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.
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.
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.
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.