THE news business involves a delicate, often difficult balance between public trust and private profits, as the CBS News decision to cut more than 200 staff positions amply illustrates. Granting the right of corporate management to manage, to trim, to redeploy assets, we still cannot help lamenting the cuts. To journalists, any news of a cut in the flow of information is bad news, whether it's a CBS closing a bureau, a rural weekly folding up, or even a government agency deciding to drop a set of statistical reports. There's always some slack to be taken up, but clearly, with 215 fewer people, CBS is going to be unable to cover as much news.
From Edward R. Murrow's wartime broadcasts, to Walter Cronkite's narration of America's first space shots, to the unfolding dramas of Watergate and now the Iran affair, CBS has set a standard. When a flagship starts taking on water, everyone in the news fleet gets a little anxious.
Ironically, CBS is the only one of the three major networks that is independently owned. NBC has long been owned by RCA, which not long ago was bought by General Electric. ABC was recently acquired by Capital Cities Communications. But CBS has had to pay a price for its independence; it is heavily loaded with debt after fending off an unfriendly takeover bid by Ted Turner of Cable News fame. And Lawrence Tisch, the chairman at whose behest the cuts are presumably being made, came on as a white knight to protect CBS from Mr. Turner.
The challenges at CBS are coming at a time when the primacy of network news programs generally is being questioned. They must compete for viewers with ever more sophisticated local news shows and - Oindignity! - totally unsophisticated game shows. The Cable News Network, with its around-the-clock coverage, and specialized cable and other channels are also available.
The CBS layoffs may be the beginning of the end for superstar salaries, too - despite offers by some of them to take pay cuts.
If the cuts CBS is now making in response to economic pressures of a free-market system prove injudicious, viewers may vote with their channel-changers for some other option. That's part of the free-market system, too.