The view from the TV news Titanic
WASHINGTON — Columnist Howard Rosenberg wrote recently in the Los Angeles Times that the television news industry is "like the entire Titanic ... going down." Sadly, he is correct.
The dispute over the future of ABC's venerable "Nightline" is the tip of a potential iceberg. And it's sad that defenders of "Nightline" find themselves excoriated as "elitists" whose treasured broadcast is "irrelevant" to American life.
It hardly seems possible that six months after the Sept. 11 attacks, and in the midst of "Operation Anaconda" in Afghanistan, "Nightline" anchor Ted Koppel has to assert his program's "relevance."
Since repetition of the obvious appears to be necessary, here is why ABC and its owner, Walt Disney Co., would be committing a shameless act of audience betrayal by removing "Nightline."
This show is one of the last vestiges of quality journalism on American broadcast television. By "quality," I don't mean that it dares to deploy polysyllabic words, treats its audience as responsible citizens, and honors the tradition of American journalism set by Edward R. Murrow - though it accomplishes all of this while making a chunk of money for Disney.
I mean that at a time of 24-hour cable "news speak," "Nightline" serves as one of the last places where viewers can actually find out what is happening in their nation and world. No other broadcast devotes five 30-minute segments to an examination of the plight of Congo; no other broadcast holds town meetings in the Middle East; no other broadcast can be relied upon, night after night, to give viewers a mature understanding of the events shaping an uncertain world.
If "Nightline" departs the airwaves, only "The News Hour with Jim Lehrer" on PBS will survive as a nightly broadcast looking at news in depth.
Some argue there's already too much news on TV. CNN, MSNBC, and the Fox News Channel, they say, have turned "Nightline" into an anachronism.
But if anything, competition among the cable news networks has made "Nightline" even more essential viewing, as CNN and its ilk gather at the tabloid trough, eating their fill of O.J. Simpson, Gary Condit, and the murder trial of Andrea Yates. (Visit the State Department today, and you'll find that diplomats watch CNNI, the network's superior international feed, rather than the mental bubble gum transmitted on domestic CNN.) Furthermore, not everyone can afford cable TV.
For 15 years, I have covered stories from around the world for broadcast television. But last week, when a Russian colleague urged me to travel to Central Asia and report on the strategic importance of growing ties between the United States and Uzbekistan, I could only try to explain why that is not a story that interests US television.
Ask yourself how much you've seen on TV this week about President Bush's decision to impose tariffs on imported steel, about the Saudi crown prince's attempts to kick-start the Middle East peace process, or about Zimbabwe's controversial election campaign. If you've seen any, it's likely been just "news in brief." Broadcast networks have scaled back their operations in Afghanistan to such a degree that the recent flareup in fighting caught them off guard.
On Feb. 6, 2001, Ariel Sharon was elected Israeli prime minister, a major event. That morning, ABC's "Good Morning America," NBC's "Today," and CBS's "Early Show" had finished their coverage by eight minutes past 7:00. The night before, Ted Koppel devoted his entire broadcast to Mr. Sharon's coming victory. That's why "Nightline" must stay on the air. If it doesn't, the TV news Titanic will sink.
Simon Marks, a former reporter for Monitor broadcasting, is president and chief correspondent of Feature Story News, an independent broadcast news agency.