Telling Readers What They ‘Need’ To Know

By: Nat Hentoff

While ABC’s Ted Koppel remains in place, for a while, disquiet at TV news divisions abounds. Tom Wolzien, once an executive at NBC News and now a market analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein Co., told The Wall Street Journal that, instead of the present half-hour nightly news, “You could make a case for running an hour that is a combination of hard news and a magazine in prime time.”

Reuven Frank, a former formidable president of NBC News, agrees, noting in USA Today that “network news divisions have become ever-smaller parts of ever-larger companies” whose primary profit-making visions are in other fields. Frank predicted that “one network at a time” will switch to a magazine hour, “opening each night with some minutes of news.”

As it is now, Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert G. Kaiser have pointed out that “a typical NBC Nightly News broadcast contains 3,600 words,” contrasted with 100,000 in a typical issue of either The New York Times or The Washington Post (“Good news needed,” Feb. 18, p. 30). When Walter Cronkite reigned over CBS’ nightly prime-time half-hour of news, he used to say, off the air, “I’d like to end each newscast by telling the viewer to get the next day’s paper.”

Cable TV news is effective on breaking stories, but quickly switches to other breaking stories, leaving fragmentary follow-up reporting and “analysis” that most resembles braying Punch-and-Judy shows. For example, there is the transmogrification of CNN’s Crossfire, which, though often clamorous, had occasional serious and even informative debates on vital issues. Now, under the management of Walter Isaacson, formerly in power at Time magazine, Crossfire has become a carnival sideshow with James Carville and Paul Begala. It’s as if the winning guest will get a stuffed monkey for hitting his opponent with enough baseballs.

News on the Internet is diffuse, often dubiously sourced, and as partisan as the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. Moreover, surveys show that, despite the infinite variety of material on the Net, most users regularly gravitate to sites where they are likely to find kindred points of view. Therefore, exposure to ideas and information they might find unpalatable is decidedly limited.

Among all these alternatives to newspapers, local news is hard to come by in any meaningful sense. Where else but in a newspaper would you find — as noted in a recent E&P editorial (“Lay of the [home]land,” March 18, p. 9) — not only the Chicago Sun-Times‘ “Why Teachers Fail” series but, just as important, the paper’s follow-ups to that series?

And, in New York, where one of my beats is education, Carl Campanile, the New York Post‘s education writer, painstakingly exposed the statistical three-card monte played by city and state education officials as he revealed the many thousands of children left behind amid the rising (and hidden) dropout rate.

Yet, even in some newspapers, coverage of the Ted Koppel-David Letterman war repeated such modishly inaccurate and myopic celebrations of the “new information age” as appeared in a report by Kim Campbell of The Christian Science Monitor in its March 7 issue: “Nightline does exist in a news environment significantly different than the one in which it began. The Internet and 24-hour cable networks put news at people’s fingertips all day long. That means many wanting to relax, rather than be informed, before bed.”

Much of that news, however, is indeed fit for fingertips. Koppel has explored such deeply significant, but underreported, areas of news as supermax prisons, where he spent five days and slept at night, talking to prisoners who would be time bombs by the time they were released. He did a series on juvenile courts, those that worked and those that didn’t. And his coverage of false confessions in capital-punishment cases reverberated far more widely than anything I’ve seen on the Net — or on broadcast TV, except for PBS’ Frontline.

Last fall, Koppel aired a five-part series on the Congo, where 2.5 million people starved or were slaughtered in three years. “No one seems to have noticed the horrors in the Congo,” Koppel said in introducing the series. He added — and newspaper editors and reporters should take note — that journalists often report “greater and less tragedies … close to home … because it’s clear [readers and viewers] want to know about them. But, because [the Congo] is distant and dangerous and not easily accessible, we let you down. … [These stories] have roots in a disaster that the Western world largely ignored until it was too late. … You should have heard about it on Nightline years ago.” And you should have read about it in newspapers, too.

“Civic journalism” has been interpreted by some of its advocates as finding out what readers want to know. But, since the future of the depth, quality, and relevance of news that Americans get depends primarily on newspapers, we owe it to our readers — and our own self-respect — to also tell them what they need to know, and in a way that will impel them to want to read it.

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