Debra Goldman’s Postscript: Broadcast News

When news broke that Rep. Susan Molinari, the up-and-coming super mom of the GOP, was leaving Congress to anchor the new CBS News Saturday Morning in September, you’d have thought the Huns had invaded the convent. A partisan politician speaking on a network newscast? Horrors! Pundits decried the erosion of objective news gathering, while tit-for-tat editorials argued whether politics-journalism crossovers were a liberal conspiracy to pollute the news with opinion or a conservative one.

Lost in the controversy was the unanswered question of why Molinari had given up a future as Dame GOP to go into television in the first place. It was as if, once the initial shock wore off, the decision was self-evident. Given a choice between the rigors of political life and the comforts of an anchor chair, any self-respecting telegenic young woman of ambition would pick the latter.

If you want an insight into why Molinari’s move seems like a promotion, start at the lower reaches of the Henry Hudson Parkway in Manhattan. There you can see an ABC broadcast center whose virtually windowless rear has been put to use as a billboard for network programming. On one wing, a huge Soviet-scale portrait of Peter Jennings looms over a parking lot in floodlit view of commuters. A five-story headline at his elbow proclaims ‘Solutions.’ This is not a non sequitur. ‘Solutions’ is what Jennings-led ABC News promises to deliver.

Call me old-fashioned, but I always figured the more fitting one-word summary of news was ‘Problems.’ It is obvious, however, that news–in the sense of information about current events–isn’t what is being sold here. The product is ‘leadership.’ Jennings, looking ‘presidential’ in a weirdly Stalinesque way, is pitching voter-viewers with a quintessential political pledge. Molinari isn’t getting out of politics. She hopes to join the ranks of the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Yet I wonder if she is too late.

The vast size of Jennings’ image is in inverse proportion to the shrinking number of viewers he and his fellow anchors-in-chief attract. The billboard is less reminiscent of propaganda from Stalin’s era than Brezhnev’s: a bloated, false claim from a decadent institution out of touch with its founding purpose.

In short, Molinari may have concluded that politicians are becoming irrelevant as authority figures. But surely in our multichannel world, network anchors are not far behind.

Network news only has itself to blame. I myself remember the last time I watched it, a Monday broadcast of the NBC Nightly News. It happened that this particular evening was ‘Las Vegas Night’ on NBC, a mercilessly promoted effort that strung together Vegas-themed sitcoms, the film Honeymoon in Vegas and the first broadcast of The Tonight Show from Las Vegas.

And there was Tom Brokaw, reporting from Las Vegas. I thought he looked embarrassed as he explained the big story that brought him to town: the opening of Comdex, the computer industry mega-trade show. After watching a segment that featured Brokaw roaming the Comdex aisles with Bill Gates, as the anchorman lobbed softball questions at NBC’s future business partner, I decided this was ‘news’ I could do without. Growing numbers of Americans–especially young ones–agree with me.

A network newscast as a branding tool–that’s what I call partisan. If the news division is used to shill for the network, how much damage can a party stalwart do? There are worse threats to the integrity of news than importing politicians. You can’t violate the integrity of an institution that has none in the first place.

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