TELEVISION VIEW: 'Tabloid' Charge Rocks Network News (Feb 13 1994)


Staff member
TELEVISION VIEW; 'Tabloid' Charge Rocks Network News
Published: February 13, 1994

TELEVISION NEWS, AS YOUR local anchor might put it, is under fire. The target is not the violence that is agitating viewers and politicians, but a creeping tabloidization, not only of local news, which serious observers have never considered of much account, but of national news too, pride of the networks.

On Tuesday, "Frontline" delivers a hardboiled report, "Tabloid Truth: The Michael Jackson Scandal," which makes a strong case that more or less respectable news programs are succumbing to the subjects and techniques of the gossip shows.

A similar lament, from professional watchers and perpetrators, was heard a few weeks ago at the annual Alfred I. Dupont Forum at the Columbia University Journalism School. The picture, simply put, is of television journalists chasing ratings.

A minority defense at the forum came from Allen H. Neuharth, founder of USA Today, who announced that "consumers," also known as "the market," define what is news, and from David Bartlett, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, who expressed his faith that "ultimately" the "people that buy the product" will do the right thing.

As institutional boosters, Mr. Neuharth and Mr. Bartlett are naturally prone to caress their customers. Both took exception to the loaded title of the panel -- "Declining Standards in News: Is It All Television's Fault?" -- and maintained that the news about the news is good, or at least no worse than ever.

As evidence, Mr. Bartlett announced that there is "more, more, more" television news and that competition improves quality.

Perhaps in the interest of debate, Mr. Bartlett also professed not to understand the meaning of the word "tabloid" as used by critics like his fellow panelists: Andrew Lack, president of NBC News; Richard Smith, editor in chief of Newsweek; Walter Jacobson, a local-news anchor at WFLD-TV, Chicago, and Howard Kurtz, who writes about the press and television for The Washington Post. They accepted and embellished the proposition that standards are in decline.

Although they found a relatively straightforward local-news program occasionally beating out gorier competitors, there was more of what Mr. Lack called "sordid horror stories" and less attention to matters that do not lend themselves to hot pictures.

Tabloid news has always been famous for crime and scandal (that's part of the definition, Mr. Bartlett), but the reach and punch of television have given new power to its excesses. Now, as the critics at Columbia noted with due distress, the tabloid habits have spread to respectable neighborhoods.

On "Frontline," the correspondent Richard Ben Cramer shows how network news chased after the Michael Jackson story and how upscale newsmagazines like "20/20" and "Eye to Eye" have been infected with the viruses of shows like "Hard Copy" and "A Current Affair." Tabloid television has set the pace for nationwide coverage of Mr. Jackson, Amy Fisher, the Bobbitts, the Menendezes and other titillators.

One Dupont panelist registered surprise at seeing Dan Rather, who not long ago made a much publicized speech to Mr. Bartlett's organization decrying the bad habits of television news, on the air promoting a "48 Hours" program about a serial killer.

It's a cross-network ailment. On the night of the State of the Union address, Ted Koppel devoted "Nightline" to the Michael Jackson affair. On some newscasts in recent days, the latest twist of the Tonya Harding operetta led the latest slaughter in Bosnia.

A POLL BY NBC NEWS LAST month that found a large call-in majority favoring some sort of censorship of any programs containing violence was offered at the forum as evidence of audience discontent.

That such sentiments are spreading is plain, yet soliciting them toward the end of a week in which every NBC News program drummed away at the theme of violence with plenty of examples from news and entertainment shows, was not, as Tom Brokaw conceded at the forum, exactly scientific.

The phenomenon of large numbers of people protesting against programs that even larger numbers apparently enjoy opens up the interesting question of whether many of those who proclaim their aversion to television violence keep watching; maybe they need censorship the way alcoholics need prohibition.

By presenting a week's worth of mayhem under the cloak of editorial concern, NBC could feed such viewers' appetites and their consciences in one swoop.

Anyway, there is violence and violence. People who say they are turned off by shoot-'em-ups may be turning on sexier crime stories. When CNN broke away from the Bobbitt trial to report on the meeting of President Clinton and President Boris Yeltsin, there was a surge of complaints. Let's hope CNN does not take that lesson to heart.

Mr. Bartlett's tautological assurance that programs that go "over the line" in the audience's estimation will lose in the ratings contest did touch on a major difference between the boosters and the critics.

The conversation, remember, was taking place at a school of journalism, where giving the people what they want is not in the curriculum but professional responsibility is. The underlying argument of the critics was that journalists should give people more than they know they want. If that was not stated explicitly, it may have been in deference to the self-esteem of the millions they serve.

Such encounters would be less opaque if people like Mr. Lack, who have made their careers in commercial television, could speak without euphemism about the tastes of an enormous segment of the mass audience.

There are, to be sure, many audiences in this big country. For example, at 7 P.M. every weekday in the New York City area, as Mr. Bartlett noted with apparent satisfaction, "The MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour" gets its audience and "Hard Copy" gets its audience. What the network bottom-liners cannot ignore is how many more "Hard Copy" fans there are.

Although "Frontline" avoids any direct comment on the audience, it leaves the impression that the public's craving for stuff like the Michael Jackson affair is insatiable. Who is surprised that the ratings for Court Television improved during its coverage of the Menendez trial, or that two NBC News magazines, "Dateline" and "Now," regurgitated details of the case in the week afterward. (Mr. Lack was elevated to his present position in part to raise the standards, or at least the reputation, of "Dateline.")

Every year respectable practitioners from the commercial world like Mr. Lack, Mr. Koppel and Mr. Rather show up bearing mea culpas at meetings like the one at Columbia University, and behind the scenes they may well be trying to shore up standards like Los Angeles engineers faced with acts of God.

Good luck to them. But the proof is in the viewing, and on their channels we have been seeing a lot lately of Michael Jackson and the Menendez lads. That's not a wholesome lesson for journalism-school students or a heartening one for network journalism.