IN journalism class the other day, we were talking about the factors that cause the public to lose confidence in the press.
The students' list is usually rather predictable: too much prying into people's private lives, bias against Republicans, too much harping on the same story. And someone always mentions that time-honored favorite: too much negative news. Then a student in the back of the room raised his hand and put his answer in the form of a question: "What about that 'Dateline NBC' story on the GMC pickups?"
Now there is a credibility problem. By now, just about everyone knows the story: In a 15-minute segment reported by correspondent Michelle Gillen last November, "Dateline" seemed to offer rather compelling evidence that GM pickup trucks equipped with "sidesaddle" gas tanks (mounted outside the truck's frame) were unsafe in a collision. What Ms. Gillen and "Dateline" failed to note was that the truck used in the test had been equipped with "incendiary devices" to simulate the sparks thrown off in a high-speed crash, and thus triggering an explosion if the gas tank ruptured.
Once GM discovered that, it filed a defamation suit, and NBC eventually apologized publicly. Then a few days ago the network was forced to apologize again, this time on its "NBC Nightly News" for having used false footage in a report on timber clearing in the Northwest.
These debacles were only the latest in a string of embarrassments, bad decisions and bizarre reversals of fortune suffered by the once-proud king of nightly news (read: Huntley and Brinkley). NBC's decline began years ago, but it certainly accelerated with the surprising and roundly criticized decision by NBC News President Michael Gartner to identify the alleged rape victims at both the William Kennedy Smith and Mike Tyson trials.
While brave enough to broadcast Patricia Bowman's and Desiree Washington's names, Mr. Gartner had lacked the resoluteness in February 1991 to run a graphic piece on civilian damage in Iraq during the gulf war. In that instance, he personally intervened to kill the story produced by Emmy Award-winning freelancer Jon Alpert, whose 12-year working relationship with NBC News apparently wasn't good enough for the network president.
During the gulf war, NBC News (and CBS and ABC) was no match for CNN, but at least it produced a memorable scene or two, courtesy of Arthur Kent, the then-celebrated "Scud Stud" who seemed to be forever dodging enemy projectiles. The war over, Mr. Kent was rushed back to help prop up the then-sagging "Today," which was just beginning to recover from the nifty decision to replace Jane Pauley with Deborah Norville in 1990. But Mr. Kent, like Ms. Norville before him, was a disaster on the "Today" couch, where there were no Patriot missiles to protect him. Soon thereafter, Mr. Kent refused an assignment, got fired and left the stage.
Other personnel decisions at NBC also have backfired. Mary Alice Williams was lured away from CNN to help fill the gap created by Connie Chung's defection to CBS, but Ms. Williams never found her niche with "Sunday Today" and soon disappeared into a dark hole. Last year, after Garrick Utley also left "Sunday Today," NBC brought in Scott Simon and Jackie Nespral, a tandem with about as much chemistry as Marge Schott and Jesse Jackson.
Add to all this the "NBC Nightly News" with Tom Brokaw, a perennial third-place ratings finisher, and you have a network news division in need of CPR. And that was before "Dateline" decided to play with incendiary devices.
One of NBC's few bright spots, of course, is "Today," where Bryant Gumbel remains one of the best interviewers anywhere and Katie Couric is, well . . . Katie Couric. And now I read that Jeff Zucker, the boy-wonder executive producer of "Today," is also producing "NBC Nightly News." If he can do both those programs five days a week, maybe he could fit in one more show. Or has "Dateline" already crashed?
Terry Dalton teaches journalism at Western Maryland College.