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Walter Rodgers

Oprah's rise, and the fall of network news

In their hunt for ratings and revenue, TV news executives have replaced trusted journalists with sparkling personalities and incendiary demagogues.

By Walter Rodgers / December 10, 2009



Washington

Oprah Winfrey has been the Walter Cronkite of the current generation, but even bigger. Some TV analysts suggest her recently announced departure from network TV in 2011 prefigures an uncertain future for CBS, ABC, and NBC. But the networks' retreat from the quality TV news of Uncle Walter's evening broadcasts to the safety of entertainment and information programming of Aunt Oprah has long been under way. As early as the mid-1950s, Edward Murrow, the pioneer of broadcast news, decried the corrupting influence of ratings lust on serious news.

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Of course, Oprah doesn't pretend to be a journalist. But she's the top draw for a newsmaker looking to make a splash. Sarah Palin used Oprah to launch her book tour. And on Dec. 13, Barack and Michelle Obama will sit down with her for a special televised interview. Meanwhile, TV network news ratings continue to sink, which should inspire some soul-searching by those responsible for filling the vacuums left by Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, and Tom Brokaw, the last generation of news greats.

What explains Oprah's appeal

Consultants may look at Oprah's success and wrongly recommend that news programs be further watered down with pop psychology, features on health and sex, and celebrity interviews. Her content is attractive, but the key to Oprah's success – as with Cronkite's before her – is trustworthiness.

In their separate spheres, Cronkite and Oprah commanded respect. Cronkite narrated the death of a president (JFK) and took us to the moon. In her era, Oprah was invited by tens of millions of American women into the most intimate recesses of their minds.

Today, Oprah enjoys more clout and credibility than most news anchors combined. Her favorable to unfavorable rating in a recent poll was 61 to 26 – a level of admiration most politicians can only dream about. And few would question that she is a more reliable source of what's important than what currently passes for television news. Doubt me? Whom do you trust more, Oprah or Fox News?

It may be too late to return to the golden era of Murrow and Cronkite, when talent reached the top only after honing real journalism skills. But executives should at least be honest about their model.

It's obvious that they've given up trying to reestablish "news giants." In their hunt for ratings and revenue, they've replaced trusted journalists with sparkling personalities and incendiary demagogues. They've badly blurred the lines between journalism and entertainment by infusing news with the stuff of tabloids. It's an old temptation: ABC once hired a correspondent because it thought he'd open a pipeline to the Kennedy family's glitter.

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