Back in the glory day of Cronkite, Severeid, and Huntley and Brinkley, the nightly network news commanded vast audiences and influence as one of the few places Americans could turn for information. Yet ex-NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, when asked by an interviewer what the purpose of network nightly news is in media-saturated 2008, explained that the programs continue to do the top stories of the day “a little longer and maybe with a little longer analysis,” but added that “It’s a struggle. It was a struggle when I left 3.5 years ago.”
A recently published comprehensive study of network news by the Project for Excellence in Journalism supports Brokaw’s analysis. Its (perhaps overly) generous verdict supports the argument that network news remains valuable. It finds that network news provides some of the best television journalism we have in terms of range and quality of reporting—but the genre is undergoing a generational transformation. All three longtime anchors have stepped aside, as have news bosses at two of the three networks; audiences are declining; and staff cutbacks are rising. The PEJ study shows the same potentially ominous signs for the future of television that most traditional media are currently experiencing.
First, the good news. The PEJ study, which examined every minute of the three commercial networks’ news offerings during 2007, discovered that the three nightly network news broadcasts feature more of a hard-news agenda than 24-hour cable news programming, and also a broader one—no small feat for programs that last an average of 18.6 minutes per day, as opposed to, well, all the time.
PEJ found that in 2007, “one was twice as likely to see coverage of events from abroad that did not involve the U.S. on nightly network news, for instance, than on the several hours a day of cable studied in our sample. There was about half the percentage of crime coverage on nightly news as on cable (6 percent vs. 13 percent), more than twice the percentage of economic/business coverage (7 percent vs. 3 percent), about a fifth of the celebrity and entertainment coverage (1 percent vs. 5 percent).”
Despite some blossoming problems with coverage in Iraq, discussed below, network news broadcasts have still done a better job than most at keeping a focus on the ongoing conflict. The war remained at the top of the network news agenda as the second-most covered story, edged out only slightly by the 2008 presidential campaign.
PEJ also credits the networks with covering a broad and significant range of topics. PEJ has long found in the nightly broadcasts “a thoroughness of reporting not found in cable or on morning news,” which it attributed to the use of taped, edited, correspondent packages. Cable news relies primarily on extemporaneous stories filled with off the cuff, frequently inaccurate assertions. Network nightly news is “where viewers can see stories that have been checked and edited, where the words from the correspondents have been carefully written rather than spoken from quick notes, where producers and correspondents have discussed the content of the stories, and the pictures and the words have been carefully matched in an editing room.” Eighty-two percent of nightly news broadcasts are correspondent packages, versus only 30 percent on cable.
(Note that we are referring to “network news” as a monolithic institution, and that’s because, by and large, it is one. The three newscasts had the same lineup of the top six stories of the year with just one exception; the yearlong total of minutes spent on Iraq varied by only eight minutes between the three networks; and each gave about the same percentage of time in 2007 to U.S. foreign policy, disasters, education, government, and more).
Yet the time devoted to these correspondent packages is declining, down to 82 percent of the shows in 2007 from 86 percent in 2004. NBC is the biggest reducer of correspondent packages, which PEJ attributes to the network having a sister cable news operation and the demands made on a finite number of reporters. NBC staffers are frequently on call to appear on MSNBC during the day, perhaps leaving less preparation time for the nightly broadcast.
The hard-news approach of the nightly news may also be in danger. The study traces an arc in the content of nightly news broadcasts; there was a departure from hard news in the 1990s toward more tabloid-style stories. As the news researcher Andrew Tyndall has observed, crime, once a largely local story, was the biggest topic on nightly news in the 1990s, even though the crime rate was actually declining.
And the news is softening every day. The networks devoted 75 percent more time to disasters and accidents in 2007 than in 2004. Along with much of the rest of the American media, coverage of the government on nightly news broadcasts shrunk to just 5 percent of the stories, down from 27 percent in 2004.
While the focus on Iraq is superior to that of cable TV and talk radio, network news producers still undergo spells of almost total ignorance toward the topic. According to Andrew Tyndall, presidential primary coverage in January and February totaled 932 minutes on the three nightly network newscasts. That’s compared with the 61 minutes devoted, collectively, to Iraq on the same networks during the same two months. As Eric Boehlert notes, that’s a 15-to-1 ratio.
And of course, network news producers are vulnerable in many ways to the same mistakes and shortcomings as other mainstream outlets. As we noted last week, throughout all the war anniversary coverage last month, neither NBC nor ABC news even mentioned a newly released government study that declared no link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, a key rationale for war five years earlier. Charles Gibson instead summed up the war thusly: “In five years, we have seen horror in a prison; a landmark election; the capture and execution of Saddam Hussein; and the so-called surge of forces to improve security.”
Boehlert has also observed that ABC’s Nightline has unofficially boycotted Iraq, mentioning it only once over 35 weeks. (Just this week the program returned to Iraq, but by giving an hour-long interview to General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, on Army-dictated terms.)
Of course these journalists and producers have a tough job. Audience numbers are in steep decline and their ages are rising, making them unattractive to advertisers and increasingly difficult to fund. But perhaps they are seeking viewers in the wrong places. CBS has the lightest news agenda, according to the study, and it is perhaps no coincidence that they’re also consistently the lowest-rated broadcast.
Just how long these programs continue to survive amid cutbacks in staffing, advertising, and other resources evades easy prediction. As the evil exec Arthur Jensen explained in the classic film, Network, “The world is a business, Mr. Beale; it has been since man crawled out of the slime.” And this business is dying, slowly but unmistakably. The question, sadly, is more one of dignity in old age than revival and rejuvenation.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His blog, “Altercation,” appears at http://www.mediamatters.org/altercation. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, has just been released by Viking.
George Zornick is a New York-based writer.