Television: The Dangerous Decline of World News

From the July 1999 Trumpet Print Edition

Americans should be deeply concerned about what is happening to their network television news. The networks are losing sight of why they exist. The impact this problem will have on the American people is frightening.

The May-June 1999 Columbia Journalism Review reported (emphasis mine), “The three network news divisions have never been busier. Their newsmagazines now fill a dozen prime-time hours a week on abc, cbs and nbc. No longer loss leaders, the network news operations find themselves in the unaccustomed role of making major money for their parent companies. And in the process, they are sounding their own death knell; the future victims of their own remarkable financial success.

60 Minutes executive producer Don Hewitt told what’s really happening to network news in his blunt-spoken Frank E. Gannett Lecture last December….

“The news business Hewitt was complaining about is not the business of covering the major news of the world, at one time the core of network news and its very reason for being. No, Hewitt was talking about the news divisions’ new core business of churning out entertaining real-life stories for their 12 weekly magazine hours….

“But for almost half a century, covering the important news of the world was what abcnews, cbs news and nbc news did for a living. They reigned as the kings of serious and responsible broadcast journalism, the pride of their networks. No longer. Now their bread-and-butter business is producing features for prime-time magazines. Being entertaining and profitable rather than being informative has become the new measure of their success.”

Now their “new core business of churning out entertaining real-life stories” for their magazine hours takes precedence over the hard news. The shift is toward entertaining people. That means our people are going to be more easily deceived by politicians with good “spin doctors.” Already this is a deadly serious problem.

Losing interest in hard news from around the world portends a grave danger for any democracy.

The best hope for a democracy is for an enlightened people—not a well-entertained people! We are already glutted with entertainment.

How soon before our people aren’t able to clearly distinguish between hard news and entertaining stories?

“Churning out TV magazine stories ‘that touch your life,’ to use 20/20’s defining slogan, is far cheaper and more profitable than covering the news of the world. The latter requires an army of reporters, producers, editors, researchers and news crews; a multitude of domestic and foreign bureaus and news desks staffed around the clock….

“The elite production staffs of 60 Minutes, Dateline and 20/20 operate entirely apart from the shrinking numbers of far-flung network news troops who cover the important news of the world every day. nbc news recently closed its Tokyo bureau. None of the three networks has full-time staff correspondents stationed anywhere in Africa, South America, Central America or India” (ibid.).

How interested are the networks in searching for the truth? In giving our people a global view of the news?

Are we destined to become a selfish people bogged down in entertainment with little or no concern for the rest of the world? Are we becoming too ignorant to detect poorly qualified leaders?

Television network news is headed in a very dangerous direction. It can only end in disaster.

It is time that we awaken to this problem. One leader from within the television industry has sounded the alarm. Will there be others?

Do Americans really care?