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NBC’s ‘Rock Center’ plays hardball

Brian Williams-hosted mag takes its news seriously

Before launching “Rock Center,” the producers of the NBC News magazine noted that their live broadcasts would let them be topical while assuring reporters they had no intention of chasing “every shiny thing.”

Their resolve has survived the show’s first two weeks, which is all the more impressive — or at least surprising — considering the glittering baubles ignored by those broadcasts, including a verdict in the trial of Michael Jackson’s doctor, sexual-harassment allegations against presidential candidate Herman Cain and the child-molestation scandal at Penn State U.

Although broadcast journalists try to avoid specifically bad-mouthing rivals, there’s been an implicit acknowledgement in certain circles that the media’s tabloid impulses warrant a push-back or at minimum an alternative. The question is whether assuming such an above-the-fray mentality can genuinely compete amid the cacophony of voices, and, indeed, if it’s simply too late to save TV news’ withered soul.

In addition to NBC’s initiative with “Rock Center,” CBS News has embraced a hard-news approach under new chairman Jeff Fager and evening-news anchor Scott Pelley. Indeed, the network has sought to take its most successful (and therefore lonely) news product, “60 Minutes,” and spread its high-minded ethos throughout the division.

Still, the day the Jackson trial concluded — unleashing a predictable media frenzy — Pelley understandably led with the Cain story, followed by the guilty verdict against Dr. Conrad Murray.

No one could look askance at CBS for that decision. After all, those stories commanded front-page placement in many newspapers, including the New York Times.

Still, there’s no denying TV’s tendency to gravitate toward crime, sensational trials and celebrity oddities, and when it comes to that, anything pertaining to Michael Jackson has consistently been perhaps the most enticing sideshow of all.

Even so, the Greek financial chaos led the second “Rock Center,” with anchor Brian Williams explaining “why every American needs to care about what just went down,” along with what might be coming in Italy.

Elsewhere, “Countdown” anchor Keith Olbermann — from his rarefied perch at Current TV — tweeted, “We are not covering the Michael Jackson trial, because, y’know, it’s a political newscast, not ‘Entertainment Tonight.’ ”

It’s hard to argue with the impression that “Entertainment Tonight” — and certainly “TMZ” — wields far more influence than “60 Minutes” or PBS’ “The NewsHour” over the direction of TV news. Just looking around, “Nightline” has dumbed itself down, HLN has unleashed Nancy Grace as its very own Howard Beale, and most primetime newsmags have rebranded themselves as full-time crime knockoffs. (“Rock Center’s” grimier sibling “Dateline” devoted a segment to the Murray trial before the jury came back.)

The idea that news programs can carve out exceptions to these trends is appealing to purists, certainly, but by any objective measure — especially in the broadcast space — they’re swimming against the tide.

It’s worth noting that “60 Minutes” mastermind Don Hewitt, for one, wasn’t above mixing in spoonfuls of sugar — and dollops of celebrity fluff — to help the medicine go down. And the estimable program’s brand of confrontational interviews only cemented perceptions news needn’t be dry and boring.

Certainly, it’s easy to wish “Rock Center” and CBS well, and what journalist or TV critic wouldn’t embrace their rhetoric about covering genuine news and expecting (or hoping) viewers will follow?

“There’s a hunger in America for really good broadcast journalism,” Fager told reporters in August, seeking to differentiate CBS News’ reporting-based model and “fair brokers” of news from the partisan opinion dominating cable.

Nevertheless, the media gods tend to help those who help themselves, and it doesn’t do hard-news advocates any favors if they turn an admirable commitment to serious news into a suicide pact.

So far, Williams appears content to make one regular concession to lighter fare, having closed the first two programs by interviewing a comic — first Jon Stewart, then Tina Fey. Otherwise, the show has stuck to its format and resisted the temptation to leap at headlines.

It’s fine, even refreshing, to see anyone in TV news try to claim the high ground. Practically speaking, though, it’s difficult keeping your feet firmly planted when people all around you are digging it up, trying to exploit Michael Jackson all over again.

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