The Washington Post
Reality Show: Inside the Last Great Television News Warby Howard Kurtz
Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings: They were on a first-name basis with the country for a generation, leading viewers through moments of triumph and tragedy. But now that a new generation has succeeded them, the once-glittering job of network anchor seems unmistakably tarnished. In an age of instantaneous Internet news, cable echo chambers and iPod
Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings: They were on a first-name basis with the country for a generation, leading viewers through moments of triumph and tragedy. But now that a new generation has succeeded them, the once-glittering job of network anchor seems unmistakably tarnished. In an age of instantaneous Internet news, cable echo chambers and iPod downloads, who really needs the evening news? And, by extension, who needs Katie Couric, Brian Williams, and Charlie Gibson?
But the anchors still have a megaphone capable of cutting through the media static. Their coverage of Iraq helped turn the country against that bloody war, and they are now playing a leading role in chronicling the collapse of George Bush's presidency and the 2008 race to succeed him. Yet, even as the anchors fight for ratings supremacy, the mega-corporations they work for have handed them a bigger challenge: saving an American institution.
In this freewheeling, intimate account of life atop the media pyramid, award-winning bestselling author Howard Kurtz takes us inside the newsrooms and executive suites of CBS, NBC, and ABC, capturing the deadline judgments, image-making, jealousies, and gossip of this high-pressure business. Whether it is Couric trying to regain her morning magic while coping with tabloid stories about her boyfriends, Williams reporting from New Orleans and Baghdad while worrying about his ailing father, or Gibson weighing whether to follow his wife into retirement while grappling with having to report the explicit details of sex scandals, Kurtz brings to life the daily battles that define their lives.
The narrative reflects an extraordinary degree of access to such corporate chieftains as Jeff Zucker and Les Moonves, star correspondents, and the anchors themselves. Their goal: create an on-screen persona that people will tune in to and trust. Yet they are faced with a graying, shrinking audience as younger viewers flock to Jon Stewart, whose influence on the real newscasts is palpable. Here is the untold story of what these journalistic celebrities think of their bosses, cable competitors, bloggers, and each other.
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Read an Excerpt
I grew up with a black-and-white television set on a rusty metal stand in my bedroom, and when you wanted to change programs you had to get up and turn this round metal protrusion-it was, I believe, called a dial from Channel 2 to Channel 4 or Channel 7 or the handful of local stations.
This did not seem like a terribly heavy burden at the time. I had, and this may be hard to grasp, no computer. No VCR. No fax machine. No e-mail. No voice mail. No FM radio, no tape cassettes, no DVDs, no music player capable of holding thousands of songs. There were no blogs to read, no Web sites to surf, no video-on-demand to download.
If you wanted news, you bought a newspaper in the morning, and if you wanted more up-to-date news, you bought an afternoon paper, one of which I delivered for a time, stuffing the copies into a canvas bag that hung from my bike's handlebars. And if, during or after supper, which was generally eaten together by families, you wanted the latest available information from the rest of the world, you turned on the network news at 6:30.
No wonder it loomed so large in our lives. The news at that hour was fresh, there was film from around the country, and tuning in was a shared experience, not unlike watching the comedians, singers, and jugglers on Ed Sullivan. With little in the way of competition, Walter Cronkite, along with Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, enjoyed an enormous market share, to use a modern sales term. Never mind that their broadcasts were primitive by today's standards, with public officials droning on at length, reporters holding microphones while interview subjects fumbled for answers, and little sense of drama or storytelling. The newscasts fit the times, and the anchors fulfilled our needs.
Fast forward a few decades. I am totally wired, from the hundreds of cable choices on my TV set, complete with digital recording device, to the 170 channels on my car's satellite radio, to the blessing and curse of my constantly buzzing BlackBerry. As a reporter for The Washington Post, I am surrounded by news, practically choking on news, all day long. As the host of CNN's media program, Reliable Sources, I am immersed in the making of television. As a journalist who has patrolled the media beat for 17 years, I am intensely interested in the gathering and shaping and communicating of information.
A few short years ago, I realized that I was increasingly missing the network newscasts, and for reasons that were all too familiar. I got home too late, or was busy making dinner, or was distracted by a dozen other things. When I had the set on, I realized that I already knew the details of the top stories and often clicked it off. Sometimes I was on the computer, where any story, it seemed, was at my fingertips within seconds.
I was losing the habit.
When there was a big, breaking scandal or a hot political campaign, I usually found time to watch. The rest of the time, not so much. Without really thinking about it, I was concluding that the newscasts had little to offer me that I couldn't get, in timelier and more compelling fashion, elsewhere. The world had changed since the days of my little black-and-white set with the gnarled antenna, and so had I.
It soon became apparent that the tectonic plates of network news were about to shift. The men who had dominated the television landscape for more than two decadesDan Rather, Tom Brokaw, and Peter Jennings were nearing the end of their long run. I had gotten to know them reasonably well over the years, understood their strengths and weaknesses, and had a hard time imagining the evening news without them. In times of crisis and celebration, of triumph and tragedy, they were there, as entrenched a trio as had ever peered out from the small screen. What would television news be like without them? Would their successors be able to fill their sizable shoes? Or had we, as a country, simply moved on? Without Dan, Tom, and Peter, would the whole shaky edifice just collapse?
The question, I realized, was this: What did it mean to be an anchor a big-time, globe-trotting, perfectly lit, multimillion-dollar anchor-in the first decade of the 21st century? It was fashionable in some circles to deride anchors as absurdly overpaid news readers, but they also had to be able to ad lib for hours on end, flying blind as it were, when dramatic events erupted. Rather, Brokaw, and Jennings had formed an emotional connection with the audience, precisely because they served as national hand-holders when the Challenger blew up, when a president was impeached, when the World Trade Center towers came crashing down, when American troops were marching through the desert toward Baghdad.
But the job description was changing. When big stories broke, the country increasingly turned to cable, to channels that trafficked in news and opinion around the clock, not just in carefully circumscribed half-hours amid a panoply of sitcoms and dramas and reality shows. And the big, lumbering broadcast networks were all too happy to cede that turf, the breaking-news turf, to their younger cousins. News was expensive, messy, unpredictable, labor-intensive, and far less lucrative than Survivor or E.R. or Ugly Betty or Desperate Housewives. The desperate networks had found a way out. They would show up on ceremonial occasions, such as presidential inaugurations and conventions, and wave the corporate flag, but for them news was essentially a time slot, a niche market in their sprawling business.
Yet they remained, for all their flaws and shortcomings, the biggest game in town, the three network newscasts reaching a combined nightly viewership of 25 million Americans. But the shrinkage was impossible to miss. Two and a half decades earlier, the audience had been twice as large, 56 million viewers, and far younger than the graying crowd that still gathered for the old ritual that had once been indispensible and now was merely a lifestyle choice.
Where once there were just three alternatives for the day's national headlines, hundreds of thousands now beckoned, shiny and seductive. We were hurtling into an era of personalized news, of custom-tailored news, of opinionated news, of satiric news, of fact-free news, of skip-the-vegetables-and-have-the-ice-cream news, if indeed anything resembling news was on the menu. Younger people, especially, wanted what they wanted when they wanted it, whether it was radioed, video-streamed, satellited, blogged, or podcasted their way. They might get their fill from Howard 100 News, on Howard Stern's new Sirius radio channel, or Google News, a constantly updating compendium powered by computer algorithms, or dig the stories at Digg.com, where the most popular pieces were voted by users onto the Web site's home page. They might prefer fake news from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central, or exchanging tidbits with buddies on MySpace.com, an Internet portal site snatched up by Rupert Murdoch that boasted an astonishing 60 million members. The notion of waiting around for some authority figure in New York to deliver the headlines from behind an anchor desk was almost quaint.
News organizations were reluctant to accept their share of the blame, although they had turned much of the news into a commodity that seemed artificial, stilted, and remote from most people's lives. But the media universe had also splintered into a thousand fragments as people got their news not just instantaneously but tailored to their outlook and preferred delivery method Fox News or PBS, Rush Limbaugh or Al Franken, iPod or cell phone. At the same time, public trust in big news outlets was plunging to record lows. As the country grew dramatically more polarized in the era of George W. Bush and the Iraq war, liberal bloggers and radio hosts denounced the MSM, or mainstream media, as hopelessly biased toward the White House, perhaps with greater ferocity than conservative commentators ripped the same targets as unfair to their side.
In the midst of this free-fire zone, high atop a hill, behind glittering gates that once seemed impregnable, the network anchors were trying to hold together a tattered coalition of the middle. At a time when families no longer gathered around an electronic hearth, the networks had to deliver news that was neither too sophisticated nor too dumbed-down, too left or too right, too elite or too obvious. They still sought a mass audience when the very concept sounded like a 20th-century relic, now that people could download their own music and movies and video rather than having a handful of corporate suits choose it for them. The YouTube generation, which enjoying making and circulating its own videos, was reclaiming control of a process that had once been beyond the reach of ordinary folks.
The upheaval at the broadcast networks, after so many years of relative stability, was for these proud organizations a time of both immense opportunity and extraordinary vulnerability. Their task was far greater than simply replacing the anchor-monsters, as industry insiders called them, with younger journalists who would have to labor mightily to earn the respect that each of the veterans had commanded. Their challenge was nothing less than rescuing a creaky franchise that was threatened by faster technology, edgier alternatives, and the disintegration of a unified audience.
Copyright © Howard Kurtz 2007
Meet the Author
Howard Kurtz is the media reporter for The Washington Post, and also writes a weekly column for the newspaper and a daily blog for its website. He is also host of CNN's Reliable Sources, the longest-running media criticism show on television. His previous books include New York Times bestselling Spin Cycle: Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine (1998) and The Fortune Tellers: Inside Wall Street's Game of Money, Media, and Manipulation (2000). His book Hot Air: All Talk All the Time (1996) was named by Business Week as one of the ten best business books of the year and Media Circus: The Trouble with America's Newspapers (1993) was chosen as the best recent book about the news media by American Journalism Review. Kurtz joined The Washington Post in 1981, and his work has appeared in Vanity Fair, Newsweek, New York, and other national magazines. He lives with his family in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
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