News shows have a lot to learn from TV icon

WITH WALTER CRONKITE’S passing, Edward R. Murrow has new company in broadcast journalist heaven, where they have a helluva anchor team. Given prevailing trends on Earth, however, these CBS stars ought to be spinning in their graves fast enough to drill out, like Superman.

This summer has underscored the deployment of news divisions as willing foot soldiers on behalf of their networks, eagerly diving into salacious topics to help plug holes in moribund lineups. So while top newsies quickly paid tribute to Cronkite with their words, few are honoring him with their actions.

We have long since passed the threshold where a circus like Michael Jackson-mania can be dismissed as an anomaly; rather, it’s the serious productions that stick out like a sore thumb.

Frankly, it’s a shame that more network comedies aren’t as funny as newsmagazine loglines. Most sound like bad thrillers — or as if they were written by the gang at the Onion.

On Monday NBC News premiered “The Wanted,” which sought to wed journalism with the look and style of “Mission: Impossible.” The experiment tanked ratings-wise, but not before MSNBC’s Chris Matthews gushingly interviewed producer Charlie Ebersol (NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol’s son) to promote the series, whose approach erases any boundaries between reality TV and news.

ABC News offered screeners for “Over a Barrel: The Truth About Oil,” a serious look at the U.S.’ energy dilemma hosted by anchor Charles Gibson. But that hour shares a marquee this week with an installment of “Primetime: Family Secrets” subtitled “When Dad Becomes a Woman” and last week’s “The Jacksons After Michael,” for which the network reportedly paid family patriarch Joe Jackson a six-figure sum for video rights.

CBS aired a laudable tribute to Cronkite on Sunday — a day after a new “48 Hours Mystery” about “A computer genius, his Russian bride, the KGB, intrigue and murder.” And that’s the least sleazy topic the show has tackled lately.

PART OF ME wants to be sympathetic about this — times are tough, gotta pay the bills– but the other half says with all the crap that’s going on domestically and abroad, an inability to present serious news that’s informative and still interesting means you’re simply not trying hard enough.

Jon Stewart prodded NBC’s Brian Williams on Monday’s “The Daily Show” about whether the news divisions were adequately fulfilling Cronkite’s legacy. Recognizing the venue, the anchor hammed his way through the segment without addressing the underlying question.

As Salon’s Glenn Greenwald noted, during his later years Cronkite himself pointedly lamented broadcast journalism’s shortcomings.

“We’re not doing our job in television news, nearly, and we are endangering the democracy by our failure to understand and to carry out our responsibility in this regard,” he stated in a clip near the end of CBS’ special.

Meanwhile, the current occupant of Cronkite’s chair — Katie Couric, who spent two nights anchoring “The CBS Evening News” from Los Angeles to chronicle the Jackson memorial — lauded him, without a trace of irony, by citing the importance of integrity.

BEYOND PBS AND HBO, even straightforward documentaries are rare and usually disappointing. This week brings CNN’s “Black in America 2,” a four-hour effort from correspondent Soledad O’Brien, whose reporting is earnest but painfully shallow. Take her fawning interview with producer-director Tyler Perry, which only sparingly glances across the fact that African-Americans are hardly in lockstep about whether his brand of filmmaking represents progress.

In her self-congratulatory opening, O’Brien notes that CNN uniquely possesses the resources to undertake such ambitious, in-depth reporting. CNN certainly has the tools, but like everyone else, it’s too easily distracted by the soft and tawdry to consistently use them.

Upon learning of Cronkite’s death, ABC’s Gibson discussed the epic tension that broadcast journalists face — telling CNN that “because it’s a business, and you need ratings,” news will always be torn between what people want to know and what they need to know.

But there’s really no battle anymore. Barring infrequent exceptions, “Want to know” has won. And those who care about the values associated with “need to know,” as Cronkite did, are indeed over a barrel.

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