And that's the way it isn't

February 13, 1997|By Steve M. Barkin

SAM DONALDSON is not a journalist. But he plays one on television.

Like many of his colleagues, Mr. Donaldson has mastered the varied skills involved in looking like a news person: shouting unanswered questions at U.S. officials, corporate figures and presumed wrong-doers; offering his own opinions, usually unsupported by substantive reporting, on Sunday morning public-affairs programs; profiling celebrities on prime-time television news-magazine shows, and uncovering rip-offs and other misdeeds while adopting the guise of an investigative reporter.

The General Accounting Office has surely performed a greater service than Mr. Donaldson and his TV compatriots when it comes to revealing official excess. And consumers, armed with ample common sense and almost 30 years of lessons from ''60 Minutes,'' have learned most of what they need to know about being bilked. Even a child would not be likely to buy electronics from the back of an unmarked truck. But that hasn't stopped ''Dateline NBC'' and ''Prime Time Live'' from warning viewers not to buy such suspect merchandise or not to let strangers fix your car in an off-the-road location in the backwoods of South Carolina.

Television news began to go soft in the 1980s for a variety of reasons -- the effective end of government regulation, the remarkable ratings success of ''60 Minutes'' in prime time, new corporate ownership of the networks, competition for the advertising dollar, and managers who brought the news values of local newsrooms to the networks.

Soft news, pseudo-journalists

By 1997, soft news and pseudo-journalists have become the norm at the commercial networks and for most of cable TV. (C-SPAN and CNN offer more specialized services that are capable of delivering real information.)

Journalism, print and otherwise, has its roots in the art of narrative. Television news is a form of visual storytelling that follows the guidelines of plot, character development and the attainment of dramatic unity. TV news by definition entertains us as it offers dramatically compelling portrayals of reality that NTC engage our senses as well as our intellects. Long ago, the distinction between ''news'' and ''entertainment'' became practically impossible to make.

But abandoning most of their public-service ''obligations'' is a relatively new, and disturbing, action by the networks. Former reporter and anchor Roger Mudd, after realizing that his values were not the same as his former employers CBS and NBC, decided that two accepted goals of American journalism, diversity and competition, were in fact a big part of the problem.

The news audience, Mr. Mudd said in 1995, has been left ''as victims of an intense competition, between and among not only ABC and CBS and NBC, but also PBS and C-SPAN and Fox and Time-Warner and CNN and TNT and Nickelodeon and Comedy Central and QVC and Court TV and A&E and Blockbuster.

''I grew up believing that competition was good,'' he said, ''that it was invigorating, that it promoted research, that it improved the product, that it lowered the price, that it made everybody feel good. Reluctantly and painfully, I have concluded that almost the opposite is true in television.''

The main failings of TV news seem to be these:

News has become dangerously market-driven. In catering to the largest possible audience, producers and reporters are led astray from their social and civic responsibilities. Walter Cronkite, anchor of the CBS Evening News for 19 years, says today's network coverage ''[isn't] interpretive to the day's events, and the time could be better used. We've always known you can gain circulation or viewers by cheapening the product, and now you're finding the bad driving out the good.''

The visibility and power of celebrity journalists have distorted television news values.

Ed Turner, executive vice president of CNN, says the networks are driven to showcase their stars instead of making hard, independent news judgments. Anchors have become more important than the stories they cover. For every network magazine program, there is a star -- or two -- at its helm. Anchors are the on-air stars of their newscasts' coverage, sent literally around the world on a moment's notice to introduce, not really cover, breaking stories. The anchor's travels play a large role in shaping decisions on story selection and importance.

American TV news has chosen to portray the darker side of American society and, in its quest for ratings, has debased notions of what the country really is. TV journalists offer a ''picture of reality'' for sale to the largest possible audience. What we learn from television's refracted images of American society today are lessons that our basest instincts are the ones that matter most, that actions supersede meaning, that distinctions between private and public behavior have become quaint and that ''news value'' is enhanced by the value of vulgarity.

In the effort to bolster ratings at all costs, journalistic standards have been lowered.

What institutions set the pace for TV news? Twenty years ago, it might have been the best newspapers. Ten years ago, perhaps, the best work of the networks. Today it might just as easily be ''Hard Copy' or ''Access Hollywood'' or ''American Journal.'' Sam Donaldson, Diane Sawyer, Barbara Walters, Jane Pauley, Stone Phillips, George Will and many others are vibrant television presences. But journalists? Please. We've heard that story before.

Steve M. Barkin teaches journalism at the University of Maryland at College Park. He is the author of the forthcoming book ''Television Reality: Electronic Journalism in a New Era.''

Pub Date: 2/13/97

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