Anchor Steam


When it looked, for a few days in March, as if ABC might shove

aside Ted Koppel and "Nightline" to make way for David Letterman, a

predictable storm of hand-wringing ensued: Was network broadcast

journalism in jeopardy? Was it simply a matter of time before theevening news itself was sacrificed at the altar of shareholder

It wasn't the first time the question has been asked, and it won't

the last. (Indeed, depending on the outcome of Peter Jennings's

ongoing contract negotiations--ABC reportedly hopes to persuade him

to take a pay cut--it could come up again rather soon.) Defenders of

evening-news broadcasts tend to describe them as a redoubt of

sobriety and responsibility in a "news environment" dominated by

loudmouthed punditry (think Chris Matthews and Bill O'Reilly) and

gross sensationalism. And in a sense, critics say much the same

thing: that the problem with the nightly news is that it's too dull

and dowdy to compete.

Having recently spent three weeks as one of the 25 million or so

Americans who watch the networks' flagship broadcasts (a habit that,

like many millions of other Americans, I gave up long ago), I have a

news flash for both sides: If the network news divisions think they

are producing an evening broadcast so noble that it deserves to be

defended from the corporate huns, they're kidding themselves. And if

the evening news isn't dramatic enough for those corporate honchos,

it's not for lack of trying. It's not just the much-noted increase

"soft" news features that now eats up a large portion of each

broadcast; even the hard news now comes with a hard sell in which

emotional impact trumps intellectual content with appalling

consistency. The evening anchors may still look and talk like

paragons of wisdom and integrity right out of our nostalgia-clouded

memory of The Good Old Days, but their broadcasts are something

Or as they might put it, "Shameless hype. Trumped-up melodrama. It

pretends. To be a public service. But just how dumb is your evening


Each half-hour network-news broadcast contains about 17 total

of news, once you subtract the commercials and the endless "teases."

All begin with a straightforward nine or ten minutes of reasonable,

if sketchy, summaries of major events. My first week of viewing was

devoted to ABC's "World News Tonight" with Peter Jennings. The

program opens with the "ba-ba-BA-ba" fanfare familiar to anyone who

owns a TV set. As a sequence of images flashes across the screen,

Jennings calls out the day's headlines in the form of fragmentary

phrases--"Casualties," "Left Uncovered," "Mass Destruction," "Utter

Confusion." ("That would be the tax code," Jennings adds in

to the last phrase, using the peculiar stop-start locution style

that's de rigueur in TV news: "Two hundred pages. Just. To describe

child.") The point seems to be to make everything sound as

titillating, and potentially enraging as possible.

Jennings sits behind a desk in what appears to be an actual

The lead story my first night was the latest from eastern

Afghanistan, where American soldiers were battling Al Qaeda forces.

quick clip of historian Michael Beschloss--one of those "experts"

forever being trotted out to give a learned gloss to some obvious

point--showed him sagely observing that if the public gets upset

about casualties, a prolonged military effort will be hard to

sustain. This was followed by an extraordinary series of sound and

image bites from relatives of the handful of soldiers killed in the

fighting, each relative tearily resolute that the country is doing

the right thing. "It is an excruciating, extraordinary price they

pay," summarized reporter Dan Harris. "They say it's worth it."

They say it's worth it. There was a weird ambivalence to Harris's

tone. Did he think they were lying? Being nave? I heard this tone a

lot on the evening news, and I finally figured out that it didn't

mean anything specific--the ambivalence was the whole point. The

suggested something is amiss, but left it up to me to decide what it

might be. To the extent I saw bias on the evening news, it wasn't

ideological; it was a bias toward the ambiguously melodramatic. They

say it's worth it--but is it really? Stay tuned.

Once we're off the day's headlines, there are seven or eight minutes

for "feature" or "enterprise" reporting--getting beyond the bland

recap that a viewer could have gotten from CNN HEADLINE NEWS. After

Letterman decided to stay at CBS, ABC News President David Westin

reportedly told his troops that they could prove their worth to

parent company Disney by way of "innovative and bold" fare;

presumably the second half of the evening news is one place to do

Every night ABC runs a segment called "A Closer Look," which is

usually a two- or three-minute report on something that's not in the

headlines at all. These tend to be CliffsNotes versions of stories

that might appear on a "magazine"-style show, but they are severely

truncated and lacking any particular point of view (even a banal one

like, "Taxes are too complicated"). Sentencing laws in Louisiana,

buying prescription drugs from Canada via the Internet, adoption

agencies "putting a premium on race." Good? Bad? Who knows? The

topics seem to be selected--and crafted--not so much to inform

viewers as to fire up a half-baked opinion in every kitchen. You can

be outraged about how draconian the sentencing laws are--or about

prospect of criminals going free. You can be upset that the Internet

makes it easy to cheat the health care system--or you can rail

against price-gouging drug companies. You might be appalled that

adoption agencies make it more expensive to adopt a white child--or

distraught that race-specific demand from potential parents has

created this "marketplace."

One of television's advantages over print is, of course, the power

actual footage. But often this seems to be the tail that wags the

dog. One evening Jennings introduced the post-headlines segment by

saying, "The Senate Judiciary Committee today agreed to delay the

vote on a controversial White House nomination to a federal court."

He showed a clip of Senators Orrin Hatch and Patrick Leahy quietly

bickering at the hearing. "The question is," Jennings said, "do they

or do they not know their microphones are not open?" The

back-and-forth between Leahy and Hatch lasted about a minute, and

then Jennings repeated his question: "Did they or did they not know

their microphones were open?" Here are some other questions: Who was

the nominee? For what court? What's the controversy? The clip shed

light on any of this, and neither did Jennings. (It was Thomas

Pickering, nominated for the Fifth Circuit, who was at the center of

a tussle over his civil rights record.) This segment, too, seemed

designed to elicit a kind of content-free outrage: Viewers should be

angry at all this pointless bickering between senators--and it must

be pointless, given that the broadcast never explained what it was


Finally ABC has a closing feature. Sometimes this slot is filled by

Mike Lee, a reporter who has been "traveling around the world, on

own, picking up stories," as part of a series called "The Road To

Anywhere." His dispatches get nearly three minutes. I saw two. One

found Lee on a South African beach, reporting on a black youth who

surfs. ("A young man, full of hope and promise," Lee explained

helpfully.) In another, we visited a game reserve, also in South

Africa, where one can have plastic surgery. "It's called a surgery

safari," Lee noted, before claiming that it is "one of South

fastest-growing attractions." (News veterans know that even if a

trend is tiny and inconsequential, it can almost always be described

as "fast-growing.")

But easily the best news feature I saw in my week of watching ABC

a tie-in to the release of the film Time Machine, based on the H.G.

Wells novel. ABC Correspondent Robert Krulwich used the occasion to

inform us that ... time travel is possible! "This can be done?" he

asked, all agog. "How?" The explanation came from a professor who

managed to explain basic principles of physics as though they were

breaking news: If you are moving fast enough, near the speed of

light, for instance, you will travel "into the future." (Didn't we

learn this in high school?) To drive home the remedial science

lesson, we were shown footage of 1970s experiments that confirmed

Albert Einstein's theories on this subject, followed by clips from

the 1985 movie Back to the Future. Krulwich summed up: "So while

theoretically possible to leap into the future, unlike Michael J.

Fox, we don't have the vehicle, the fuel, or the know-how to do


There's "innovative and bold" news for you.

Unlike Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw delivers the news standing, right

out there in the open, in front of a floating video screen and a

high-tech backdrop. It's as if he's speaking to us from a starship,

or perhaps from the future itself. Energy is what NBC's "Nightly

News" strives to deliver: Brokaw's on-camera persona is spiked with

pep. He doesn't smile, of course, but he does emote.

After its standard-issue opening rundown of the day's events, the

broadcast usually included at least one "hard news" feature. One

night we got a John Hockenberry "exclusive report" about a Saudi

fund-raiser for Al Qaeda. At least that's how the piece was billed.

NBC got a name from a Federal Bureau of Investigation list, and with

"a few simple phone calls" arranged a meeting with the man in

Saudi Arabia. The man in question "denies the charges," said he is

not worried, and added that he believes "my government, my people,

stand with me."

Hockenberry wasn't deterred. "So your government is protecting you?"

he demanded. The question didn't make a lot of sense. Obviously, the

guy didn't believe he needed to be "protected" by his government,

since Hockenberry has just told us that he "denies the charges." The

man's response--"Yes, of course"--only confirmed that there wasn't

much actual communication occurring. The man's assets had been

frozen, however, and in a for-the-cameras moment, Hockenberry

accompanied him to an ATM. "It ate your card!" he exclaimed after

ATM ate the man's card. Later, however, another card worked just

at a nearby caf--and Hockenberry enjoyed coffee purchased with

alleged Saudi blood money! Hockenberry concluded the piece by

observing that the man had "little reason to worry." Should you be

upset that he's getting away with it? Or upset that an innocent man

is being persecuted? Who knows? Just be upset.; "So what did I learn
in three weeks of watching the evening news?..."

To this end, NBC has a recurring segment called "The Fleecing of

America," a regular exercise (they did it twice during the week I

watched) in spoon-feeding viewers a big dose of phony outrage. One

night we were informed that Pentagon employees have been abusing

their official credit cards, racking up $9 billion per year in

personal charges. One guy used his card to pay $4,000 for breast

implants for his girlfriend. Later in the report we learned that "he

eventually paid the money back"--which would seem to indicate that

this instance, at least, America was not fleeced. Even so, Lisa

told us, the Pentagon has lost "tens of millions in tax dollars."

It's a perfect issue for viewers to complain about at the dinner

table--everyone can agree it's lousy, regardless of whether they

think we should be spending more money on the military or less. In

another "Fleecing" installment, we met a woman who had been

by a telemarketer into paying $64 per month for a slew of magazine

subscriptions she couldn't afford. How big a problem is this? Don't

expect an answer to such questions--just get mad at those shady


NBC also devotes a big chunk of its feature time to

lifestyle-oriented stories. There was health "news" almost every

night (e.g., a nation of people sitting in front of the television

warned of the "stunning" results of a new study showing it's

"dangerous ... to be sedentary"). Often the soft news gets a

sell job to make it sound hard. One night Brian Williams, sitting in

for Brokaw, relentlessly teased a story with variations on the

question "Guess who's moving to the suburbs?" By the end of the

broadcast I was on the edge of my seat. The answer: single people.

"What does it mean for your family?" Williams asked, stumping me.

Another report told of women learning to fish so they could better

network in the corporate world. There was some incredibly

embarrassing footage of women dancing with fish poles, before

reporter Anne Thompson deadpanned that they are "aimed at hooking a

big deal. On land."

Finally, there was an installment in "our special series, 'Smart

Money.'" The teases promised we would learn "how to avoid a rude

financial awakening when it comes time for you to retire." Reporter

Chip Reid introduced us to a couple who had planned to retire at age

58, but since their stock portfolio had lately been creamed, they'll

have to push back their horizons by three or four years. So how

we, the viewers, avoid this awful fate? An expert from something

called Resource Securities Corp. gave what Reid himself called the

"standard advice"--reduce expenses, diversify your investments, etc.

Apparently at a dead end, the report abruptly shifted gears and

a survey showing that many Americans plan to work part-time even

after they retire--a trend that doesn't sound very useful to those

us looking to "avoid a rude financial awakening." Two and a half

successfully padded minutes having elapsed, we returned to Brokaw.

"For more on planning your retirement, you can log onto MSNBC

dot-com," he instructed. Later that evening, I did. There was

on the home page about retirement. Not even the "standard advice."

The "CBS Evening News" is presided over by Dan Rather, our most

iconic anchorman--and our most misunderstood. He is 71 and is often

described as the keeper of the tradition of fatherly gravitas that

extends back to Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow. In fact,

is the most human of the Big Three's Big Three: the one most likely

to act like a hothead, spout a bizarre stream of homespun ad-libs,

shed tears on Letterman's show. Far from being the last of the

reserved, Olympian anchormen, his rise was an early harbinger of the

let-it-all-out style of cable news. And his efforts to keep his

passions in check for the sake of a mythical legacy--to speak for

everyone while clinging to an accent that reminds us he is an actual

guy who actually grew up somewhere, as opposed to having been

concocted in some network laboratory--only serve to make him more

fascinating. He may be the only person working in TV news who could

someday be the subject of a great biography.

Rather--who seems to be seated at the start of the broadcast but at

other times is apparently standing--strikes an explicitly populist

note. He doesn't refer to "the government"; he refers to "your

government." One night, for instance, Rather led off with a story on

a temporary shutdown of La Guardia Airport following a security

breach. "American air travelers going nowhere fast," he accused.

"Thousands of U.S. air travelers were delayed, confused, and

frightened today by the latest bungle in airport security.... What's

going on here? And what, if anything, is your government doing about

it?" The answer, of course, was ambiguous. Bob Orr reported the

government's explanation that increased concern about terrorism

caused such delays and that "they'd rather overreact than take a

risk." Yet Orr's delivery (not to mention Rather's setup) managed to

make this argument sound vaguely outrageous. The message was

reinforced a few days later in a segment by reporter Jim Axelrod

concerning a "new" report on airport security. Following incendiary

quotes from a grandstanding congressman and an industry gadfly,

Axelrod barked, "How do the people running the federal agency in

charge of airport security respond? They don't. Declining our

for an interview." As his story wound toward the end of its two and

half minutes, Axelrod noted that, "to be fair," the report in

question actually predated sweeping changes in airport security

(including which federal agency oversees it), and he passed along

White House view that things are improving. But he wrapped up with a

slam anyway: "With a performance like the one seen directly after

September eleventh, it would seem there's only one way to go." Was

this evidence that Axelrod is biased against the Bush

No. It was evidence that he's biased in favor of convincing his

viewers that people in government don't really care if you sit

at the airport for hours on end.

CBS did do less of the "lighter style" nonsense found on ABC and

NBC. And it ran the single most ambitious segment I saw on any

network in my three weeks of viewing: a genuinely provocative

four-minute report on Americans illegally smuggling drugs into South

Africa to combat HIV. But even at CBS, hype often triumphed over

coherence. One segment, for instance, focused on the "scorching"

housing market. On the one hand, realtors in California were

quoted--enthusiastically calling housing the "bedrock" of the

economy. On the other, reporter Vince Gonzalez said, "Amid all the

optimism, some experts are starting to worry about an economy that

may depend too much on robust housing sales. A housing bubble, they

say, is bound to burst, toppling consumer confidence." Cut to Robert

Schiller, the economist who made a name with his book Irrational

Exuberance, on why markets behave erratically. "The danger," he

"is that we'll see price declines--and the price declines will harm

the economy because people ... will cut back their spending."

Gonzalez: "But economist Kenneth Rosen says the Fed wouldn't just

stand by and let it happen." Cut to Rosen, who noted, "That requires

a very deep recession and high interest rates at the same time, and

don't think that's likely." Gonzalez wrapped the segment up with a

burst of semi-sentences: "But what is likely. Is continued spending

by homeowners and buyers. As long as interest rates. Stay at a

forty-year low."

There was really no way to follow this story unless you already knew

the subject. Taken at face value, Schiller's quote made no

would people spend less if prices fell? If you were familiar with

thinking, you could fill in the blanks and deduce that he meant that

if housing prices collapsed, homeowners would spend less because

their net worth would have fallen along with the value of their

property. As for Rosen, I doubt he meant to suggest that "the Fed

wouldn't just stand by and let it happen" in quite the sense those

words convey. He meant that if housing prices fell off a cliff at

some unspecified point in the future, the Federal Open Market

Committee would lower the Fed Funds rate on the theory that lower

rates would jump-start home sales. Gonzalez's summary made it sound

as if the Fed might organize a bailout or otherwise intervene in the

real estate market, which is not likely. In any case, theorizing

about how the United States might recover from a housing bust is

necessarily abstract when, as Gonzalez pointed out, rates are low

housing sales are brisk. Of course, if you understood all this to

begin with, you hardly needed to see this report. And if you didn't,

you may have picked up just enough to be worried that something was

wrong, but far from enough to have any idea what it might be.

So what did I learn in three weeks of watching the evening news?

Basically that the network news, which defends itself against

detractors by invoking the earnest sobriety of its broadcasts,

contains as much hype and fake populism as any of its cable

competitors. In fact, in some ways it's actually worse. As

distasteful as the cable shout fests can be, they generally assume

that their viewers can handle a detailed discussion, conflicting

views, and lengthy segments on a particular issue. The sad truth is

that you're a lot more likely to hear something you didn't

just what it was Senators Hatch and Leahy were arguing about during

the Pickering hearing--in a spirited debate on "Hardball" than on

evening news. O'Reilly and Matthews (and the hosts of "Crossfire,"

and on and on) may be peddling outrage, but at least it has some

political content; if viewers get mad while watching these shows,

they probably at least know what it is they're mad about.

The evening news, by contrast, treats its viewers like angry,

gullible ignoramuses. And that's particularly frustrating when you

consider that the network news divisions are not threadbare

operations: They employ packs of extremely highly paid journalists.

ABC News, for example, employs not just Jennings and Koppel, but

Diane Sawyer, Barbara Walters, John Stossel, Sam Donaldson, George

Stephanopoulos, Cokie Roberts, and John Miller--most of whom pull

down a salary that the most talented print journalist in the United

States will never, ever attain. Nor is the problem the limitations

the medium. Broadcast journalism can have, and occasionally does

have, extraordinary power. In the weeks after September 11 all three

networks did a good job: Their coverage was sober, thoughtful, and

responded rapidly to a singularly unpredictable event in a way that

was not only competent but somehow reassuring. But once we got

through the immediate aftermath of the attack and the war in

Afghanistan, all these highly paid journalists went back to using

their highly useful medium to tell us about a black youth who surfs

and women who fish.

If the suits who run the network news divisions believe that this

of their de facto front page serves the public interest, it's time

someone called their bluff. The theory, after all, is that in

exchange for paying nothing at all for incredibly valuable public

airwaves, the networks "give back" by providing solid news. But what

today's network-news broadcasts "give back" to the public is barely

worth getting. Society would probably be better off if the Big Three

junked them altogether, abandoned the fiction that they were serving

the public interest, and simply paid the government fair market

for the airwaves.

Defenders of the evening news like to point out that even today,

those broadcasts draw a cumulative audience that dwarfs that of the

cable-news networks--some 25 million nightly viewers, compared with

less than three million for CNN, FOX NEWS, and MSNBC combined. The

usual rejoinder is that whatever its size, the network-news audience

is in steady decline. That's a fine point, but I have a different

one, which is: What a waste! To the extent the evening news still

draws us to a sort of national campfire, what it chooses to tell us

once we're gathered there is that those clueless senators were

bickering again about something or other, and we have the footage to

prove it. When I started my three-week project, I was interested in

how the evening news might save itself. By the end, I was asking a

different question: Why bother?

By Rob Walker

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