What’s missing from television

Oct 29, 2001  •  Post A Comment

I miss Lou Waters.
The gray-haired eminence of CNN’s middays, Mr. Waters was quietly put out to pasture after 21 years with CNN at about the time of the Sept. 11 attacks. When viewers finally noticed he was gone, it was too late to complain. Compared with the suffering of thousands on the East Coast, the demise of a cable-news anchor was trivial.
But for me and many other viewers, Mr. Waters represented the last link to the CNN that once was. A former disc jockey turned local news anchor, he was one of the original anchors when CNN signed on in 1980. As such, he’s one of the last ties to an era when that channel had spunk, before it grew obsessed with looking just like the network newscasts, before its disastrous experiment with Time Warner “synergy” and its current mindless campaign to brand everything in its airspace. (As I write this, CNN’s business desk is reporting a 150-point plunge in early trading on the New York Stock Exchange. The segment has been branded on-screen as “AMERICA RECOVERS.”)
Ironically, the key to Mr. Waters’ longevity may have been his ability to adapt to CNN’s changing climate. He embodied professionalism, which was the one thing every executive at that channel craved.
“He was such a good broadcaster, so pleasant on the air,” recalled Reese Schonfeld, CNN’s first president and the man who OK’d Mr. Waters’ hiring.
Mr. Waters told me last week he knew of his departure in advance and planned accordingly. He is now involved with a company that supplies segments to local TV newscasts and is working on several projects related to aging.
“I don’t want to work for anybody again,” said Mr. Waters, who is prevented from working for Fox News or MSNBC. “I want to have fun.”
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I miss TV commercials for new cars that offered you a 0.0 percent APR not because it will “Keep America strong!” but because the dealer needed to sell cars.
A new honesty gap has opened between advertisers and consumers since Sept. 11, and I for one would like to see it closed.
Take the current TV ads airing for United Air Lines. They’re the ones with various United employees-one or two at a time, in full uniform-standing in front of a simple background, speaking to the cameras, from the heart. One says, “We took a hit,” a reference to the United crew members as well as passengers who went down with two of that company’s planes in the Sept. 11 attacks. Then the workers talk about being resilient and having a can-do attitude. They leave a powerful impression: Come back and fly the friendly skies, they say.
The sentiments are honest. The ad is not. Here is an airline that is letting go thousands of workers and is now spending millions of dollars on a campaign to woo nervous travelers back to the airport. I notice that the ad doesn’t say a peep about airport security. Which is odd since that’s the primary reason people are staying off airliners these days.
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I miss “unpatriotic” journalism.
When was the last time you saw a report on TV that challenged the current mantra urging-no, demanding-that all good Americans go out and shop? Nowadays when Dubya or Rudy commands us to spend, spend, spend, no one picks up the phone and calls an expert for an opposing view.
Since Sept. 11, I’ve only heard Paul Harvey, that ageless radio voice of Middle America, point this out. He was reporting, with his familiar air of disapproval, a new finding that the average U.S. household carries more than $5,000 in credit-card debt. A report in the AARP magazine My Generation this summer claimed the figure is closer to $7,500 per household, that average credit-card debt has more than doubled since 1990 and that personal bankruptcies nearly doubled.
I realize I’m just raising the old argument of saving vs. spending (an argument that spending pretty much wins every time). But that’s what we’re supposed to do in a democracy-argue-and the news media, which allegedly feeds on conflict, is to be a catalyst for debate.
I guess if deficit spending is good enough for the network news divisions, it’s good enough for America.#
Aaron Barnhart’s column appears monthly in EM. He covers television for the Kansas City Star, and his Web site (www.tvbarn.com) covers TV topics daily.