Sunday, March 10, 2002

Nothing gets elite journalists steamed quite like the suggestion that maybe they aren't necessarily as important as they believe themselves to be. So last week, when it was revealed that ABC was negotiating to take away Ted Koppel's "Nightline" slot and give it to, of all people, David Letterman, Koppel's colleagues came out in force to rail at the ignominy of it all. In the Washington Post, Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach harrumphed loudly, as did E.J. Dionne; on C-SPAN, a panel of distinguished journalists led by the Robertses (Cokie and Steve) commiserated; and in the New York Times, Koppel himself weighed in. To a person, they all insisted that it wasn't about the money, as they say; rather, what stung was an anonymous Disney executive's claim that the "relevancy of 'Nightline' is just not there anymore." Apparently, the offended parties, lacking reading skills, misread the word "Nightline" as "journalism", and hit the roof. "Do companies that own news divisions think profit trumps every other value?", fumed Dionne. "What Disney executives are really arguing is that journalism is just another kind of content; that communication is communication," complained Rosenstiel and Kovach.

But the specific case against Nightline's relevance is easy to make. In 1979, when it first aired as a nighly update on the Iranian hostage crisis, fewer than twenty percent of American television-owning households subscribed to a cable service, and CNN was a mere gleam in Ted Turner's eye. An extra "hard" news source--a late-night bulletin on the main story of the day--was thus a valuable (and popular) addition to the schedule. Today, on the other hand, more than two-thirds of American households have cable, giving them access to at least one of the several 24-hour all-news channels--and for equally fresh and more detailed reports, they can always go online to the Websites of literally thousands of news outlets based around the world. In 2002, waiting for Ted's 11:30PM wrapup (or for that matter, the 6:30 nightly broadcast) just doesn't make much sense anymore.

The old broadcast networks (like newspapers before them) have responded to their news divisions' creeping obsolescence by shifting to "softer" coverage (magazine-format shows with "human-interest" and "investigative"--i.e., more dramatic, less objective--stories), and Nightline is no exception. In the aftermath of September 11th, Nightline producers wisely recognized that stale summaries of the day's terrorism-related events would be of little use to its long-ago-updated viewers, and instead concentrated on "background and analysis" thumbsuckers (a broadcast entitled, "Lessons from the War on Drugs", for example) and controversy-stirring sympathetic airings of anti-American views (one title: "Why Do They Hate Us?"). Recently, Nightline proudly presented an acclaimed weeklong series that had been pre-empted by September 11th; it depicted current conditions in the Congo, and consisted largely of a parade of heart-rending stories of individual Congolese victims of the brutal violence that has engulfed the region for many years. And of course there's the show's long-running sporadic series, "America in Black and White"; this past week's installment, in a daring departure for modern television journalism, presented allegations of discrimination against African-Americans in the criminal justice system. None of this tired, formulaic content would have any trouble finding an outlet on the numerous cheap-to-produce "news magazines" that have proliferated in recent years on the evening schedules of the "big three" networks.

Why, then, are journalists, despite the ever-increasing range of news vehicles, getting all upset over the possible cancellation of one very old-school late-night news program? Well, it's unlikely that anyone was particularly horrified over at, say CNN Headline News--an organization that presumably understands and accepts its role as a service provider to its audience. But the aging elite of the profession see themselves more as a species of avant-garde artsts, and imagine, after decades of coddling by the old broadcasting oligopoly, that they are in fact keepers of the journalistic-cultural flame, producing masterpieces that an ignorant general public will never understand or appreciate, but that future generations will revere as brilliant insights into life, truth and society. To them, ABC's attack on Nightline is like an NEA funding cut--a direct assault not only on their financial security, but on their very self-image as "free spirits" entitled to subsidy merely for exercising their inherently valuable creative/journalistic muse. (Steve Roberts, on C-SPAN, emphasized the importance of NPR as a repository of "independent" journalism in the age of corporate control.)

Fortunately, their private-sector paymasters are more agile (and more cash-conscious) than the federal government, and are unlikely to continue to fund their anachronistic rituals much longer, now that all but the elderly among their once-captive audience have long since tuned out.

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