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.
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Some old-timers argue that television news was always entertainment. Perhaps, but at least Murrow, Cronkite, and their ilk were culturally literate and came from news backgrounds. And none of them considered running for political office like Lou Dobbs, who left CNN last month. TV anchors of yore understood that they were messengers of the news – not the message itself. Today, New York TV executives fancy themselves Hollywood moguls looking for starlets and ratings.Skip to next paragraph
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Perils of corporate ownership
Network evening news is dying of multiple causes, but stifling, bottom-line corporate ownership is a major factor. When Laurence Tisch bought CBS, General Electric took over NBC, Disney bought ABC, and Time Warner took over CNN, critics predicted dire consequences for the quality of news. They were scoffed at by the new owners. But the critics were right. Under the bean counters' stewardship, network news lost much of its audience and raison d'être.
America's networks shut down large stables of fine foreign correspondents to economize after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Later, CNN shed most of its overseas correspondents, outsourcing their jobs to third-rate castoffs from the BBC.
It's now a game of "Let's Pretend." Businesspeople pretend to be news executives. Gorgeous anchors pretend to be seasoned journalists, and reporters pretend to be actors gesticulating, emoting, and imagining they have Oprah's skills.
The previous generation of network news executives simply failed to anticipate the future. They suspected technology would revolutionize TV news but wrongly assumed the beneficiaries would be local television stations, not cable. They derided Ted Turner's vision because he was from the South, arrogantly mocking CNN as "Chicken Noodle News."
In their hubris, the New York network suits never anticipated that a rogue Australian mogul named Rupert Murdoch would not only rob them of a chunk of their news audience by creating the Fox network, but he would also take away much of their advertising revenue by co-opting their NFL games and entertainment programming.
So let us salute Oprah, the last great American TV genius, who seems recession-proof. When others began to slide, she invented an "infotainment" empire. And as she launches her new network, I suspect if she walked through any network newsroom or executive suite and announced, "Hey if y'all want a job, just follow me," the big networks' TV screens would fade to black.
Walter Rodgers, a former television correspondent for ABC and former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column for the Monitor's weekly print edition.