Brokaw Brags, But About What?
by L. Brent Bozell III
February 27, 1997
For years, the scariest sentence in the English language was "More Americans get their news from ABC News than from any other source." Now the factually shallow world of TV news is being taken over by "NBC Nightly News." Don't shed a tear for Peter Jennings. But you should worry about where the already-fluffy network news is headed.
As the news universe expands - today's news consumer can spend most of the day tracking news on cable, talk radio, or the Internet - the network news keeps getting less and less relevant to creating the informed citizenry that democracy requires. Instead, with its market-tested success, NBC is teaching the other networks to stick to touchy-feely features that a mass audience can identify with, instead of those boring old stories about the House of Representatives or the State Department.
The motto after the show really ought to be "Now Less Than Ever," rather than "Now More Than Ever." A review of the network news shows that NBC has done less on foreign news, less on campaign news, less on Clinton scandal news - less of almost anything that might cause a viewer to switch to "Wheel of Fortune."
Tom Brokaw can rightfully crow that he's number one, but in the past few months, he's gone beyond that. He's publicly bragging that his network's so-much-for-politics approach is best. In New York magazine, he came right out and said Peter Jennings and ABC wasted too much time on foreign news: "We're more serious about what goes on in the interior of this country than he is, frankly. We're more serious about issues like the environment. We're more serious about a lot of social movements that are going on in this country. And I defy anyone to tell me about what's going on in the foreign arena that is so compelling that is has to force its way on the air these days."
Brokaw said much the same thing to Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post: "We say, here are the five stories we can do effectively, and that may not include 20 seconds of people running through the streets of Gaza or Sarajevo or Belgrade. That has become video wallpaper and has been on all day long."
Translation: I went to the Berlin Wall when it fell, and our ratings went down the tubes! If Americans won't tune in for that compelling moment, why bother? Let those freaks who care about Bosnia watch CNN. "Compelling" foreign stories have to appeal to Americans who can't find Russia on a map. Take the NBC story last year on vegetarian radicals suing the special sauce out of McDonald's in Great Britain.
Not only is Brokaw down on news from foreign capitals, he's down on news from Washington, too. He told the Post that for years, "it was real easy to send a camera crew to a subcommittee hearing," but now, "rather than having members of the administration and Congress mounting soapboxes, we want to look at what's happening out in the schools." Translation: Our research shows politicians bore the audience. We'll talk to "real people." But Brokaw had to go further, claiming: "No one can name an important Washington story we missed."
Please! Trapped inside the tabloid world of Simpson trials, JonBenet Ramsey, and video-friendly airline disasters, Brokaw hasn't noticed dozens of big Washington stories - the Iran-Bosnia scandal, the missing White House log of FBI file sneak-peekers, Jorge Cabrera the cocaine smuggler at the White House, and on and on. Most recently, NBC ignored the revelation that Democratic donors were advised by the White House to donate to tax-exempt "nonpartisan" minority get-out-the-vote groups - even though Brokaw has been dogging Newt Gingrich about GOPAC since November of 1994. This pattern shows a liberal bias. It also betrays an eerie feeling at 30 Rock that detailing the chain of Huangs and Chungs and Hubbells is ratings death.
When a North Carolina jury told ABC News to pay $5.5 million for trashing the Food Lion supermarket chain, Brokaw solemnly pronounced on the Don Imus show that it was the public's fault. He said too many people are mistaking the nightly news for tabloid television shows like "Inside Edition" and "Hard Copy." But how much of a mistake is this, Tom? What about your network on "Olympic bomber" Richard Jewell? Or those exploding GM trucks? Or your show airing video of "dead" fish in a national forest that were only stunned? The only difference between ABC and NBC is NBC knows how to settle out of court.
Brokaw's newscast has made it to number one by sliding down the slippery slope to Tabloid City. Take the money and run, Tom. But it isn't right to brag about the quality of your journalism on the slide down.