Thursday, February 17, 2005

How Are We Doing

Ken Auletta wrote this in December, 2001. I highlight it just to remind us of all the talk after September 11 by the media that they were going to get serious (Aulettta was appropriately pessimistic).

Like so much else, television news changed on the morning of September 11th. Six weeks later, as Aaron Brown, CNN's new anchorman, shifted from a Pentagon briefing to the ruins of the World Trade Center and then to a dissection of the latest anthrax scare, a familiar figure appeared in a box in the right half of the screen: O. J. Simpson on the witness stand. He was testifying in a Florida court, accused of road rage. Brown peered earnestly into the camera and said of the latest Simpson travail, "It is inconceivable to me that seven weeks ago, or six weeks ago, this would not have been carried live." It wasn't now, he said, because "it doesn't matter a whole lot. And here's why it doesn't." The screen filled with rescue workers pulling a body from the rubble of the World Trade towers.

Before September 11th, the evening news, to say nothing of the morning programs and the magazine shows, paid scant attention to foreign news. Instead, the networks filled the air with "weather events," Viagra breakthroughs, reports on various ailments, the murder of Jon Benet Ramsey, the trials of O.J., the death of Princess Diana, the sagas of Monica and Chandra. The networks delivered the headlines of the day, and the dismissive characterization once applied to local television news--"If it bleeds, it leads"--increasingly applied to network news as well. Stories that once might have been noted in passing, if at all, on the half-hour nightly newscasts were now reported endlessly on the nine-o'clock and ten-o'clock magazine shows, which long ago displaced documentaries.

After September 11th, journalists who had grown accustomed to feeling slightly embarrassed by what they did for a living began to look at their jobs with a renewed sense of pride. Even their bosses, who had slashed budgets and trivialized the news in the name of higher ratings and sound business practice, seemed like earnest preachers spreading the gospel of serious journalism. "Over the past ten weeks, we've been reminded why we do what we do," Mel Karmazin, who is the president and C.O.O. of Viacom, the parent company of CBS, said a few weeks ago. Karmazin was speaking at a lunch given in his honor by the Center for Communication, at the Plaza Hotel. He has a fearsome reputation, based in no small part on the demands he makes of his employees. When an executive on the sales force is exhausted and claims that, in the midst of a recession, he cannot sell more ads, Karmazin has been known to reply, "I haven't heard of anyone having a heart attack yet!" But now, at the Plaza, Karmazin aligned himself with a different set of standards. He invoked Edward R. Murrow and quoted Martin Luther King, Jr., on character. Karmazin said, "We want it said of us that when it mattered most we measured up." His peers at NBC, ABC, Fox, and CNN in the audience rose and applauded--both for Karmazin and, it seemed, themselves.

That didn't last long.