Guest Commentary: TV should turn the table

Feb 24, 2003  •  Post A Comment

When disaster strikes on a grand scale, as with the Columbia tragedy or the 9/11 terror attacks, newspapers always review how television covered the events. But television never reviews how newspapers covered the event.
In every newspaper city room, somebody sits, apparently, with a stopwatch, clocking in the anchors.
“Hey, Dan Rather is first in, 28 minutes and 11 seconds after the announcement. … Hey, Brokaw must be on his ranch or something. Brian Williams is anchoring NBC. … Hey, Jennings is wearing a different tie …” (The New York Times reported solemnly that Peter Jennings did not show up until “shortly after noon.”)
Newspapers judge television coverage of such stories for tone, social responsibility and mistakes. But television does not deploy reviewers to judge newspapers for their typefaces, typos and typical editorials. What newspapers really enjoy is when Dan Rather makes a Texasism, or when Peter Jennings, after sitting for hours, bawls out the control room.
When network television news fills time between developments with stories and videotapes of old disasters, it’s news for newspapers. Their haughty reports ignore their own recapitulating those tragedies, seeking, not to fill time between bulletins but their own empty columns.
In fact, television almost never talks about newspapers. It may talk about this newspaper or that one, or as Brian Williams does each night, assemble front pages from around the country as they present tomorrow morning’s news. Unique among media, something about TV makes anyone watching believe the whole world is watching the same thing. So, like viewers, newspapers attribute something they saw not to station call letters or network initials but to “television.”
Then there are the all-news cable channels, sitting ducks for an ink-stained wretch looking for something to pounce on. The all-news channels have nothing but time to fill. The medium started by proclaiming all news all the time. Then they learned there isn’t news all the time. So the news there is gets stretched thin enough to read through.
(I once proposed an all-news cable channel that would broadcast only when there was news. Nobody was interested so I gave up.)
When all-news cable seizes a story no angle is too obscure or exotic if it fills time. Newspapers have picked up on this, so whenever there is such a story, they criticize the coverage for overkill, as with the endless chin-wagging during the two weeks of the Washington-area sniper. Psychologists of no special repute, former profilers for the FBI, police officials from somewhere else, all were invited to pronounce gravely, to read the mind of the unknown sniper and judge his family history, his sexual orientation and his psychological dysfunctions. All without ever knowing who he was. (It turned out there were two of them.)
Newspapers rightly had a field day with this nonsense. But their criticism was basically the same as it was about the overcoverage of Congressman Gary Condit, of Monica Lewinsky, of all the unfortunates thrust by fate into the spotlight going back to the O. J. Simpson trial and before. The criticism is always about how much time was spent on so little. Each story lasts until another drives it off the air; stories that fill time are by definition big stories.
The sad fate of the shuttle Columbia stifled coverage of Laci Peterson, the pregnant lady in Modesto, Calif., who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. That commanded major attention on all-news cable until the orbiter blew up, then cable forgot poor Laci for awhile. All grist for the mills of newspaper writers.
But all-news cable does not respond. What a waste! They who must fill time could fill so much of it grilling newspaper writers and editors, Bill O’Reilly beating up on some reporter, or Chris Mathews’ not letting an editor finish a sentence. Journalists like to talk about balance. That would be balance.
Reuven Frank was president of NBC News in 1968-73 and 1982-84.