A narrow miss for TV news

I am thinking about the abortive Disney-dictated attempt to bump Ted Koppel's ABC "Nightline" to make room for comedian David Letterman, but first the mandatory full disclosure:

I worked in television journalism for 30 years and developed some strong ideas about its limitations. I am way at the wrong end of that demographic scale that seems to so preoccupy media executives. And Ted Koppel is a longtime friend of mine.

Am I possibly biased about this latest invasion of information by entertainment? You bet I am!

Paddy Chayevsky foretold the decline of TV journalism a quarter century ago in his brilliant satire "Network." In the movie, a faltering network owned by a distant conglomerate seeks to raise the ratings, and profits, by turning over its news programming to its entertainment department. The programming chief, played by Faye Dunaway, arranges to have her psychotic news anchorman shot in full view of a studio audience. She also makes a deal with a band of urban guerrillas to tape their crime of the week.

This was satire, mind you, a little ahead of its time.

The problem with bottom-line thinking is that news was not meant to compete for profits. News is what the TV tycoons owe the public for the free use of the public airwaves. The law, in fact, mandates that television stations, to retain their licenses, must operate in "the public interest, convenience, and necessity." But, under permissive administrations from Reagan to the incumbent Bush, regulatory monitoring has become a dead letter.

Gone are the days when William S. Paley of CBS, David Sarnoff of NBC, and Leonard Goldenson of ABC indulged their money-losing news stars to take the curse off "the vast wasteland," as former FCC chairman Newton Minow called television, and reduce the stench of the quiz-show scandals.

Today, as networks are ruled by remote conglomerates, news is coming to inhabit a small corner of a vast entertainment stage.

So, you know what is happening when Leonardo DiCaprio is assigned by ABC to interview President Clinton about the environment. Or when the Pentagon invites ABC entertainment rather than news to produce a 13-part series on American forces in action in Afghanistan. Or, to come back to the beginning of this essay, when the Disney Mickey Mouse empire seeks to install a funny man in Ted Koppel's place to attract more of the prized young consumers.

It didn't work this time because Letterman decided to stay put at CBS. But Koppel is still smarting from the remark of an anonymous corporate executive that "Nightline" has lost its "relevance."

If the executive meant relevance to world events, which have never been in greater need of journalistic explanation, then that would be preposterous. But he undoubtedly meant relevance to the corporate balance sheet. And that defines the problem.

• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst for NPR.

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