A cure for what Ailes us

The news business got a wakeup call on 9/11, but three decades after “Network,” ranting commentary outweighs serious analysis.

For the record, Fox News was invented by Faye Dunaway 27 years ago.

I realize this may come as news to the splendidly cantankerous Roger Ailes, who thinks he came up with the idea in 1996, so I’ll jog his memory. In the 1976 movie “Network,” Dunaway plays a voracious daytime programmer who convinces network brass that she can hype news ratings if only she’s allowed to banish the robotic anchors.

Her formula: Put news shows in the hands of spell-binding commentators who would proceed to subjectify stories of their choosing. In other words, let them rant.

The most captivating of these commentators, of course, turned out to be Peter Finch’s Howard Beale, who admonished his viewers to shout from the rooftops, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”

The plan worked, at least for a while. Beale became a sort of mega-Bill O’Reilly, a living, raging antidote to the Connie Chungs of that day.

Paddy Chayefsky, who wrote “Network,” was way ahead of his time.

All of which points up the problem in assessing the news business one year after 9/11.

Sure, it’s easy to cite some supposedly optimistic portents. More people are watching the news. A healthy competition exists between the network anchors and between the hyper-aggressive cablers. “Nightline” still clings to life. There are lots of news options out there for different demos and different interests.

Still, something in me says I’m mad as hell and I’d like to shake things up. Maybe Dunaway’s programmer character was onto something.

Let’s start with the networks.

Before 9/11, the main buzz from network news divisions was about pooling resources and cutting costs. The realization that the networks, like the FBI, were blindsided by 9/11 apparently put a stop to all that. The newsies display a new sense of mission, stirring anchors like Brokaw and Jennings to reup — and to wake up.

Yet I’m not quite ready to sign on to Frank Rich’s support-your-loyal-anchor club. Writing in the New York Times Magazine, the former drama critic intoned that the network anchors are stalwart and hard-working and that, despite all the talk of decline, their combined audience is still 30 million viewers each night, compared with a primetime audience of 3 million for the three cable news networks.

That sounds fine, but I still find network news exasperating. Their half-hour newscasts actually contain a mere six to eight minutes of news, or news lite, with the remainder consisting of lifestyle features and commercials.

The anchors are devoutly politically correct and stultifyingly objective, as though fearing that Bernard Goldberg or Ann Coulter were taking notes each night. On some nights the end product plays like local news minus the car chases.

Meanwhile the cablers, as true promotion junkies, like to make news as well as report it. When a new survey purportedly placed CNN in first place in terms of credibility, a CNN anchor was not above reading the report on-air.

Walter Isaacson, CNN’s boss for the past year, says he’s emphasizing hard news, but when you surf to his network you’re more likely to find Connie Chung dulling down a feature than Christiane Amanpour sweating in a foxhole.

Sure, things seem slicker at CNN, but I still miss the old down-and-dirty Wolf Blitzer-Arthur Kent era.

To be sure, CNN these days looks a lot sharper than MSNBC, whose Phil Donahue seems lost without his roving mike and post-menopausal fan base. Even that very venerable gabber Joe Franklin was dispensing Donahue advice last week, urging him to try old ploys like giveaways and phone-ins.

“Everything old is new again,” said Franklin, who should know.

The bottom line is that O’Reilly is averaging nearly 1.8 million viewers, compared to 723,000 for Chung and 379,000 for Donahue — a fact that nettles both rivals and liberals.

“It’s about being cutting-edge,” crows Roger Ailes, but rotund Roger knows it’s also about more than that.

Like “Network’s” Howard Beale, O’Reilly subjectifies the news and vents his “mad as hell” ethic, breaking some good stories along the way. But Ailes’ humming news operation is also energized by the fact that it reflects its bosses’ feisty and free-wheeling persona.

But with issues like Iraq and corporate corruption looming ever larger, I wish there were more informed subjective analysis, from the left, middle and right.

One of the great, long-forgotten virtues of radio news in the post-WWII era was the mix of astute commentators ranging from Elmer Davis to Max Lerner to Eric Sevareid, plus opinionated newsmen ranging from Drew Pearson to the ever-shrill Walter Winchell. They offered news, but also context and interpretation. They made the news both more understandable and more personal.

As I said at the outset, Faye Dunaway was onto something.

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