Baby boomers’ memories of TV network news are history

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.

Greg anchors national television coverage of a NASA Space Shuttle launch at Cape Kennedy.

Greg anchored many live national television telecasts of NASA Space Shuttle launches at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

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.

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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.

NBC Nightly News live coverage of the North Carolina bathroom dustup.

NBC Nightly News live coverage of the North Carolina bathroom dustup.

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.

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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.

13 Comments

  1. I agree, I thought it was just me that noticed the difference between how the major news stories are mostly about crime, celebrities and weather that has major impact on communities ( I can understand sometimes. Thankfully my cable company provides the BBC station for news
    that impacts the world.

  2. You can see what’s going on with network “news” by looking at the ads… E.D., Diabetes, all manner of geezer illness and malfunction remedies… I watch ABC and am nightly distressed with the presentation of “if it bleeds, it leads” the most banal unimportant events get airtime if there is video, which of course there is plenty with every cell phone on the planet recording and uploading every trivial event… sigh… Walter, Walter, where are you when we need you?

  3. Greg: spot on, though I differ from you on the John Lennon assessment. Lennon was much more than an celebrity. He was a cultural icon who had helped define a generation. That someone who preached for peace yet died so violently went beyond irony. His death shattered our collective psyche and that level of coverage on the first newscast after the shooting was more than appropriate. The other stories you mentioned are certainly worthy of mention, but on that gray Tuesday in December, there was nothing that mattered more. The music had died once again.

    1. I closely agree with Mr. Gosset on this. That was the one jarring exception in an otherwise depressingly true and well put analysis. I am sure the Geraldo Rivera piece was characteristically ridiculous though. John Lennon’s assassination death was far and away the most important news of that day, whereas about no one recalls the umpty zillionith twist of the 444-day “Iran hostages” story, for instance. That story was clearly overemphasized big time, with many clear and lasting consequences. The absurd overcoverage of the Prince death and aftermath, a dwarf compared with John Lennon, is another current idiotic focus on celebrity and tabloidish stuff. And I am someone whose news judgement runs strongly in favor of air and ink and electrons being devoted to obituaries, along with space news, global warming crisis news, environmental news, etc. I like to edit from the perspective of what will matter most from now in 50, 500, 5000, and more years in the future–an historically informed, future-mindful one in other words. Roger Mudd clearly erred in burying the Elvis Pressley death story on the CBS Evening News in mid-broadcast in August 1977, though CBS News did televise an obituary special or special report, a once-regular practice for especially notable losses that has almost vanished inexplicably.

  4. I recall a time when we (local television news) followed the RTNDA guidelines regarding the placement of political ads within the body of the newscast. As television news started to become a profit center, those ads started finding their way into the newscast. Blurring the news with the spin.

    I also long for the day when the FCC required stations to “serve in the public’s interest, convenience, and necessity”. But then along came the cable news networks, “news doctors” and bigger bucks. Many of us who worked in the news business during the 70’s and 80’s are embarrassed about what television news has become.

    Recently a former news director posted a call for journalists to start digging into stories like what is going on in Kansas where the Governor and his legislature has all but bankrupted the state, our schools, and healthcare. But, if you are an LLC, you pay no taxes.

    When local and regional broadcasters aired Editorials and took a leadership role in their communities, I suggest they were doing more of what their original license to broadcast required.

    As one of my former News directors would say, “that’s thirty, Goodnight”.

    1. Interesting point about the FCC! Tom Fenton’s great book, “Bad News” is the best exposition on the state of today’s network news (especially international) vs. the days Greg Dobbs and David Henderson were working. One really interesting point in that book is Walter Cronkite’s assertion that there needs to be many more FCC license challenges filed, based on the networks’ and local stations’ abrogation of their responsibilities to keep the viewers informed about substantive issues.

  5. Surely, this is no surprise. A nation with increasing inequality, police often out of control, musical lyrics that celebrate hostility to women and bad-boy violence, and a culture of narcissism does not want news that disturbs the status quo, if only because the corporate sponsors will not buy the ads. The nation is interested in the hysterical, dramatic, and visually appealing image.

    We crave celebrities because in our minds we then become one too. We love titillatin because we forget how more constrained our pensions and retirement lives will be compared to our girdle-and-white shirt square parents.

    We ceased being a nation interested in the world and facts starting in 1970. We eventually elected a President who celebrated greed, made a verbal commitment to “rolling back” the New Deal, and said he fully intended to leave the next generation in so much debt they’d would only have time to work and never have time to protest.

    While all that was going on up front and in our face, we dressed in designer jeans that cost what our parents were paying for their mortgage (but we were a cool elite who could afford that, we obsessed on the trophy suburban home in the right zip code (now an aging trap), we craved the status symbol BMW (not a Cadillac how trite but since morphed into a big leased SUV since we can’t afford to buy it), slate shower stalls (dressed up with hotel style soap pumps), and organic juice beverages churned up in hand-tooled machines (along with the Keurig, Viking appliances, and fitbits).

    We were offered a bill of neo-conservative nostalgia for the old days bill of goods, most of us sold out, and, now, virtually all of us lost out except the lucky few hedge fund types who feed off the lies and fantasies. We have no pensions. We have 401K’s despite warnings from our our parents that this would be no substitute for a defined benefit pension but corporate America and we knew better. We can’t retire and our children have it even worse. They’re burdened with college debt to the point they cannot buy homes, cars, or have families.

    We were snookered and now it is too late. Well, for most of us. The few who saw it coming are not in that position. They have no mortgage, have a defined benefit pension, health care coverage that will wrap around Medicare, and drive small “rice sipper” cars.

    Still, we are all history and history will not be kind to us.

    Breathe deep the gathering gloom…..

  6. I agree. They said that Flint michigan was not the only city in the USA to have its water supply safely gone, but where are they? Been nice to know and what they were doing about it. No one mentions the news if it seems bad for the people. I understand about putting the positive up but how can we can make informed decisions without the knowledge of the news? And it doesn;t seem to be new. It just seems to be recycling our past mistakes over and over again because we are not informed of what is wrong now and our mistakes from the past trying to fix it,

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