A couple of former network television news correspondents founded BoomerCafé almost 20 years ago: David Henderson, now BoomerCafé’s publisher, reported for CBS News, and Greg Dobbs, now its executive editor, reported for ABC. While the whole world of online magazines has blossomed, the business in which David and Greg grew up has wilted. Greg, who now produces weekly op-ed columns for The Denver Post, recently wrote one about his and David’s old business, which he has adapted for you baby boomers who knew it then … and now.
Remember the heyday of TV news? Especially on the big networks. The era of Cronkite, Chancellor, Howard K. Smith. Then later with the likes of Rather and Brokow and Jennings. The days when, if a story broke, the networks sent seasoned journalists out to cover it. That’s where both David Henderson and I got to work. In that business. In that heyday.
But it’s a heyday that lasted for less than our careers. It came and went in a flash. And these days, we’re both embarrassed. Embarrassed by the industry in which we proudly made our living.
It’s not that there weren’t embarrassing episodes in the trade while we were part of it. Maybe the most egregious was back in 1992 when NBC News staged a fiery gas tank explosion to deceitfully reinforce their report about dangerous GM trucks. CNN’s more recent and shamefully wrong newsflash that Chief Justice John Roberts was striking down Obamacare wasn’t so hot either.
Then there was the day even farther back when John Lennon was murdered. ABC News sent me to Liverpool, England, to do the “Here’s where it all started” story. Nothing wrong with that, until I learned that my piece would be one of five about Lennon that night … including then-correspondent Geraldo Rivera’s self-serving claim that he once coaxed Lennon out of retirement.
That didn’t rise to the level of the exploding gas tank, but there was other equally earth-shaking news that day: Iran saying the hostage crisis was closer to being solved, the Soviets calling up reservists reportedly to suffocate Poland’s Solidarity trade union, Chrysler begging for another $350-million in federal aid to stay alive. ABC’s disproportionate focus on celebrity in a short nightly newscast was a personal embarrassment.
Why bring this up now? Because if anything, things are getting even worse.
Just for example, on NBC Nightly News in mid-May, on the day when North Carolina sued the federal government over the controversial “bathroom law,” and Donald Trump brazenly broke his pledge to run an issue-based campaign unless the other side didn’t, the lead story was? A tornado south of Oklahoma City! Granted, weather counts in all our lives, but this was a local story without immediate national impact. So why did they lead with it? Well, they had riveting images.
Equally annoying, they obscured the video at the bottom of the screen — the destructive tip of the Oklahoma twister — with a banner saying in big bold letters, “Breaking News: New Tornado Outbreak Strikes.” Excuse me, but that’s what the correspondent was reporting on and the video was showing; even an idiot didn’t need a banner to spell things out. (Maybe worse, CNN will banner “Breaking News” darned near every time a newsmaker sneezes.)
It’s called pandering. CBS News comes closest to a panderless evening newscast, while NBC, although it also credibly reports serious news, is prone to pivot to crime, children, animals, and weather when they’ve got video to entice us. Or, the celebrities. NBC’s the network that paid high six-figure salaries to two totally unseasoned correspondents named Chelsea Clinton and Jenna Bush. For its closing story the same night as the tornado, Bush interviewed Britain’s Prince Harry, comparing notes on whose grandmother is the toughest. (I think Jenna wins.)
I’m only picking on NBC, by the way, because I’m too embarrassed by the downmarket priorities at my old network ABC to even tune in to the news there any more.
What’s it all matter? Well, for one thing, it results in phenomena like the celebrity-centric exposure all the networks gave Donald Trump, for free — one estimate says, $2-billion-dollars worth — which arguably tilted the whole campaign and could change the course of history.
There are good explanations for the decline in the quality of coverage: more competition than ever before to be first, smaller audiences and less ad revenue than ever before to keep quality high, and the money-and-soul-sucking sway of technology. Good explanations, but not good excuses.
Most Americans still get news from television. It should be more about what they need than what they want. If, collectively, the networks understand that, they’re not showing it.