Is This the Best You Can Do, NBC?

Network news hits a new level

Whenever I’m home at 6:30, I try to watch the evening news. Not out of any genuine desire—I rarely learn anything new—but out of duty. Even with their rapidly shrinking audiences, ABC, CBS, and NBC together reach some 20 million viewers a night, and I like to see what they’re seeing. Generally, I rotate among the three in search of something interesting or egregious. On Friday, I saw something truly egregious—not a particular story, but an entire show. It was the NBC Nightly News, and it showed how far the networks have sunk.

The broadcast began routinely enough, with three segments on health—the new pap-smear guidelines, the apparent peaking of the swine flu epidemic, and the Senate’s deliberations on health care. Worthy stories all, and handled in workmanlike fashion. After that, however, the show went soft and syrupy. First there was a segment on Oprah, that “modern-day icon of American popular culture,” and her decision (made after much prayer) to move her show to cable, thus “ending a great run” for “the queen of daytime.”

Next, it was on to West Point, Georgia. Once home to huge textile plants, the town had fallen on hard times—until the recent opening of a new Kia Motors plant and the 2,000 jobs it created. Two new Korean barbecue spots had opened, a new coffee shop was preparing to do the same, and sales had increased at a local shoe store. “We’re Georgia proud,” Gus Darden, the shoe store owner, said, “but I’m just delighted to have Kia. And I think that’s communitywide.” “The holiday lights are starting to go up,” correspondent Thanh Truong said in closing, “but there’s a sense here the best gift has already arrived.”

Watching this, I couldn’t figure out the point. Was it that foreign factories can help fill the gap left by America’s rusting plants? That small-town Americans are now happy to have foreign companies because of the jobs they create? Neither is hardly news. The really interesting questions—Are more foreign factories opening up in the United States? Can they fill the gap left by the decline in American manufacturing? Are foreign manufacturers more efficient than American ones?—all went unasked.

Next, anchor Brian Williams informed us that the Newseum, in “a new and extraordinary tribute” to the late Tim Russert, had reassembled his old cluttered office—“book by book, folder by folder”—and put it on display. He went on to introduce a piece on New Moon, the second in the “wildly popular” Twilight movie series. Ticket sales, we were told, had soared, and not just among tweens—older folks (i.e. the type who watch the evening news) were flocking to it as well.

Then came a bizarre correction, delivered by Williams:

Lot of sad little faces in our audience apparently after last night’s broadcast, and a story we were forced to report. But we have better news tonight in the form of a special bulletin from the North Pole. Santa, it turns out, saw our broadcast last night, and today he wrote to us to say he will, in fact, be able to get children’s letters at his workshop at the North Pole after all. He will answer as many letters as he can during this very busy season. Kids may need a little bit of help from a grownup. So we’ve put all the instructions on our Web site, And remember, it still helps to be good.

I have absolutely no idea what that was all about.

After a commercial break—for the erectile dysfunction drug Cialis (“ask your doctor if you’re healthy enough for sexual activity”), the flu medication Coricidin (for those with high blood pressure), and Beano (take it before you eat “so there’ll be no gas”)—NBC closed with one of its “Making a Difference” segments. It was about Zoo TV—live camera feeds streamed from a South Dakota zoo into the rooms of kids at a nearby hospital. The images of meerkats, penguins, giraffes, and even a tiger, correspondent Jeff Rossen related, provide “the kind of pick-me-up these kids need.” “Sometimes,” he added amid shots of smiling kids, “it takes something magical to turn a child’s tears into laughter.” Typical end-of-show fluff.

Remarkably, the broadcast offered not a single international story. Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, China, the world economy—all took a back seat to Oprah, Twilight, Tim Russert, Santa, and Zoo TV. The broadcast seemed almost a Saturday Night Live parody. Sadly, this is what the network news in America has become: parochial, sentimental, self-absorbed. We deserve better.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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