Monday, April 14, 2008

More Bad News for the News

In the following piece, I must confess to a certain amount of schadenfreude (glee at another's misfortune) about Katie Couric's likely soon departure from CBS News' Evening News anchor post. When they hired her with a big fat $75 million contract, luring her from NBC's Today Show after having fired Dan Rather over the revelations of Bush's dodging real military service during the Vietnam war, I said to myself: this is going to fail. They think that bringing in Ms. Cutesy - who wouldn't know how to do a hard-hitting, investigative story if it banged her over the head - is going to restore CBS's luster? They think that introducing some jazzy new set and bells and whistles is going to do it? I know: let's take someone well-known from a fluff morning show to boost our prestige as the place Americans can come to for real news!

What high regard CBS bigwigs have for Americans' intelligence and curiosity about the world!

I remember back when Cronkite was anchor and CBS News was the flagship TV news operation. In those days, before neoliberalism grabbed hold, TV News operations didn't necessarily have to show a profit always and were considered part of the network's prestige and even, to some degree, its doing some public service (imagine that!). They ran, back in those days, shows like "Hunger in America," a multi-part series requiring months of research and preparation. Can we even begin to think that such an expensive project would be even contemplated, let alone undertaken, today by any of the major TV news operations? I don't want to exaggerate the difference and present it as if the "good old days" mainstream media would "tell it like it is," but there has been a very pronounced shift in the nature and operations of media, particularly since the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 and the deregulation mania that has given us, as of today, a mere literal handful of major media conglomerates.

The following article compares the CBS's management strategy to MLB: hire A-Rod with a huge salary to fix your franchise in one fell swoop rather than build the best baseball farm system. It's an apt analogy. They could have also compared this strategy to what major book publishing houses have done: award enormous advances to "big names," thereby depleting publishers' overall funds to promote a whole book list of strong authors and works.

The insight the details of this article reveal to what has been happening to mainstream media - layoffs, cutbacks and cost-cutting measures in general - is very useful because it chronicles the much larger problem, which the New York Times and LA Times, for example, are also suffering from. Their coverage of international news has been greatly scaled back and their beat reporting also, making news operations all the more vulnerable to, and dependent upon, government and private PR as their sources for "news."

For CBS, Long-Simmering Troubles That One Star Couldn’t Solve

New York Times
April 12, 2008

If a journalism class of the future is asked to identify low points in the vaunted history of CBS News, it might do well to examine the second week of April 2008.

Hours after word seeped out that CBS News and Katie Couric, the fresh face who was supposed to restore it to greatness, had discussed ending her contract more than two years early, a New York State judge ruled on Thursday that Dan Rather, the now craggy face who was synonymous with the CBS eye for a generation, could continue to pursue a lawsuit against his former employer.

Only a few days before, CBS executives acknowledged that they had considered, on at least one occasion, subcontracting its news-gathering operations in Baghdad, if not more, to CNN.

For Leslie Moonves, the chief executive of CBS, the inability of Ms. Couric to increase the audience of the “CBS Evening News” — the program has actually lost hundreds of thousands of viewers since her debut in September 2006 — represents the failure, at least thus far, of a $75 million bet. That’s how much Mr. Moonves agreed to spend over five years on his gamble that one very famous news personality, who happened to be on a rival network’s top-rated morning show, could single-handedly rescue the flagship program of an evening news operation that had been mired at No. 3 for well over a decade.

It didn’t happen. But if Mr. Moonves was surprised, he shouldn’t have been. There were many indications even before Ms. Couric’s arrival that the problems at CBS were too ingrained to be solved by one expensive hire.

For more than a decade the CBS-owned stations that help deliver a crucial lead-in audience to the network news have themselves languished at No. 3 in the local news ratings, if not lower, sometimes in the midst of budget cuts imposed by the network. (Among the hardest hit in a recent round of cuts were stations in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco.) Meanwhile, the network news division itself has been periodically upended by waves of layoffs that began during Laurence Tisch’s management of the network in the 1980s and continued through the 1990s and into the present.

In recent months CBS has shed several dozen jobs from its digital operation, an online enterprise that was supposed to give Ms. Couric a modern-day leg up on her competition.

In choosing to pursue the quick fix of recruiting a superstar, as opposed to “painstakingly building a reportorial infrastructure all over the country and all over the world,” CBS tore a page from the playbook of some Major League Baseball franchises, said Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University.

“If you observe the behavior of heads of media organizations, there’s a tendency to try to solve the problems by hiring A-Rod,” he said, a reference to Alex Rodriguez, the lavishly paid Yankee third baseman, “rather than by building the world’s greatest farm team.”

“Could anybody hire somebody in an anchor chair now for a nightly news show that would cause either significant audience growth or bring in an audience that just looks different — younger, more female?” Mr. Lemann added. “I can’t think of a case in recent years where someone has succeeded in doing that. It’s a little bit like saying if you hire just the right editor for The Los Angeles Times, will circulation start gaining by 5 percent a year? Probably not.”

As an example of how thin CBS News was spread, already, on the eve of Ms. Couric’s arrival, consider the moments that led to Mr. Rather’s unraveling, over a report he narrated for the weekday edition of “60 Minutes” that sought to raise new questions about favoritism concerning President Bush’s Vietnam-era National Guard service. Mr. Rather has said he was distracted preparing that report because, as it was being readied for broadcast, he was also covering a hurricane in Florida for the “CBS Evening News.” It was only a short while before that he had given up yet another responsibility, as an anchor for the program “48 Hours.”

In an indication of how little ground CBS News has gained in the years since, its executives have been batting around two names internally — Bob Schieffer and Harry Smith — as temporary replacements for Ms. Couric, should she leave the anchor chair before the presidential election (as some friends have said she might) or not long afterward (a possibility she has discussed with top executives).

Mr. Schieffer, 71, has done this drill before, having pinch-hit for more than a year after Mr. Rather’s departure (and garnered an average audience nearly 800,000 viewers larger than the 6.7 million Ms. Couric has drawn since September, according to Nielsen Media Research). Earlier this year he said in interviews that he intended to retire himself, from his Sunday show, “Face the Nation,” after the inauguration of the next president. But he has since said he would be staying on longer, at the request of Sean McManus, the president of CBS News and Sports.

Mr. Smith, a former correspondent for the “CBS Evening News,” is well liked and respected within the network, but “The Early Show,” for which he is a co-host, has itself long lagged in third place in the morning ratings.

Which is not to say that CBS cannot point to other successes during Ms. Couric’s tenure. Its Sunday night stalwart, “60 Minutes,” has emerged from the retirement of Mike Wallace and the death of Ed Bradley with an average of 13.3 million viewers a night since September, an increase of nearly 2 million when compared with the same period a year ago, according to Nielsen. (Ms. Couric is a part-time correspondent on that show.)

The network also points with some pride to “48 Hours,” which in some weeks is the most-watched show on prime-time television on Saturday nights, and to “Sunday Morning,” a feature-driven magazine show that draws more viewers not only than the harder-hitting “Face the Nation,” but also than “Meet the Press,” the top-ranked public affairs show, on NBC.

But neither “Sunday Morning” nor “48 Hours” nor even “60 Minutes” has ever occupied the role in American daily life that the “CBS Evening News” did, first under Walter Cronkite and later Mr. Rather. And even as American television viewers migrate to the Internet to get their news, if they get it at all, the evening news — whether on NBC or ABC or CBS — remains a bellwether of the viability of a network news operation, and of its commitment to serious news gathering.

Asked by phone on Friday if he was saddened by the developments at CBS during the last week, Mr. Wallace said, “In a word, yes.”

But when prodded about whether the hiring of Ms. Couric had, in effect, been doomed from the start, considering what already ailed CBS, Mr. Wallace demurred.

“I think these questions should really be put to Les Moonves,” Mr. Wallace said. “Isn’t that where it all began?”

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