CNN-ABC: Putting the public last

Nov 4, 2002  •  Post A Comment

“Morally objectionable in part for all.” That’s how the old Catholic Legion of Decency used to label particularly naughty motion pictures. You don’t hear the phrase much anymore, but it is a perfect way to describe the proposed merger between CNN and ABC News.
It’s an idea so baldly bad you’d think no one would even suggest it, not even here at the outset of this already hopelessly screwed-up 21st century of ours (when we crossed the millennium line, we really seem to have gone through the looking glass as well).
A knowledgeable ABC News insider sarcastically assessed the proposal to a friend: “It’s the perfect combination: We’re corrupt and they’re inept.” Putting those two qualities together certainly has inspiring possibilities. But inspiring only to accountants; it’s shocking how many journalists are writing about this hellishly obscene possibility strictly in financial terms, as if its effects on the American public were just minor, marginal, peripheral concerns.
No no no, it’s a bad idea, a wrong idea, a morally objectionable idea and an un-American idea. If there is anything in the world we don’t need in this country, it is further concentration of media ownership and a decline in the number of alternatives available to the news consumer. It’s like proposing greater congestion for the streets of Manhattan, or more confusion at the State Department, or adding a few more minutes of commercial time to each episode of the top 20 TV shows.
Say, how about running uncut R-rated movies on Saturday mornings so little kids can watch them? If we’re going to float absurd and perverted notions, we may as well go all the way.
Of course it’s a sign of a larger lamentable fact of life, that when broadcasters and cablecasters talk about the “news business,” the operative word is business and “news” is incidental. It’s kind of a nuisance to them, actually. Once upon a time, presenting the news to viewers was considered a compulsory civic duty for broadcast licensees. When the Federal Communications Commission let Rupert Murdoch launch his Fox Network with absolutely no promise of news coverage, it was just another step in a grim downward trek.
And when, one afternoon, the president of one of the Big 3 networks’ news divisions screamed at me, literally screamed at me, about how he had to be as ratings-conscious as if he were running the network’s entertainment division, that was another tell-tale sign that the ideals of people like Edward R. Murrow and Fred W. Friendly were definitely as dead as they were.
Every other day, it seems, someone prints a story or column item saying the CNN-ABC News merger is dead, too, but this is the Dracula of ghastly rumors. It keeps popping up, removing the stake from its heart and wandering off about the countryside looking for something to suck.
About a month ago, embattled Disney CEO Michael Eisner poo-poo’d the idea but stopped way short of giving it a proper burial. “We have had conversations for years about more efficient ways to present news,” Eisner said at some Wall Street shindig-“efficient,” there’s a noble ideal for you. “I’d be happy if it happens,” he said of the merger, “but I just don’t know.” He said the chances were “50/50 at best.”
Eisner is, of course, the executive lauded in a recent magazine for having made himself not indispensable, exactly, but almost impossible to get rid of, no matter how deeply into the La Brea Tar Pits poor old Disney, and its troubled property ABC, happen to sink. Eisner will survive, the way cockroaches would supposedly survive a nuclear war.
CNN seemed to be rolling along merrily enough, making money when there was big news to report, making less money (or perhaps losing it) when there wasn’t. I don’t understand its finances, but then, I don’t understand my own. CNN has a guaranteed constant revenue stream, the money it gets from the cable systems that carry it-and what self-respecting cable system would dream of not carrying it? You’d think that source of income would be enough to see it through dry spells. Apparently not.
It has plenty of commercials, of course, and it operates a news service for broadcast stations that, in turn, supply it with feeds and footage when necessary. That arrangement produced a tiny awkward moment during the recent protracted coverage of the Washington-area sniper attacks. WUSA, a CBS affiliate, picked up video from CNN one morning when there was nothing new to report but a justifiable compulsion to stay on the air.
It was sort of ambient video-just random shots from the site of one of the shootings.
Unfortunately, at that point CNN was itself picking up and relaying the video from another of its affiliates, WTTG, the Fox station in D.C. Thus WUSA momentarily suffered the embarrassment of airing live pictures with “Courtesy WTTG” in the upper left-hand corner of the screen. And these were live pictures from within maybe 20 miles of either station.
Of course the way things are going, everybody will eventually have the same video of everything, because there will be fewer sources providing it.
Reuven Frank, the former NBC News president quoted often in these pages for the sage and, though he probably hates the word, pioneer that he is, lamented recently that cable news “has become personality-driven, youth-driven, ratings-driven and publicity-driven. In a word, the three services [CNN, FNC and MSNBC] have assumed the worst evils of the old networks, even to raiding each other’s staffs.”
If CNN and ABC News merge, this tendency will only increase. Nothing will get better except maybe the financial pictures of the two interested parties. There’s a third interested party, however: The American Public. And it gets screwed.
Incredibly, insanely, former ABC News executive Av Westin dashed off a column for Daily Variety headlined “CNN-ABC: More news is good news” supporting the merger on the grounds that “both organizations are feeling the financial pinch.” Oy, Av! Time to turn in your credentials and stop calling yourself a journalist.
Competition from Fox and its personality-based news programs virtually forced CNN to come up with more “shows” and more “stars”-and inevitably, less news. The ideal cable news service would have no shows and no stars (and certainly no horrid phone-in shows like CNN’s “Talk Back Live”) and instead a steady flow of news from around the world. (In a perfect world, it would have no sports and no loudmouth braying sportscasters either, but when are we ever going to see even a near-perfect world?)
Though competition may in this case have led to something less than desirable, we still have to believe that competition in the marketplace is good and that a diversity of sources, especially in a democracy, is essential. Eisner doesn’t care about news, it’s widely known; that’s one of the reasons I said Disney was unfit to own a broadcast television network in the first place, when that acquisition was announced years ago. We’ve gone through the looking glass all right, but things don’t just get curiouser and curiouser. They get worse and worse.
CNN-ABC belongs on the scrap heap of bad ideas next to the Edsel, New Coke, “Push, Nevada” and, for that matter, CNN-CBS, which was also stupidly proposed at one time. And it’s not just a business matter. It’s a matter of serious and crucial national concern. It’s big, big news and a big, big story-even if none of the so-called news networks bothers to cover it.