WSJ Washington Editor: Network Newscasts 'Don't Matter Anymore'

     Network news is old news as far as politics is concerned.


     According Gerald Seib, an assistant managing editor and the executive Washington editor of The Wall Street Journal, ABC’s “World News,” the “CBS Evening News” and the “NBC Nightly News” just aren’t important in the grand scheme of Washington politics, and that’s part of the changing culture of the news media.


      “This is a shakeout period for the press in general and the Washington press in particular,” Seib explained. “There’s an interesting passage in the book, also interesting, which bears this point – which is – we talked to Elliott Abrams, who is deputy national security advisor for President [George W.] Bush, and who has been around a long time and started out in the early 1980s working in the Reagan administration.”


     The book Seib was referring to is “Pennsylvania Avenue: Profiles in Backroom Power,” by him and John Harwood, CNBC’s chief Washington correspondent and a political writer for The New York Times. Seib and Harwood appeared with at Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C. on May 16, to promote their book.


     “And he [Abrams] talks about how in the Reagan White House where he worked, the whole place shut down between 6:30 and 7:30. All activity stopped because everybody wanted to see what was being broadcast on the ABC, CBS and NBC nightly news broadcasts. They were that important to the agenda in Washington. Much of the previous day had been constructed to influence what would be on those three newscasts. He said, ‘Now I work in the White House, I haven’t watched in months. They just don’t matter anymore. That’s not where people get their news.’”


     Seib pointed out the forces that control the news agenda have been diluted by the rise of cable TV and the Internet.


     “There’s not that commonplace that dictates the agenda. People are watching news on cable television. They’re reading it online all day long. It’s splintered, it’s fractured. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I can make an argument either way. It’s a more democratized flow of news, but there’s less sort of central understanding and a lot of people are getting their news the way they want it to be rather than the way it is and that’s a bad thing. So, I don’t know – it’s changing and that’s the only thing I can say for sure. But it’s changed the way this town works, not just the way our business works.”


     Harwood had a similar take on the state of the Washington media, remarking on the economics that is forcing the traditional institutions like The Washington Post and The New York Times to downsize.


     “I think the business of journalism is under more stress than I’ve ever seen it in my lifetime,” Harwood said. “Everywhere I go, I talk to friends – there are buyouts on the table with The New York Times and The Washington Post. Many places are shrinking.”


     Harwood joined The Wall Street Journal in 1991, but left late last year to go to The New York Times. He pointed out that under Rupert Murdoch’s control, The Wall Street Journal is the exception to the trend.


     “The Rupert Murdoch Wall Street Journal is not shrinking right now, that’s a positive thing, although my former colleagues there have concerns about that potentially,” Harwood said.


     Harwood took the same position as Seib on the state of the news on the three major networks – ABC, CBS and NBC.


     “I think the television networks are also under stress,” Harwood said. “The Internet has changed everything. Cable television has changed everything. There is a culture of shouting and argumentation that has arisen that’s different from the common conversation, which was a more civil conversation, that we grew up with.”


     Harwood’s father, Richard Harwood, was a long-time reporter and the first ombudsman for The Washington Post. He observed how things are different from the reporting his father did in the 1960s and 1970s.


     “And finally, from a self-interest point-of-view, I think people like me, in what I do, matter less than what my dad did when he was practicing journalism because the mainstream media are not as respected, they’re not as influential as they used to be. So, there are a whole lot more voices discussed at louder volumes and I’m not sure whether it adds up to progress, but it is what it is and we have to cope with it.”


     To survive in the world of modern professional journalism, journalists have to adapt and be able to versatile with all forms of media, Harwood said.


     “And one of the ways we’re coping with it is you’re seeing more people like Gerry and me working across platforms – you know working in print, and television and on the Internet at the same time. And everybody, including the young people going into journalism, have to prepare for that world, where they can be very versatile.”