Making the case for news

DISAGREEING WITH WALTER Cronkite won’t sit well with my mother, but hearing him speak at USC last week — where he helped honor winners of the Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Television Political Journalism — I couldn’t help thinking the most trusted man in America was tilting at windmills.

The estimable newsman stated that broadcast journalists have a duty to enlighten corporate bosses “more concerned with profits than they are with performance” as to TV’s vital role in helping educate a sadly ill-informed U.S. electorate. Yet envisioning this conversation with top brass brought to mind comic-turned-director David Steinberg’s line, “Explaining my way of life to my parents is like trying to explain alternate-side-of-the-street parking to a cranberry.”

With apologies to Uncle Walter, when addressing those preoccupied with profit, stressing altruism can fall on deaf ears. A more fruitful approach is to persuade them that doing good can translate into doing well.

Fortunately, watching snippets of the winning Cronkite entries — from NBC’s “Meet the Press” and top-10 market WCVB Boston to 6News, a cable operation serving the 30,000-household town of Lawrence, Kans. — offered a ray of hope, along with a possible template for bringing incisive political coverage back to the fore.

After all, at a time when reality TV has lost some luster, these local news reports delivered drama, conflict, even a few laughs, which is more than can be said for most “Survivor” knockoffs.

This isn’t about “gotcha” journalism but merely holding feet to the fire — especially those belonging to politicians who play fast and loose with the truth in public statements and political spots. Think of the great days of “60 Minutes,” when nothing seemed more terrifying than an uninvited Mike Wallace appearing at your doorstep.

It’s also high time someone articulates this case — preferably before next year’s midterm elections — since no one is championing the rationale for tough but fair reporting; rather, too many journalists take it as a given everyone accepts that they’re doing the Lord’s work.

The reality is that reporters must do a better job explaining their role, including the fact that all those ubiquitous pundits would have nothing to opine about were it not predigested for them. Instead, the tendency is to passively allow what Cronkite called “the shout maestros” — from conservative firebrands Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh to Air America’s Randi Rhodes and Janeane Garofalo — to alternately take turns bashing the media as everything from tools of the wild-eyed left to corporate stooges.

Let’s remember that whatever commercial success network morning programs, talkradio and cable talk enjoy, they are “news” in only the loosest reading of the term. Actually, few things are more news-free than a Republican Party chairman or Democratic operative staunchly echoing the talking points — surprise! — for their particular ideology.

The Cronkite winners, by contrast, demonstrate how something as simple as deflating political ads by subjecting them to rigorous scrutiny can be highly amusing. How strange that TV so rarely identifies its unique ability to visually dissect the medium’s language — something “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” does brilliantly in, say, assembling rapid-fire compilations of presidential speeches where the word “progress” is repeated like a mantra.

News outlets seldom take advantage of this, but when applied properly the results are commendable. Wisconsin Public Television, for example, ran “reality checks” on political blurbs, identifying where they were misleading, exaggerated or outright false. Candidates were then pressed to defend them.

Another Cronkite recipient, reporter Katie Moore of KOAA-TV in Colorado Springs, employed a similar strategy by conducting “truth checks.” And Robert Mak of KING-TV Seattle pulled back the curtain on staged photo-ops by hilariously catching Wesley Clark ignoring local residents as he bagged groceries during a presidential primary.

“Covering politics in local television is an uphill battle these days,” Mak said in collecting his award.

Maybe so, but packaged this way, it shouldn’t be. That’s where CBS chairman Leslie Moonves has it right in challenging his ailing news division to invigorate its product. The fallacy is in the lazy (and if based on history, understandable) assumption that presenting news differently necessitates dumbing it down, as opposed to making reporting sharper, tougher, more engaging and pertinent.

Marty Kaplan, director of the USC Annenberg School for Communication’s Norman Lear Center, says the belief persists that politics are “ratings poison.” As a consequence, one goal of the Cronkite awards is to provide news personnel ammunition to tell management, “Look, what we’re doing is valuable.”

Fair enough, but true clout will come from being valuable not just to society but the bottom line — and the bottom line here is however daunting the task appears, broadcast news can be rendered more compelling without lobotomizing it.

And that’s the way it is.

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