For newsies, hard times lead to soft news

IF YOU DON’T READ this column right now, your kids could die.

Cynical? Surely. Fear-mongering? Obviously. Ready for primetime? Undoubtedly.

NBC is at it again, frightening parents with a “Dateline” sting operation aimed at catching pedophiles — a story whose overwhelming sense of urgency is such that it’s penciled in for May during a sweeps period.

Then again, “Dateline” is hardly alone in turning Stone Phillips into a junior G-man, as viewers of Fox News Channel can attest. Beyond its fascination with missing teenagers, top dog Bill O’Reilly insists his program is uniquely committed to protecting kids from sexual predators, savaging any jurist perceived as being soft on crime.

O’Reilly is right, in a sense, since major newspapers generally don’t receive the ratings spike that TV does from these sorts of populist endeavors that inflate the child-predator threat. But if the host thinks his show is the only one making hay out of such anxiety, his self-obsession is even more out-of-control than his frequent “Stop smearin’ me” rants would lead critics to believe.

This overheated news climate is the buried lead in the Katie Couric story, the key point that those examining its ramifications, in the days since her hiring to anchor “The CBS Evening News,” have consistently missed. CBS didn’t recruit Couric to prove a woman can credibly present “hard news”; rather, she’s been tapped precisely because her talents are well suited to a “news you can use” newscast, one closer to morning news’ sensibilities and primetime newsmagazines’ packaging.

However, pundits, either blinded by Couric’s gender or cowed by the anti-feminist implications, have tiptoed around these issues. New York Times managing editor Jill Abramson, for example, expressed surprise that not everyone saw Couric flying solo in the anchor chair as a breakthrough, which “seemed a pretty giant step for womankind, but maybe I was stuck in a retro mindset.”

With due respect, Abramson is being more myopic than retro, though in her defense, she probably doesn’t get home early enough to watch much TV news.

The truth is that Couric being a woman has about as much to do with it as does CNN’s Anderson Cooper being prematurely gray. Whoever was tapped to sit in the chair once occupied by Cronkite and Rather would be compelled to preside over a different sort of news, informed by CBS CEO Leslie Moonves’ desire to lure more young viewers into the tent.

The problem is, “younger viewers” has become tacit code for “softer news” — more showbiz, more emotion, more scary crime straight out of local news, and less from the depressing war, politics and economic blotters.

So what form will the nightly news take? My guess is it will distill elements of the morning formula into a half-hour peppered with elements characteristic of the newsmags, where binge-drinking coeds, marauding pedophiles and Tom Cruise’s latest musings trump Darfur, hands down.

Enter Couric, who as “Today’s” ringmaster has demonstrated her ability to deftly handle a wide variety of stories — from the show’s newsy top to cooking segments and celebrity interviews. Being a woman, then, is only an asset inasmuch as she’ll address women about topics of perceived interest to them, making the fluffier broadcast easier to swallow.

Against that backdrop, the question isn’t whether people will accept Couric’s hard-news credentials or if this is a giant step or small leap for womankind. It’s how much softness “Evening News” can absorb without triggering a backlash.

The good news — for CBS, if not broadcast journalism — is that other than the bleating of a few easily dismissed purists, objections from the softened-up public should be minimal, and that will quickly subside if the women 25-54 needle ticks up appreciably.

In the interim, look for more appeals to fear, more of O’Reilly’s righteous anger about coddling predators and more of Cooper parachuting onto the scene of every emotional, made-for-TV moment of suffering that CNN can find.

As Columbia U. journalism and sociology professor Todd Gitlin recently observed, “Passion plunges ahead while reason takes its time, cleaning up the mess.”

True enough, and passion currently rules the roost in TV news, which is the hard reality all future anchors face — a trend indifferent to whether they wear a skirt to work, or a suit and tie.

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