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annals of communications
The New Yorker - December 10, 2001

battle stations

How long will the networks stick with the news?

by ken auletta

Like so much else, television news changed on the morning of September 11th. Six weeks later, as Aaron Brown, CNN's new anchorman, shifted from a Pentagon briefing to the ruins of the World Trade Center and then to a dissection of the latest anthrax scare, a familiar figure appeared in a box in the right half of the screen: O. J. Simpson on the witness stand. He was testifying in a Florida court, accused of road rage. Brown peered earnestly into the camera and said of the latest Simpson travail, "It is inconceivable to me that seven weeks ago, or six weeks ago, this would not have been carried live." It wasn't now, he said, because "it doesn't matter a whole lot. And here's why it doesn't." The screen filled with rescue workers pulling a body from the rubble of the World Trade towers.

Before September 11th, the evening news, to say nothing of the morning programs and the magazine shows, paid scant attention to foreign news. Instead, the networks filled the air with "weather events," Viagra breakthroughs, reports on various ailments, the murder of Jon Benet Ramsey, the trials of O.J., the death of Princess Diana, the sagas of Monica and Chandra. The networks delivered the headlines of the day, and the dismissive characterization once applied to local television news--"If it bleeds, it leads"--increasingly applied to network news as well. Stories that once might have been noted in passing, if at all, on the half-hour nightly newscasts were now reported endlessly on the nine-o'clock and ten-o'clock magazine shows, which long ago displaced documentaries.

After September 11th, journalists who had grown accustomed to feeling slightly embarrassed by what they did for a living began to look at their jobs with a renewed sense of pride. Even their bosses, who had slashed budgets and trivialized the news in the name of higher ratings and sound business practice, seemed like earnest preachers spreading the gospel of serious journalism. "Over the past ten weeks, we've been reminded why we do what we do," Mel Karmazin, who is the president and C.O.O. of Viacom, the parent company of CBS, said a few weeks ago. Karmazin was speaking at a lunch given in his honor by the Center for Communication, at the Plaza Hotel. He has a fearsome reputation, based in no small part on the demands he makes of his employees. When an executive on the sales force is exhausted and claims that, in the midst of a recession, he cannot sell more ads, Karmazin has been known to reply, "I haven't heard of anyone having a heart attack yet!" But now, at the Plaza, Karmazin aligned himself with a different set of standards. He invoked Edward R. Murrow and quoted Martin Luther King, Jr., on character. Karmazin said, "We want it said of us that when it mattered most we measured up." His peers at NBC, ABC, Fox, and CNN in the audience rose and applauded--both for Karmazin and, it seemed, themselves.

And yet by mid-November news ratings were slipping. Anxiety has spread at the networks as journalists worry that their born-again bosses will start leaning on them to cut costs and produce more fluff. Is the revival of serious news and foreign reporting going to vanish as quickly as it occurred?

"I'm probably the only person in the world who has watched every network newscast since 1988," Andrew Tyndall says. Tyndall produces the Tyndall Report, an analysis of what appears each night on the three network news broadcasts. In 1988, he calculates, the networks generated about two thousand minutes of international news each. Since then, foreign-news coverage--with a few exceptions, such as the Gulf War, in 1991--has plunged. Last year, ABC and CBS offered roughly twelve hundred minutes of international news each, and NBC, the ratings leader, provided about eleven hundred. All three networks have slashed their foreign bureaus and correspondents during the last decade, and before September 11th only about nine per cent of an average nineteen-minute-long broadcast was devoted to foreign news.

Tyndall's methodology can be disputed. For example, when a report on terrorism comes out of Washington, Neal Shapiro, the president of NBC News, argues, "it may count as a Washington story," not as an international story. But neither Shapiro nor his counterparts at ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, and MSNBC dispute Tyndall's conclusion about the over-all trend. Asked about this summer's "news"--the Congressman and the Missing Intern--NBC's president, Andrew Lack, said, "Are there things we should have done differently? Yes. I don't want to be defensive about that. That's a fair criticism. But I am pretty proud of our work. For some people, dwelling on child care is a 'soft news' story--frivolous. As opposed to what Arafat said to Madeleine Albright as she passed through the West Bank!" But he added, "Do I wish that we had spent a little more time probing around corners in the Middle East? Absolutely."

CBS, which once referred to itself as "the Tiffany network," and in June of 1981 replaced its prime-time programming with a brilliant, week-long five-part documentary, "The Defense of the United States," was covering Asia with a single correspondent, based in Tokyo, and the rest of the non-North American world with seven correspondents. Fox News, which has been less reliant on original reporting than on opinion, had only four overseas correspondents. "We basically sent hit teams overseas from out of here," Roger Ailes, the chairman of Fox News, said. CNN had about the same number of overseas bureaus--thirty--as the five other networks combined. But when Walter Isaacson, the former managing editor of Time, was appointed CNN's chairman and C.E.O., last July, to revive a tired-looking network, there was talk about moving more toward the raucous formula of Fox, which was climbing in the ratings. At Time, circulation rose as Isaacson shifted the balance of the magazine's covers and content away from traditional politics and foreign news. At CNN, he led discussions about cutting foreign correspondents and changing the emphasis of the network's non-crisis coverage. There were also talks about creating a less serious morning show to try to win younger viewers. Isaacson acknowledges, "I was pushing for more technology and life-style reporting." There was even talk of hiring the popular right-wing radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh.

With some notable exceptions--the Times, for example, maintains twenty-six bureaus overseas; the Washington Post has twenty-two--many newspapers and news magazines also have cut back on resources devoted to foreign news. As early as 1992, only twenty-five of the top hundred American newspapers had at least one full-time overseas correspondent, according to "International News & Foreign Correspondents," a book by Stephen Hess, of the Brookings Institution. Before accepting a recent buyout offer, Time's Paris bureau chief, Tom Sanction, told me of his frustration with the magazine, which had "reduced international coverage to periodic stories on the Middle East and Russia, unavoidable breaking news like the Kosovo war, and occasional touchy-feely features on AIDS in Africa, et cetera."

Still, the sharpest change was in television. For a man rewarded with, reportedly, a seven-million-dollar salary, Dan Rather, the CBS anchor, betrays deep anger. At his office one afternoon, he told me that he blames warped values for the drop in international-news coverage--"the Hollywoodization and 'frivolization' of the news"--and he blames the networks, including his own: "Entertainment values began to overwhelm news values." Rather recalled that, during debates within CBS over what stories to feature on the nightly news, some executives would say, "Don't do two and a half minutes on the crushing of dissent in China. Do it on how to prevent snoring. 'If snoring is a big problem, here's what you can do about it.' " CBS's producers were driven by the conviction, Rather said, that in order to catch NBC in the ratings they needed to create "a modern broadcast," which meant more "news-you-can-use." Of course, Rather disdained--but nevertheless delivered--the news about snoring.

Of ABC's eight overseas correspondents before September 11th, five were in London and the others were in Jerusalem, Hong Kong, and Nairobi. Earlier this year, to save money, ABC forced out Sheila MacVicar, a correspondent with extensive experience. (She was then hired by CNN.) Costs sometimes also determine whether a network will cover an important story with its own people. James Wooten, ABC's senior correspondent based in London, recalls that if he wanted to go to Africa he would be told, "We're not going to spend forty thousand dollars on that story." The budget for sending a team to Africa would include airfare for a correspondent, a producer, a cameraman, a sound technician, and perhaps even an editor, if the piece was to be cut and fed to the network from the field; steep charges to cover transporting equipment that was over the plane's weight limit per passenger; the daily cost for a fixer on the ground to translate and arrange transportation; hotels, meals, phones, travel. Networks increasingly came to the conclusion that it was often far less expensive to "cover" a story by buying footage from a service like ITN and having a correspondent in London or Washington supply a voice-over narration. Along the way, such techniques for transmitting basic information became confused, at least in the minds of some executives, with actual reporting.

Even CNN, with its enormous foreign staff, was giving less airtime to its overseas bureaus and was imitating the cheaper-to-produce shout-fests on Fox and MSNBC. During the week of July 16th, Larry King devoted five straight nights to the Chandra Levy case; Greta van Susteren's legal program, "The Point," featured it on four of five nights; and "Crossfire" featured it on three of five nights. Many of the newscasts also led with the names Levy and Condit. In August, I asked Gerald Levin, the C.E.O. of CNN's parent corporation, AOL Time Warner, how he squared the ubiquitous Condit coverage with his frequent declarations of loyalty to high-minded journalism. "The reason I don't have a problem with that--obviously, I'm not the news editor--is that it's a story about character," he replied. "It's not a tabloid story. It's about the character of the people who are running our government."

News executives generally offer three explanations for their decisions. First, some just deny the obvious. "The premise that we had been underplaying international news is questionable," Andrew Heyward, the president of CBS News, told me. Heyward pulled out a memorandum listing the many news stories from overseas shown on the evening news and insisted that between twenty and twenty-five per cent of the stories on CBS's most successful magazine shows, "60 Minutes" and "60 Minutes II," are foreign stories. Programs such as "60 Minutes" and ABC's "Nightline" are, however, the exceptions.

Second, they blame the viewers. According to Peter Jennings, the ABC anchor, network officials "came to the dangerous conclusion that Americans are not interested in the rest of the world." Terrified that the audience for news was dwindling, executives began to act like carnival barkers, desperately waving their arms at fickle viewers, begging them to please visit their tent. They packaged news programs like entertainment shows, with music (either dramatic or sentimental) and feel-good end pieces that allowed the anchor to smile wistfully into the camera and bid the country good night. Audience-research tools became increasingly powerful weapons. The networks have contracts with the Nielsen ratings service to provide minute-by-minute audience measurements of programming, including news, which allows them to get accurate profiles of which stories and on-air personalities the public prefers. Aaron Brown, of CNN, remembers talking with Neal Shapiro, the president of NBC News, at a wedding, and Shapiro telling him that when NBC's "Dateline" offered an international story the ratings plunged minute by minute. "His lesson was that if people don't watch it we won't put it on," Brown says. Shapiro acknowledged to me that there was such polling, but he did not recall the exchange with Brown. "People generally have found it easier connecting to stories about them and their lives," Shapiro conceded.

The third explanation is the confluence of specific events and public officials. With the Cold War over, the Clinton Administration declared its intention to focus almost wholly on domestic issues, particularly the economy. Tom Brokaw, the NBC anchor, recalls that in the 2000 Presidential and Vice-Presidential debates the word "terrorism" appeared just twice, both times in passing.

There is some truth to all these explanations, and to the claim that technology has created so many new sources of news that, as Brokaw says, "by the time we come on, at the end of the day, news has been broken into so many different components, and we have to find news that is interesting to the audience and helpful to them." But finding news that is "interesting" and "helpful" speaks mainly of ratings, and not of the higher purpose of journalism. International news is undeniably expensive to collect, and the ratings can be low, with correspondingly low advertising revenues: advertisers are not particularly eager to place their products next to programming about war and other vexing subjects of foreign reporting.

All this seemed to matter less when NBC, CBS, and ABC monopolized ninety per cent of the television audience and the networks were run by owner-managers who were under intense pressure from the government to provide news as a public service. Today, in the age of cable and satellites, ratings are half what they were; what's more, the government has muted its demands that networks serve the public interest. The networks are owned by enormous media conglomerates whose primary profits and values derive from the entertainment business. "The networks went through change when they went from being just networks to becoming part of larger corporations," Leslie Moonves, the president of CBS, told me. "The news division, for what was spent, was bringing less return than other areas of the company."

The executives say that news divisions no longer command the attention and the priority they once did. "You have to decode people as our government wants to decode Osama bin Laden," Danny Schechter, a former ABC and CNN producer and the co-founder of Globalvision, an independent production company, says. "When TV executives say, 'The public doesn't care about this,' they are really saying, 'I don't care about this.' " David Westin, the president of ABC News, insists that he does care about international coverage. So why didn't he do more of it? "It's possible we lost sight of that in a period of relatively fallow news and celebrities," Westin says. "What we do is always try to be on the leading edge of the American interest. Not simply pandering or responding to what they want. But, on the other hand, not being too far out front. There's always a tension there. If you don't care about the size of your audience, you're not in the news business. You're writing a diary."

Andrew Lack was the president of NBC News for eight years, and near the end of his stint, he says, he would "complain all the time" to Tom Brokaw and others that his tenure spanned Presidential elections and the war in Kosovo but never a really "big story." His "big" stories were the tabloid narratives: O.J., Diana, Monica, Condit. Like other news executives, he aggressively, and sometimes mindlessly, pursued these stories. That all changed, of course, when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. The networks suspended their regular programming and substituted news for the first ninety-plus hours of this new war, exceeding the continuous airtime they had devoted to the assassination of John F. Kennedy or to the start of Operation Desert Storm.

The experience of covering the war on terrorism, with its various tributaries at home and abroad, has reignited a professional pride that had been, for numerous journalists, badly diminished or lost. "I can't tell you how many people at the networks used to call us and say they wanted to marry money and meaning," Danny Schechter, of Globalvision, says. Because of the light news and the hyped "crises" they often chased, he says, "they hated themselves."

Few moments have demonstrated the sudden prestige of the serious journalist and the eclipse of the bogus better than an improvised Thanksgiving lunch for forty foreign correspondents in Jalalabad. Geraldo Rivera, a tabloid warrior who jumped from CNBC to Fox, crashed the feast just as the reporters were sitting down to eat a turkey that they'd found in the market, one participant recalled. The guests ignored Rivera, and his crew had to pull up an extra table for their star.

In contrast, the anchormen, the butt of parody on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and in "Broadcast News," have been a steadying presence. It had always been easy to mock them as pompous, self-conscious actors who knew just how to tilt their heads to indicate concern, how to raise an eyebrow to convey empathy or surprise or doubt. But their real skills, and their experience in the field, now came into play. Hour after hour, they orchestrated a stream of reports from around the country and around the world; they quizzed foreign leaders and ordinary people; they ad-libbed about a complex, unfolding tragedy and placed stories in perspective by relating them to other war zones and places they'd visited; they reminded viewers of what was known and what was not--all the while dealing with producers murmuring into their earpieces. At CNN, there were two new anchors, Paula Zahn, who left Fox to lead the morning show, and Aaron Brown, the lead anchor, whose worried, plainspoken style is a counterpoint to the self-assurance of Jennings, Rather, and Brokaw. "I know people come to television at times like this in part to get information, and in part to be part of a community and to be connected to a story in a different way," Brown said. "They want to know things are O.K." And yet, on a bad day, Brown is just as likely to tell them that things are a tragic, confusing mess.

In the wake of September 11th, television news divisions were working with budgets that had been imposed with no such epochal story in mind. Unlike CNN, with its vast international apparatus, the other networks had to rush to send depleted cadres of correspondents first to Pakistan and then to Afghanistan, leaving them short-handed on other stories: the antiterrorism effort in Europe, the fissures in the NATO alliance, Turkey's decision to offer troops to battle fellow-Muslims in Afghanistan. "I don't feel too much was missed," Leslie Moonves, the president of CBS, said, but that view is not widely shared at his network, or at others.

Nevertheless, perhaps for the first time since the early eighties, corporate bosses stopped complaining about "waste." The additional cost of covering this war at home and in Afghanistan, according to Andrew Lack, will be about fifty million dollars a year. Each network news division spends roughly four to five hundred million dollars, and the war is expected to add a minimum of a million dollars per week to the budget. This does not include the extra expenditures undertaken by the parent company's other news divisions, including local TV and radio stations. Nor does it include lost advertising dollars or spiralling costs should the war effort against terrorism expand to, say, Iraq. Mel Karmazin estimated that by the end of the year the war effort's cost to his company could reach five hundred million dollars. AOL Time Warner says that it does not compute the additional costs to CNN, and Gerald Levin says that he will pay any price: "Whatever it takes, particularly as it relates to news gathering." Reflecting a common, if perhaps temporary, sentiment about his corporate superiors, Dan Rather told me, "From Sumner Redstone to Mel Karmazin to Les Moonves, everything we needed we got. They've been marvellously supportive at a cost to the corporation. Supportive to a degree I would not have thought possible."

Optimists believe that the tragedy of September 11th could give a lasting sense of purpose to a diminished profession. Even such critics as Rory O'Connor, who says he decided to leave CBS after he was asked to produce a "48 Hours" on the subject of fat, agree. "The worm has turned," O'Connor, who co-founded Globalvision with Schechter, says now. "The audience wants more information." O'Connor's optimism is echoed by Tom Brokaw, who believes that the press will expand America's appetite for international news; he hopes that, since news is cheaper to produce than entertainment, perhaps the networks will make more time for serious news programming. Peter Jennings says, "The country's definition of foreign news has changed forever. What we learned from this crisis--from the airplanes that crashed on September 11th to the potential horror of a smallpox scare--is that everything about this story is about globalization." The events of September 11th have prompted NBC to "hire more people overseas," Neal Shapiro says, and he believes that NBC's being part of a large, rich company like General Electric will be advantageous.

But many of these people are not wholly convinced that the networks' approach to foreign news has changed fundamentally. "It's still a work in progress," Brokaw said.

"Nobody wants to say that television is going to return to its usual ways," Jennings said. "But there is some anxiety that, without assertive leadership at the top of the company, it will." CNN's Aaron Brown, asked if he thought the crisis would permanently bolster the amount of international news on the air, said, "My head doesn't know, and my gut says yes." Dan Rather, aware that foreign coverage is costlier and that management will continue to try to make news "a profit center," says, "I'm hopeful, but I'm not optimistic."

Certain forces are immutable: despite a momentary surge in ratings, the news audience is likely to continue its general trend, growing older and smaller, and that will shrink advertising revenue. And to slow the loss of audience share, especially among younger viewers, the three major networks will once more go for the broadest possible appeal, often at the expense of seriousness. With more channels to choose from, the networks' audiences will decline. Rising costs, coupled with an economic recession, will cause revenues to plummet further. As a result of these trends, Wall Street and shareholders will push management to cut spending. Media corporations traditionally court Wall Street more than their own news divisions, and, in the past, when forced to choose they have opted to please Wall Street. In all, it is a bleak picture. The news divisions' profit margins will continue to trail those of most other divisions, and the drive for a corporate team culture will encourage the news divisions to get with the program and keep up with their peers.

"The larger the entities that own and control the news operations, the more distant they become," Dan Rather says. He knew William Paley well when Paley ran the network, through the early eighties, but he barely knows the current C.E.O., Sumner Redstone. "At one time, news was an integral part of the corporation," Rather explains. "The person who ran the corporation was intimate with the people in news and had a dialogue with them that provided a little check and balance to the drive for profits and ratings."

The picture may become even bleaker when the three main network anchormen, Rather, Brokaw, and Jennings, retire. Rather turned seventy on October 31st, and although he says, "My plan is to keep on as long as I can do it," he has already held the job five years longer than his predecessor, Walter Cronkite. Jennings is sixty-three and his contract expires early this summer; for years, he has professed a desire to go back to reporting. Brokaw will be sixty-two in February, and had considered retiring in 2002, in order to spend more time writing. All three have a kind of vestigial authority within their networks--they are links to a different and better era--but when they are gone the executives may well feel liberated to cut costs even more. Brokaw, for example, has been hammered by critics like David Halberstam for preaching the value of foreign news while presiding over a program that has cut it to the bone; and yet Brokaw argues, in his own defense, that he has resisted still deeper cuts.

Already there is evidence that executives are getting anxious about the ratings decline and the cost of covering the war. One network-news president told me that by November a quiet backlash had begun. Only ABC broke into its prime-time schedule at 8 P.M. on Thursday, November 8th, to carry an address by President Bush, a decision that was perhaps influenced by its own weak offering that night, "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" No doubt, NBC and CBS declined to preempt their programs because they had two of the top-rated prime-time shows ("Friends" and "Survivor"); Fox was counter-programming with a cartoon show ("Family Guy"). One ABC correspondent says that network executives and senior producers are pressing the prime-time magazine shows to return to softer stories and to relegate war-related magazine pieces to a projected 8 P.M. Friday slot. Although NBC's "Today" show still leads the ratings, it is slumping; the network's news president, Neal Shapiro, told the Times, "We stayed in the war game too long." To compensate for the escalation in news costs, the Walt Disney Corporation, which owns ABC, has ordered other ABC divisions to reduce spending. NBC's president, Andrew Lack, says that the network will offset any news cost increases with compensating budget reductions or revenue increases elsewhere.

At CBS, Leslie Moonves says that he is turning his attention back to the financial ledger. With the budget at CBS News having grown considerably since September 11th, he will have to find compensating cuts elsewhere in order to meet his projected profit numbers. "60 Minutes" has been asked to pare five or six associate producers. "Earnings is what I'm judged on," Moonves said. He foresees a future that resembles nothing so much as the recent past, the days before the horror at the southern end of Manhattan. "We're in a competitive business," he says, "and ratings will be important for the news magazines and for the news telecasts. As you get further away from September 11th, that will revert back to normal."

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