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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Who's the Next Dan?

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 9, 2005; 8:33 AM

As Dan Rather signs off tonight, what is the future of the "CBS Evening News" -- other than taking a spin with Bob Schieffer?

The third-place newscast has been languishing for more than a decade, even before the Tiffany geniuses decided that pairing Rather and Connie Chung was their ticket to salvation. It can't be all Rather's fault. And it's no secret that the nightly news in general has been hemorrhaging viewers for 20 years.

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So much of the chatter has focused on Rather's Bush/National Guard debacle -- the man did have an incredible, and incredibly controversial, 40-year career -- that the question of how the flagship CBS newscast might be revived has been lost. The principal idea of CBS chief Les Moonves seems to be a multiple-anchor format (John Roberts and Mika Brzezinski and someone else or some-such combination), which I've never gotten. How can two or three people whose basic job is to toss to correspondent reports share 19 minutes of airtime?.

A much tougher nut to crack is what mix of stories would attract a younger audience than those who watch all the Depends commercials. And whether there's still a place for a 6:30 newscast in a round-the-clock news world that's drowning in information. An hour-long prime-time newscast would make far more sense, but the nets just can't make as much money that way as with "CSI" and "Law and Order" and "Survivor, Part XXVII."

I keep a regular eye on the newscasts--hey, someone has to -- and the quality of the taped pieces is pretty high. It's a good fill for someone who, unlike journalists and news junkies, isn't Net-surfing or watching cable all day. (These people have what are called jobs.) But only the first 15 minutes deals with hard news, so it's pretty cursory -- Social Security, Iraq or other trouble spots, some politics or economic news. The back half is generally devoted to feature stories, often health-related -- nice feature stories, but nothing that screams appointment television.

ABC has Jennings for the foreseeable future, and NBC was smart enough to announce Brian Williams 2-1/2 years before he took over for Brokaw (and he's kept the ratings up). Only CBS had no succession plan in place, which is why it has to confront these questions sooner than the others.

Slate's Jack Shafer has plenty of thoughts on reinventing the newscast:

"Instead of pretending that it's 1985 and that CBS News can return to its former ratings glory by hiring the right anchor face, such as CNN's Anderson Cooper, or by reducing the broadcast to a succinct 15 minutes, or by targeting the female audience, as expert newshounds suggested last week in the New York Observer, or any other cosmetic strategy, CBS would be wise to design a newscast for the modern audience.

"CBS should worry less about who anchors its evening news ship than what the ship looks like. Any of the current CBS doofuses will do as an anchor. It's not like Brian Williams and Peter Jennings light my charisma candle. CBS could steal a march on NBC and ABC and the cable networks by designing a program that reflects changing viewer habits. It needs to break the code of why viewers have turned off the news.

"First, CBS should target serious news consumers, the sort of devotees who follow breaking news all day through news radio, cable, and the Web. Dedicate the program to breakingest of breaking news and ditch the news-you-can-use and heart-warming features unless they're stupendous. Produce a program that's worldly and doesn't waste time. The BBC World News, which airs on many PBS affiliates, is a good model, even if it is excessively chatty for my tastes.

"Next, reduce the number of commercials. Right now, about eight of the 30 minutes of an evening news slot are ads, which makes the program too short and too frequently interrupted to be compelling. . . . Advertise the CBS Evening News as the program that gives hardcore news consumers two minutes more news per half hour. Cutting ads will reduce revenue, of course, but it will build audience, which is the long term problem the program faces.

"Swing a deal with CNN to rebroadcast a refreshed version of the CBS Evening News in the 10 p.m. slot. One reason behind the evening news fade is that it's still scheduled for an era when moms stayed at home and cooked for dad, who didn't have a long commute. How many 30-year-olds do you know who would watch the evening news at 6:30 p.m. or 7 p.m. if you paid them? The network's morning shows have benefited by giving busy viewers a two-hour window through which to watch. Nobody expects them to watch the whole thing. A 10 p.m. cable slot for the CBS Evening News would similarly appeal to busy people. Sharing news resources with CNN, which has been on the table before, would be an excellent idea to add quality and scope to CBS's coverage.

"Next, CBS News should partner with a premier daily newspaper-the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, or the Wall Street Journal-to give viewers a taste of tomorrow's news tonight."

We at The Post are waiting for the call.

Bush is trying to seize the moment in the Mideast, as the Los Angeles Times reports: "In a broad speech demanding greater openness in political life across the Middle East, President Bush Tuesday stepped up pressure on Syria to pull out of Lebanon and on Iran to grant wider freedoms, and said democracy and justice have begun to transform the region. "Citing the region's struggle with poverty and illiteracy, the history of one-man rule and the use of fear to control populations, the president said: 'For all these reasons, the chances of democratic progress in the broader Middle East have seemed frozen in place for decades; yet at last, clearly and suddenly, the thaw has begun.' . . .

"But even as he singled out Iran and Syria, he made only brief reference by name to Saudi Arabia, where the royal family has exercised an iron grip on political life for decades and has only recently allowed municipal elections, which Bush saluted. Nor did he mention other U.S. allies in the region that have less-than-exemplary records in human rights."

MSM organizations, as I noted the other day, have been giving Bush credit (grudging or otherwise) for positive developments in the Middle East (here's the WashPost's "Mideast Strides Lift Bush But Challenges Remain"). The New York Times strikes a similar note this morning:

"He has gone out of his way not to crow, or even to take direct credit. But not quite two years after he began the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, and not quite two months after a second inaugural address in which he spoke of 'ending tyranny,' President Bush seems entitled to claim as he did on Tuesday that a 'thaw has begun' in the broader Middle East.

"At the very least, Mr. Bush is feeling the glow of the recent flurry of impulses toward democracy in Iraq, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and even Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where events have put him on a bit of a roll and some of his sharpest critics on the defensive. It now seems just possible that Mr. Bush and aides like Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz were not wrong to argue that the 'status quo of despotism cannot be ignored or appeased, kept in a box or cut off,' as the president put it in a speech at the National Defense University here.

"The failure to find unconventional weapons in Iraq, his administration's shifting rationales for the war, the lingering insurgency and steady American casualties there were a drag on Mr. Bush's political fortunes for most of last year. But a wave of developments since the better-than-expected Iraqi elections in January -- some perhaps related and others probably not -- have brought Mr. Bush a measure of vindication, which may or may not be sustained by events and his own actions in the months to come."

But while major publications are using the V-word, National Review Editor Rich Lowry sees it quite differently:

"If the world that Democrats have been living in lately were made into a reality disaster show, it would be called 'When Good News Strikes.'

"One of the inconveniences of political debate is that occasionally reality intrudes to invalidate a given position no matter how much its partisans want to believe it. This is what has been happening recently to the argument that the invasion of Iraq produced an irrecoverable mess. Although surely setbacks still await us in Iraq and the Middle East, stunning headlines from the region have left many liberals perversely glum about upbeat news.

"Schadenfreude has faded into its happiness-hating opposite, gluckschmerz. Liberal journalist Kurt Andersen has written in New York magazine of the guilty 'pleasure liberals took in bad news from Iraq, which seemed sure to hurt the administration. . . ."

"The legendary liberal editor Charlie Peters confessed to his own attack of gluckschmerz: 'New York Post columnist John Podhoretz asked liberals: "Did you momentarily feel a rush of disappointment [at the news of the Jan. 30 Iraq election] because you knew, you just knew, that this was going to redound to the credit of George W. Bush?' I plead guilty."'

"On his show the other night, comedian Jon Stewart -- half-jokingly -- expressed a feeling of dread at the changes in the Middle East and the credit President Bush will get for them. 'Oh my God!' he said. 'He's gonna be a great -- pretty soon, Republicans are gonna be like, "Reagan was nothing compared to this guy."' Like, my kid's gonna go to a high school named after him, I just know it.'"

The "Daily Show" -- swimming against the tide of history!

Every American death in Iraq generates a story, but you don't hear much about the wounded -- which is no accident, as Mark Benjamin explains in Salon:

"Ralph Begleiter, a journalism professor at the University of Delaware and a former CNN world affairs correspondent who has filed a suit to force the Pentagon to release photographs and video of the caskets arriving at Dover, said news images of wounded American soldiers have been 'extremely scarce.' Wounded soldiers, like caskets, mostly show up in the news only after they arrive back in their hometowns. Begleiter said the Pentagon has tried to minimize public access to images and information that might drain Americans' tolerance for the war. 'I think the Pentagon is taking steps to minimize the exposure of the costs of war,' said Begleiter. 'Of course they are.'

"A Salon investigation has found that flights carrying the wounded arrive in the United States only at night. And the military is hard-pressed to explain why. In a series of interviews, officials at the Pentagon's Air Mobility Command, which manages all the evacuations, refused to talk on the record to explain the nighttime flights, or to clarify discrepancies in their off-the-record explanations of why the flights arrive when they do. In a written statement, the command said that 'operational restrictions' at a runway near the military's main hospital in Germany, where wounded from Iraq are brought first, affect the timing of flights. The command also attempted to explain the flight schedule by saying doctors in Germany need plenty of time to stabilize patients before they fly to the United States.

"From Germany, the military flies the wounded into Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. Troops with some of the worst injuries are delivered from there to the military's top hospitals nearby, Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. But both hospitals bar the press from seeing or photographing incoming patients, ostensibly to protect their privacy."

Washington Monthly's Kevin Drum cites a recent editorial in The Washington Post on one way to reduce the incidence of AIDS and challenges the paper to give up its sources:

"The administration claims that the evidence for the effectiveness of needle exchange is shaky. An official who requested anonymity directed us to a number of researchers who have allegedly cast doubt on the pro-exchange consensus.

"One of them is Steffanie A. Strathdee of the University of California at San Diego; when we contacted her, she responded that her research 'supports the expansion of needle exchange programs, not the opposite.'

"Another researcher cited by the administration is Martin T. Schechter of the University of British Columbia; he wrote us that 'Our research here in Vancouver has been repeatedly used to cast doubt on needle exchange programs. I believe this is a clear misinterpretation of the facts.'

"Yet a third researcher cited by the administration is Julie Bruneau at the University of Montreal; she told us that 'in the vast majority of cases needle exchange programs drive HIV incidence lower.' We asked Dr. Bruneau whether she favored needle exchanges in countries such as Russia or Thailand. 'Yes, sure,' she responded.

"Note the familiar MO of an administration official who demands anonymity on a subject that should be perfectly open. Why? Because he knows perfectly well he's lying and doesn't want his name associated with it in case he gets caught. . . . He's flatly lying and hoping that it's not a big enough story for anyone to bother tracking down his sources.

"There are two lessons here. First, the Post should feel no obligation to keep this person's name anonymous. He lied to them. Second, even in a blatant case like this the Post was still unwilling to flatly call these statements lies. What does it take, guys? "Oh, and a third lesson too: the press should never believe a word the Bush administration says unless they confirm it themselves. Maybe that's really lesson #1."

John Aravosis, the Americablog guy who ripped the lid off Jeff Gannon's past, slams the L.A. Times -- in the L.A. Times -- for its feeble coverage:

"I can think of three possible reasons The Times didn't cover this obviously major story with any vigor: (1) Trepidation about gays, sex and power. In the age of wardrobe malfunctions, news organizations are extra cautious about covering anything involving s-e-x. And a gay angle only makes things more confusing. Would you be anti-gay or pro-gay if you wrote about an allegedly homophobic journalist who happened to be gay? Answer: Allegations of prostitution aren't just about someone's private life, they're about a crime that can lead to blackmail, especially if state secrets are involved. And in any case, your readers are adults -- give them the facts and let them decide for themselves.

"(2) Reverse liberal guilt. Too sensitive to right-wing accusations of being liberal, traditional media have overcompensated by becoming too timid in covering certain stories. They seem loath to aggressively report on scandals involving Republican politicians, in general, and this White House in particular.

"(3) Blogophobia. Liberal bloggers scare the mainstream media. Media critics fret over our supposed lack of professional credentials, even though many of us are journalists. They doubt our facts but don't independently investigate the stories." Finally, on the list of sure-fire ways to endanger your job, making fun of the Pope has got to be right up there, as this New York Post item makes clear:

"New York Press editor-in-chief Jeff Koyen, who quit over last week's ultra-ugly cover story mocking ailing Pope John Paul II, has branded his former bosses at the free weekly 'weenies' and 'little spineless turds' for forcing him out.

"'They couldn't handle the controversy,' Koyen sputtered to PAGE SIX about owner David Unger and publisher Chris Rohland. 'They're both just weenies. They're little spineless turds. I didn't expect them to cave in and cower so easily. I'm really surprised they were so spineless.'

"Koyen quit after Rohland suspended him for two weeks without pay for 'insubordination' in the course of editing Matt Taibbi's 'The 52 Funniest Things About the Upcoming Death of the Pope.' The Press had been deluged with angry calls after its vicious attack on the 84-year-old pontiff.

"Rohland, who has appointed Press editor Alexander Zaitchik as interim editor-in-chief, told us he suspended Koyen specifically because he ignored orders not to include a parody of The Post announcing John Paul's death."

The Vatican must have had something to do with this!


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