Anchors Aweigh

STERLING ROME

Bias in broadcast news anchors is inevitable when the profitability of entertainment is placed ahead of the integrity of information.

Network television news anchors are biased against conservatives and we can all lose sleep at night, safe in the knowledge that this truth is universal.

Yet, inaccurate or irresponsible reporting is not so much the product of bias as it is the inevitable consequence of greed.

According to a Pew Research Center survey of 552 journalists and news media executives from November 20, 1998 to February 11, 1999: "40% of journalists working for national news organizations and 55% of those working for local outlets said that news reports were increasingly marred by factual errors and sloppy reporting. About 60% said the boundary between reporting and commentary had eroded." What happened?

If It Bleeds, It Leads

Back in the "golden age" of television, news divisions were the unprofitable badges of honor worn by the networks to provide prestige (and cover) from public criticism. The networks would point to their distinguished news bureaus as proof that they deserved the public trust and access to the airwaves the government had given them free of charge.

But with the arrival of local network news, competition became fierce, and "news" was bastardized to include accident reporting — segments on fires, car wrecks, random violence and any other titillating visuals that could be shot live on tape.

Local news accident reporting was inexpensive, and highly profitable — two things the national news, at that time, was not. National network news personnel were soon reassigned, forced into early retirement, or simply fired, all in an attempt to bring down costs and increase profitability.

National network news operations that used to have entire international bureaus in place overseas today no longer have a single correspondent. Accident reporting was expanded for a national audience.

Network news now simply cherry-picks from local news affiliates for the disaster-du-jour. If the video is taken overseas, or somewhere the network cannot reach, it will simply purchase the right to air it, often from a foreign network that has a reporter on the scene. This policy of imagery over content has made national network news the cash cow it was never supposed to be, public trust be damned.

Journalism Gone Bad

In the age of Ed Murrow, Walter Cronkite, and David Brinkley, the network news "anchor" (a term coined for Cronkite during convention coverage in the 50's) was likely an old-school print reporter with years of experience and understanding of news coverage. Most were equally able editors as they were reporters, and since the news was still about issues, they had to be as well.

But when accident reporting et al. became a substitute for real news, the responsibility of the news anchor changed as well. Since a majority of stories today are driven by visual images, there isn't always a lot of actual reporting to be done.

Although they bristle at the suggestion, modern news anchors are more news "readers" than ever before. Few anchors produce their own segments on a regular basis, and many young broadcast journalists have no experience in print journalism at all. To many modern day broadcasters, news is not news without their face or voice to accompany it; presentation is as important as content, if not more so.

A policy of style over substance inevitably led to a redefinition of the marketability of the network news anchor. It seems to no longer matter what is being reported — only who is doing the reporting.

The penultimate importance of "trust" and "accuracy" are now secondary to marketing criteria like "branding" and "Q-rating." Anchors become entrenched like cast members of hit television programming, and salaries soar.

Profit Trumps Integrity

Network news executives, under tremendous pressure to deliver ever-higher profits at less and less cost to the network, are inevitably forced to concede to the marketing department. Thus, we have the birth of network news "cross promotion," and the degradation of news into entertainment.

Cross-promotion exploits network news credibility by plugging entertainment programming during a newscast. Recently, on the local news level, this practice has become so blatant that entire news segments are written as if the promotion is actually news.

For example, the network might air a three part dramatic mini-series. Conveniently, the local news will then have a three night "special report" talking about the making of the series, the stars, and the heroic "real life" story behind the show.

On national newscasts, cross-promotion usually stays within the news division itself, but you can watch it getting worse all the time.

Again, this is because news anchors are far more valuable to their networks now as celebrities rather than as reporters. "Newsmagazine" shows are cross-promoted in an attempt to distill and extend the credibility of the national news to lend prestige (and profitability) to other programming.

The networks seek a seamless transition from national news to newsmagazine. But newsmagazine shows are often simply a glorified form of entertainment programming.

The big three networks cluck about the "trash" on competing networks like Fox, while they run the exact same programming under the guise of news. Fox will promote "When Animals Attack" as a shock-video program, but NBC will run it as a segment on Dateline and call it a news story about wildlife.

Modern day network news anchors seek higher levels of visibility and marketability while denying the obvious strain on their credibility. They continue to seek refuge behind the trust established by their predecessors, while refusing to recognize that they are no longer held to such rigorous standards. It does not occur to the networks that integrity and impartiality are determined by the audience, not the broadcaster.

Aligning news with entertainment creates a Frankenstein in the anchor chair. An anchor valued more for image than professionalism, responsible for less and less real news reporting, and encouraged to maximize exposure to benefit the network, is soon bigger than the network he or she represents.

This fact has not been lost on the agents who negotiate for network news talent. Now deals for newsmagazine shows are written in to most news anchors' contracts, with the requirement that the national news will shamelessly cross-promote these shows.

More Than Political Bias

The assumption by critics of the media that bias is a product of a personal agenda of the newsperson can also be erroneous. Imagine, if you will, what would happen to a news anchor who shunned publicity or promotion?

Much ado would be made of their integrity, and an already perversely self-congratulatory industry would hail them with awards and honors.

But as soon as the ratings slipped, they would be out of a job. After all, if integrity was all the networks required, newscasts would be two hours long and there would be no such thing as cross-promotion.

Instead, network news executives use the personality of news "celebrities" to generate millions in free publicity, encouraging them to expose every aspect of their personal life to endear themselves to the viewing public. Every setback is deemed a "tragedy;" every accomplishment "heroic"- never mind the limousines and personal assistants.

When television began, news broadcasts were never required to be entertaining, only accurate. By stressing the value of "story" over the value of information, network news began the inevitable descent into biased reporting. Untethered from the facts, the character of a story becomes more reliant on the storyteller.

Thus, news divisions become defined by the people delivering the stories. These men and women, some by no fault of their own, are marketed and promoted and massaged into believing that they are the news, and that news is nothing without them. How else can the networks justify the multi-million dollar salaries given to news anchors while entire foreign news bureaus are dissolved?

Bias in broadcast news anchors is inevitable when the profitability of entertainment is placed ahead of the integrity of information. In the search for more profits, the networks have decided that most news makes lousy entertainment.

Unfortunately for the millions of American people who still rely on the networks for information, most entertainment makes lousy news. Network news anchors have become interpreters of information because their employers have not only allowed them to do so, but have encouraged them to. Network executives believe the public tunes in to see the anchor, rather than to hear the news.

In the world of network television, ignorance truly is bliss.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Sterling Rome. "Anchors Away." CNSNews.com (April 2, 2001).

THE AUTHOR

Sterling Rome was an assistant to former CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite.

Copyright 2001 Sterling Rome


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