IN WHAT SEEMED like a fitting nadir for 24-hour news, MSNBC briefly interrupted cable’s mind-numbing, wall-to-wall JonBenet Ramsey hysterics last week with a “breaking story” out of Los Angeles — namely, that Paramount had parted company with Tom Cruise.

Admittedly, the impulse to trash these tabloid urges can sound painfully naive, ignoring that TV is all about the color of money. Yet amid the copious Sept. 11 fifth-anniversary coverage, one element self-servingly overlooked is how TV news collectively spent that summer dithering. Sure, President Bush vacationed on his Crawford ranch, but the media simultaneously indulged in a footloose romp through that lazy, hazy August, focusing on Gary Condit’s missing intern and a supposed outbreak of shark attacks.

Five years later, news judgment apparently remains on Cruise control.

Granted, expecting more from television — especially the dedicated news nets and frothy network morning shows — is risky business. Anyone thinking these programs can do justice to the complex rift between the west and radical Islam — a clash of cultures, if not quite a war of the worlds — is clearly losin’ it.

Even if TV did make all the right moves, it might be too little, too late. The collateral damage has been done.

News execs insist they stay committed to their mission, impossible as that is to believe. And while there are doubtless those who will patriotically beat the drum for broadcast news as if they were born on the Fourth of July, that’s obviously a minority report.

Broadcast news’ days of thunder are long behind it, and the old guard was far and away superior to the current generation. With the firm hands of Jennings, Rather, Brokaw and Koppel gone from broadcasting to become the stuff of legend, it will take more than just a few good men to forestall what may seem like an overdue chorus of “Taps” for news as it slides into infotainment.

Take the aforementioned MSNBC. While hardly cable’s top gun, the channel’s latest makeover involves a peculiar mix of predators and pop culture — such as Joe Scarborough’s segment examining whether “Talladega Nights” is “anti-Christian,” which proved little more than an excuse to run extensive clips from the movie.

Indeed, it’s hard not to view cable news today with one’s eyes wide, shut off as those channels appear from any of the more pressing concerns that demand attention. Now under corporate stewardship, the outsiders running the news biz don’t really care what ingredients go into their nightly cocktail, so long as a glassy-eyed audience tunes in.

This isn’t to say I expect a retreat to the days of Murrow, any more than I anticipate awakening to a world filled with honest politicians, blooming Magnolia trees and a vanilla sky. Nevertheless, watching the news degenerate into celebrity-obsessed tripe and brazen attempts to scare the bejeesus out of parents, it’s hard not to escape into a daze of ’60s reverie and wonder, “Who’ll stop the rain, man?”

Free-market advocates will argue that audience preferences determine what stories are covered, meaning the public gets the news it wants, and perhaps deserves, and that TV’s overlords have no higher calling or obligations.

Ultimately, though, the news media sets the agenda by demonstrating its priorities, even if the message is sometimes only subliminal.

2006: AN EMMY ODYSSEY: Like a drunk with a GPS system, the Emmys weaved and staggered erratically but somehow navigated their way home.

When the smoke cleared Sunday, the TV Academy handed out well-deserved honors to “24” and “The Office,” along with HBO’s miniseries “Elizabeth I” and movie “The Girl in the Cafe.”

That said, the Emmys still have plenty of matters that merit reassessment. Beyond taking another pass at fixing the nomination procedures, for example, it’s time to rectify the “You are whatever you say you are” policy, which allowed Andre Braugher to sneak away as lead actor in a miniseries for FX’s canceled series “Thief” and Showtime’s “Sleeper Cell” to follow the same back-door route to a miniseries bid.

Despite such criticisms, the final balloting in most major categories helped offset the screwy nominations. And if that sobriety came a trifle late in the process, at least it’s better than waking up with a complete hangover.

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