Published on Tuesday, March 5, 2002 in the Boston Globe
The Last Laugh: War on the News
by Ellen Hume
AMERICA'S disappearing audience for serious news came back after Sept. 11 to give newspapers, television, and radio another chance. Millions of people are interested, more than ever, in straight talk about real problems and what needs to be done. But despite all the valiant work of journalists on dangerous assignments, this newly attentive public is being jilted again by American television executives.
If you wonder why America is clueless about the culture war that inspires our foreign enemies, check out ABC's latest idea that David Letterman's entertainment show should replace Ted Koppel's ''Nightline'' news program. ''Nightline'' is one of the few national programs that responsibly examines the issues. Letterman is wonderful but certainly doesn't provide the information people need to understand the issues.
''Nightline'' is actually a commercial success; it attracts 4 million viewers a night, as the Letterman show does. But these viewers apparently have something else on their minds than just their own pleasure, which is a drag for ABC's advertisers. The older news audience is less profitable than the younger entertainment audience; this is why ABC is considering dumping ''Nightline'' for the Letterman comedy show.
Many television executives act as if the news is whatever emerges from 100 public relations campaigns. Television is only for selling, whether it's products or propaganda. This kind of thinking also inspired the now-discredited Pentagon Office of Strategic Initiatives, which was expected to lie to the foreign press as part of its news service.
Having the Pentagon bar American journalists from most of the war zone has not helped. ABC's entertainment division is getting better access to the US military than its news division, in order to present the Pentagon's version of the war in a new ABC ''reality series.'' Perhaps Letterman will sprinkle his jokes with some dispatches from the front.
To be sure, ABC is not alone in blowing this opportunity to elevate the news. The average 30-minute evening newscast offers only 17 minutes of news, and before Sept. 11 Dan Rather on CBS was told not to use the word ''foreign'' on air because his bosses are worried that it may turn off viewers, according to Len Downie and Robert Kaiser of The Washington Post.
We still aren't learning much from CNN or others about what the rest of the world is doing or thinking; international news seems to relate only to America's war on terrorism. Not since Nuremburg has an international court of justice taken on an accused war criminal like Slobodan Milosevic; Americans had a lot to do with bringing about his prosecution for genocide, yet one searches America's 500 television channels in vain for any tape of his trial at The Hague.
Each morning, CNN's Paula Zahn engages in obsequious chats with American generals assigned to boost our morale, or she badgers guests who seem to know a lot more than she does. She might as well be trying on fashions or singing with children the way former ''Sixty Minutes'' reporter Diane Sawyer does on ''Good Morning America.'' NBC has been criticized for years for reducing its news to personal issues of health or family life. Fox's news network has filled a niche by offering a more conservative ideology, but studies confirm that it isn't the ''fair and balanced'' news source that it claims to be.
If ABC abandons ''Nightline,'' it will be a loss to the search for useful information about the real challenges we now face as a nation. ABC executives will join all the others who shrug off their public obligations, saying the health of American democracy is ''not my problem'' while they pocket a bigger bonus. But the quality of America's public life is their problem, because they have a franchise to run the public's airwaves and because television is still our national source of information and our first line of attack in the battle for world opinion.
If we treat America's news flow as if it's a national joke, how surprised should we be if our bashers get the last laugh?
Ellen Hume, former executive director of Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, is a media analyst and international media development consultant.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company