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March 16, 2001

Surfing idly through the entire array of our cable TV channels the other night I chanced to come upon one of Larry King’s interviews. His guest that night was the esteemed former CBS news anchor, Walter Cronkite, and the primary topic was the state of TV news in this first decade of the 21st century. To put it mildly, Mr. Cronkite is not pleased with the quality being provided and the trends now so painfully obvious in network and local TV news coverage. I stayed around to watch the entire interview because I greatly admire Mr. Cronkite and I have a lifelong interest in all aspects of the coverage of news. I share the gentleman’s views completely.

Adding to the irritation was a column by an Oklahoma University journalism faculty member appearing in the Daily Oklahoman the next day. The writer is a former member of the CBS and NBC network news teams and he speaks with some understanding of how the networks develop their public affairs programs. To put it briefly, such things are profit driven. If the public (that’s you and me, friend) want to watch fluffy entertainment and gratuitous violence on the so-called news shows, that is what we will be offered. Network programs live and die according to the size of their audience. The appearance of new networks with show-biz approaches to news coverage already has caused the layoff of many experienced, well regarded reporters and editors from some of the traditional ABC, CBS and NBC staffs.

Discussing his disgust with the type of coverage that has emerged on network TV in recent years, Mr. Cronkite offered the comment that viewers get the quality of news reports that they demand. That’s right. If we clamor for more insignificant and trashier pictures to illustrate violence, sex and mayhem, that is what we’ll get. It’s not entirely the fault of the perfectly coffured, stylishly dressed electronic matinee idols who now bring us their version of the nightly news. The enemy is us.

Mr. Cronkite has an Oklahoma connection in his background and he once was a correspondent for United Press when that news service was on an equal footing in competition with the Associated Press. Among many Americans, he is still regarded as the most trusted public figure. Although he is still on the CBS payroll, he is no longer a member of the net’s board of directors. That has removed him from a lofty place of influence in news coverage, but we can hope that his views are at least partially shared by Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Peter Arnett and all the others who plan and deliver the “news” that is offered to us night and day by the television news teams. Many good people are employed by those broadcasting corporations. If they are given the freedom to live up to the lofty ideals embraced by their disciplines, we might get back to a diet of hearing the real news and less of the trivia now being shoveled our way by the networks and the local TV outlets.

Today’s so-called news shows on the tube are formatted to attract larger audience numbers so that the stations can charge advertiser larger fees. The cost is calculated on the basis of the number of viewers. Those audience ratings you read about are the yardsticks used to determine the cost of a fleeting spot, without which the programmers at local and network television operations would be out of a job. If you like ‘em, watch ‘em. If not, turn ‘em off.