NBC News Woes Caution Industry
NEW YORK — LAST week's resignation of NBC News chief Michael G. Gartner - following a number of embarrassing incidents that included the use of deceptive film in an evening news program - will have long-range implications for the news media, experts say.
Among them: ensuring more careful reporting, requiring that news operations be headed by journalism professionals rather than people from management, and, possibly, prying a few more dollars from corporate front offices.
"NBC will be better" for it, says Ken Auletta, author of "Three Blind Mice: How the TV Networks Lost Their Way." Mr. Gartner's resignation, which followed outcries about deceptive journalistic practices, "was a shot hurled across the bow" of news organizations, Mr. Auletta says.
Gartner is a former editor of the Des Moines Register and the Courier-Journal in Louisville; he was also formerly one of the top editors of The Wall Street Journal. In August 1988, he assumed direction of the NBC News division, which been losing millions of dollars annually for the network's corporate parent, the General Electric Company.
Gartner's challenge was difficult: Bring down costs while increasing viewership, particularly for the network's flagship evening national-news show, which was in third place. Gartner slashed the staff and eliminated bureaus, while prodding the news division to emphasize feature stories rather than hard news. Some critics called the new orientation "sensational" in tone, pointing to such shows as one that features home videos of disasters. But the division is expected to turn a profit this year.
Gartner also drew criticism for replacing Jane Pauley with Deborah Norville on the "Today" show. But it was the incident involving the use of a specially filmed crash test of a General Motors truck that finally ended the Gartner reign: NBC was forced to admit publicly that it had used incendiary devices (model-rocket engines) to ensure that the vehicle would explode.
"The element of shame," such as occurred in NBC's case, "is always helpful" in forcing owners and operators of news organizations to be more responsible, Auletta says. Moreover, NBC "paid a price for their cost-cutting, attempting to get the news `on the cheap.' "
Media experts note that NBC is not alone in having been embarrassed by questionable reporting. Local stations and other networks have been challenged in recent years for the use of dubious, if not dishonest, footage. Media critics complain that some TV news shows deliberately seek to encourage strife or other expressions of public anger to elicit emotionally charged footage. In print media, critics say they find biased or unbalanced stories. In a few cases, those identified as real people have turned out
to be fictitious, or "composites."
"What happened at NBC was very good," says Mitchell Stephens, chairman of the Journalism Department at New York University and author of "A History of the News." "Every now and then journalists need a reminder to be straight, to stick to the facts, and not do things on the cheap. That's especially important in television news now, where competitive pressures are very great."
Professor Stephens says the proliferation of television "magazine" shows, such as ABC's "Prime Time Live" and "20/20"; "Dateline NBC"; and CBS's "60 Minutes," "Street Stories," and "48 Hours," represent an important shift in broadcast journalism. The programs are an amalgam of the feature reporting and investigative journalism traditionally found in print news magazines. Much of what the TV magazines do, he says, is "excellent." But given the high costs associated with TV, plus competition from other ne tworks and cable, there is danger of veering into the sensationalism found in the syndicated "entertainment magazine" TV shows usually appearing earlier in the evening on local stations. Thus, Stephens says, television-news officials must be very careful about ensuring accuracy.