These should be banner times for the TV news organizations — Obamacare crises are good for ratings — but the newsies seem too caught up in internal melodramas and scheduling shuffles to notice.
Even that paragon of stability in the news business, “60 Minutes,” recently found itself issuing apologies for mistakes on a high-profile topic — something that may happen once a generation.
But then everybody seems to have their problems these days. As CNN augments top staffing and launches shows, the network is understandably prickly about Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart lobbing nightly grenades its way, and bloggers second-guessing strategy. Fox News is busily realigning its pontificators in its avid search for a sub-70-year-old demo even as Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly feud over Tea Party tactics.
Meanwhile NBC’s newsies are assessing their new boss, a young Brit named Deborah Turness, even as MSNBC unveils new hosts, including a buoyant Ronan Farrow, age 25 (whose father may either be Frank Sinatra or Woody Allen, depending on whom you ask). Not to be outdone, Turness’ boss, Patricia Fili-Krushel, introduces a new set, as well as a “new focus,” to prop up the besieged “Today” show (the money end of the news division).
And off on the sidelines, Qatar-based Al Jazeera, the ultimate dark horse, announces expansions of its bureaus. It even pulls off its first coup — an expose of a California state senator who’s been accepting bribes to foster legislation to help Hollywood’s film industry. Some news junkies were rightly wondering if they should now look to Qatar for serious reporting, rather than to Rockefeller Center.
Yet another burst of journalistic energy is emerging from newly launched Fusion, the joint venture of ABC and Univision aimed at English-speaking millennials.
Given the changing landscape, I find myself empathizing with those executives who are calling the signals at the news networks. The bear traps seem ubiquitous. I spoke with Jeff Fager the week before the Benghazi stumble at “60 Minutes.” He’s a smart, battle-hardened veteran of the news business who is now starting his 10th year running the 45-year-old show, which continues to serve up excellent journalism to as many as 10 million viewers (on non-football weekends).
Fager also is the chairman of CBS News and, as such, has deftly woven “60 Minutes” content into the network’s morning and evening news programming. Hence when Charlie Rose and Fager landed their exclusive interview with Syria’s Bashar el Assad a few weeks ago, segments were apportioned to Rose’s morning news show and Scott Pelley’s evening show as well as being featured on “60 Minutes.”
While those shows may still trail competitors (by narrowing margins), they nonetheless reflect their boss’s predilection for hard news as opposed to those ubiquitous lifestyle features that infiltrate ever larger portions of news coverage, both on local and national news shows.
Under the “60 Minutes” patriarch, the late Don Hewitt, every piece had to have a clear protagonist, while current segments are more story driven. Further, the hosts increasingly represent the show’s younger generation (Lara Logan and Anderson Cooper).
Indeed, “60 Minutes” occasionally seems downright stubborn in its determination to avoid the obviously commercial — witness a recent loving portrait of the Metropolitan Opera — or pieces that could be stereotyped as predictably liberal, hence the contrarian Benghazi adventure.
Logan thought she had a new angle — an inside source who claimed to have witnessed the attacks first hand, but who then told CBS a different story than he told the FBI. The following Sunday, Logan duly delivered an on-air apology. The Benghazi story once again proved to be a black hole of journalism.
All of which proves yet again that the 24-hour news cycle holds at once great opportunity and great peril. Even for its stalwart veterans.