Television news picture darkening Commentary: Competitors take aim at CNN in an eventful week that provides a sobering preview of what's coming next in TV news.

July 21, 1996|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

PASADENA, Calif. -- Don Imus and Rush Limbaugh. Is this the future of network television news?

That is one of the questions begging to be asked after a week that started with one of the biggest channel launches in the history of cable television -- 24-hour, all-news MSNBC from NBC and Microsoft -- and ended with Fox announcing a series of deals for its coming all-news cable channel that amounts to nothing short of a declaration of war.

The war of egos involving Microsoft's Bill Gates, NBC's Bob Wright, Fox's Rupert Murdoch and all the big-name talent they own is not without interest. But what matters most about this war is that it will likely determine to a large extent not only what kind of news we see on television in coming years but also who has access to it.

Cable subscribers who live in Howard and Harford counties, for example, have already found out what it's like to be left out of this new world of television news, as they searched in vain early last week for the MSNBC channel that everyone seemed to be talking about. MSNBC wasn't on their cable systems because Murdoch was paying Comcast to keep it off, according to Wright, the president of NBC. That, he said, is the kind of dollars-and-cents hardball that is being played when it comes to the Realpolitik of delivering television news into cable homes.

But the first question that must be asked after seeing a week's worth of MSNBC, as well as CNN's attempts to counter, concerns what the networks are now calling news.

The look of MSNBC is high-tech -- with television monitors and computer terminals everywhere, lots of metal and chromium steel, brick walls, espresso machines and coffee cups -- all of which contributes to a style of presentation that is sleek, polished and professional.

But the content is predominantly repetitious, bloated, given to cyber-babble and endless self-promotion from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. -- the hours when MSNBC is in its regular news-analysis mode.

The worst kind of bottom-feeding takes place when anchors, like Jodi Applegate, are chatting with such MSNBC "contributors" as Laura Ingraham, a former Reagan aide and Clarence Thomas law clerk, or Jay Monahan, a lawyer married to NBC superstar Katie Couric.

In the main, this isn't news, and it isn't analysis -- at least not in the traditional journalistic notions of those terms. It is mostly empty and highly opinionated talk -- the kind that radio, unfortunately, has come to be filled with in recent years.

Radio talk embraced

While one NBC News executive bristled at the comparison of MSNBC to radio talk in an interview Monday, by Wednesday he and his bosses were embracing it in a press conference to announce that Imus' New York radio show would be carried live on MSNBC from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. weekdays starting Sept. 3.

Imus is the veteran disc jockey who made headlines recently for his comments about President Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton during a Washington event that they were attending. If Howard Stern is a shock jock, it would probably be unfair to use that term to describe Imus. But comparing Imus to NBC's John Chancellor, who died July 12, gives some sense of the change in recent years in what the network news divisions consider political commentary.

And what about the widely published reports that Rush Limbaugh is going to be a featured player on Murdoch's Fox News Channel when it launches in 12 million homes Oct. 7?

Roger Ailes, the former Reagan handler and Limbaugh television producer who will run the Fox News Channel, said here Thursday that he has talked to Limbaugh but that no deal has been struck. "Rush is a free agent but I certainly think he could be appropriate," Ailes said, doing his own bristling at the suggestion that Limbaugh might have no place on an all-news network.

And there was more bristle from NBC News President Andrew Lack when he was asked how he can consider what Imus does on the radio appropriate for an all-news network. "You know, the criticism that we're not doing news because we're not doing CNN is just stupid," Lack said. "I said since day one that we are not going to do CNN."

Wednesday night, though, when TWA Flight 800 crashed, MSNBC did try to do CNN -- covering its first big story with its news throttle wide open. That coverage provided an equally dark glimpse of the future of television news.

CNN's tendency to put unconfirmed information and sensational speculation on the air in such situations was taken to a new level by MSNBC overnight and by morning anchors Ann Curry and Ed Gordon.

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