for those who lack the time or sophistication to use it effectively.