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What Happened to US TV News? - 2004-04-30

Television news in the United States today is quite different than what it was 20 or 30 years ago. Network and cable newscasts rarely feature lengthy reports on domestic social and political issues. And international coverage has also been cut back. Some media observers decry these changes as "dumbing down" the news. Others say the demands of the marketplace have replaced newsroom editorial judgement as the driving force in what is selected for inclusion in newscasts.

Wally Dean, of the Washington-based Committee of Concerned Journalists, says a vast expansion of news sources on broadcast TV, cable, and the Internet broke the U.S. networks' traditional grip on the audience. He says "People don't feel the need to tune in as they once did because they can get the headlines, the so-called breaking news, the updates from a lot of different sources."

Joseph Angotti was Senior Vice President of NBC News and now teaches journalism at Northwestern University near Chicago. He says network newscasts have responded to that new competitive environment by trying to appeal beyond a traditional base of better-educated, affluent,viewers. "It meant a newscast that was a little less serious, a little less heavy," he says, adding "something that might be better understood and followed by people who were in middle and lower economic brackets."

Another factor - money - plays a major role in what Americans see in television newscasts. During the early years of television, news was presented as a public service and wasn't expected to fatten the networks' balance sheets. But former CNN State Department correspondent Ralph Begleiter, who is now a journalism professor at the University of Delaware, says that ended some time ago. He observes "By the time the 1990's came around, all of the news divisions of the major networks were required to turn a profit on their news programming."

So, faced with intense competition and a need for news to pay its own way, consultants began appearing, brimming with ideas for building both audiences and profits. Joseph Angotti of Northwestern University says these consultants use a number of methods to justify changing what constitutes news. "The consultants," he says, "conduct focus groups, they do research, they conduct telephone surveys, and then they tell the networks this is what people want to see."

According to the consultants, some viewers would rather see news about pop star Britney Spears' latest romance than U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan's economic forecast. This is the "dumbing down" of newscasts many critics accuse the networks of engaging in for the sake of higher profits. To University of Southern California journalism professor Joseph Saltzman, this "dumbing down" poses long-term problems in American society. "I don't think they're going to get all the news. I don't think they're going to get the information they really have to have to make intelligent decisions at the polls, and with their pocketbook." Mr. Saltzman adds "And, I think you're going to have a very uneducated public."

Along with less emphasis on serious issues is a decline in coverage of international news by American TV networks. Maintaining a large staff and news bureaus around the world is very expensive. Columbia University's Scotti Williston says research by news consultants gave U.S. networks the perfect excuse to cut overseas coverage, at least until terrorism against the United States took center stage. "It was also the decision of focus groups that the American public did not care about international news, " she notes, "until 9-11 changed some of the international interest."

With the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, U.S. troops were sent to Afghanistan and later to Iraq as part of the war on terrorism. Journalism professor Joseph Angotti says that this only narrowly expanded international news coverage by U.S. networks. He observes "The bulk of whatever international coverage is covered by the networks these days is news that involves American troops. It's understandable that people would want to cover something that is closer to the minds and hearts of the American people."

That international coverage is supplemented by White House, Pentagon, and other official briefings, which take place nearly every day early enough for the networks to package the story for the evening news. These briefings explain the official U.S. position on various issues. But some reporters say briefing statements don't always provide information on the story, especially when they cannot talk directly to the news makers involved.

For years there has been an ongoing tension in Washington between various presidential administrations and the news media over access to top decision makers. Journalists insist they are entitled to direct answers from key officials central to a story. They say that instead of that access, these officials now offer comments through their spokespersons. Some media observers claim today's Washington press corps is too soft, that it does not probe aggressively enough to get the facts. They point to the network reporters in Watergate-era Washington as an ideal journalists should embrace. But the University of Delaware's Ralph Begleiter says there is a powerful force in play today that did not exist in the early 1970's. The former CNN reporter says "I don't think the press corps has gotten easier," adding "I think what's happened is the machinery of the White House and other agencies of the U-S government have become much more sophisticated at how to manipulate the news media into focusing on the kinds of stories the administration wants them to focus on."

Critics say that the real role played by many government spokespersons is what's often called "message delivery," giving reporters slogans and opinions instead of facts regarding the issues at hand. Wally Dean of the Committee of Concerned Journalists says these messages do not properly inform the public of decisions officials make on important issues. He says "What journalism misses, and what the public misses, are the nuances and the knowledge that you could get if reporters were able to talk to the people actually making the decisions."

Modern U.S. television has another aspect that many analysts believe works against good journalism - the swallowing up of news operations by major media conglomerates. In preparing this report, we contacted the parent companies of Fox and ABC. So far they have not responded to our requests for interviews. USC professor Joseph Saltzman worries that with huge corporations at the top, the traditional standard of aggressive, objective news reporting may be threatened. He observes "Generally, the news organizations are now being run by business people, and not journalists. They don't want any controversy. They don't' want any problems. They don't want anybody to rock the boat." Mr. Saltzman goes on "They want everything nice and smooth so that Congress doesn't pass laws to regulate them and all the rest of that. They're not going to push the envelope very far."

Former CNN reporter Ralph Begleiter says he has a clear idea of what this play-it-safe attitude by network TV news will translate into. He says "You're going to see more coverage of Hollywood, more coverage of stocks, more coverage of sports, more coverage of celebrities, and less coverage of political issues."

In the mid-1960s, author Marshall MacLuhan wrote a book entitled The Global Village which predicted our present age of instantaneous satellite communication linking together distant points of the world. Some media observers say that it's sadly ironic that U-S television news operations have largely decided not to use that technology to bring the world to their viewers. Instead, these critics say, newscasts are increasingly filled with what's familiar or sensational, or with what the advertisers want in order to boost ratings and revenue.