"Nightline" as we know it is about to fade to black.
Gone will be the single-topic examination that has been the ABC program's signature for 25 years. Gone will be the single-anchor format once Ted Koppel steps down Nov. 22. And some of the correspondents and producers who built the program into a journalistic powerhouse will likely be gone, too.
"I'm absolutely committed to 'Nightline' remaining a serious, substantive show," says British journalist James Goldston, the new executive producer. " 'Nightline' has a unique place in American television journalism and it's important that should continue. Of course, we wish it to be an entertaining show, but the journalism comes first always."
The likely new anchors are White House correspondent Terry Moran and "PrimeTime" anchor Cynthia McFadden, who have had serious discussions with Goldston and would be based in Washington and New York, respectively. Another possible anchor is Martin Bashir, who made documentaries about Michael Jackson and Princess Diana, although he may wind up as a contributor.
Goldston made a presentation last week to Anne Sweeney, president of Disney-ABC television, and ABC News President David Westin, among others, and got a tentative green light to pursue his vision of the show, say people familiar with the matter who declined to be named because no final decisions have been made.
Left in limbo, for the moment, are such "Nightline" veterans as Chris Bury, John Donvan and others. They have not been approached about the new program, although Goldston is expected to ask some to stay on. (Other correspondents could be shifted to the morning or evening shows depending on whether Charlie Gibson, Elizabeth Vargas or someone else is named to succeed Peter Jennings.)
Correspondent Dave Marash says he has "been disinvited to join the new 'Nightline'" and is disappointed because "who I am and what I am and how I do it have not changed in the 16 years I've been with 'Nightline.'"
Several producers are likely to join a new company being formed by Koppel and outgoing executive producer Tom Bettag, who don't plan to finalize a deal with another media outlet until they leave. The center of gravity for the Washington-based show is clearly shifting to New York, where Goldston lives and where he is seeking funding to hire more staff.
Goldston, who produced Britain's most popular public-affairs showfrom 2002 to 2004, as well as Bashir's 2003 documentary "Living With Michael Jackson," has maintained in meetings that he has no plans to dumb-down "Nightline." He has argued that the move toward shorter segments will allow more coverage of foreign news and has talked about projects such as spending a week in Iran.
But Goldston is not averse to more interviews with celebrities if these can be tied to larger issues. He will also emphasize edited, taped pieces in the belief that no one else has Koppel's facility for long interviews done without interruption.
The new "Nightline" has done a soft launch, under Goldston's supervision, by having Moran and McFadden host a number of three-topic programs on Mondays and Fridays. The leadoff piece is usually hard news, but there have also been segments on sportscaster Pat Summerall meeting the family of his liver donor; Christopher Reeve's widow developing lung cancer; the fashion industry discovering larger women; and Rickey Henderson's baseball comeback. Whether the wide-ranging approach will erode the uniqueness of "Nightline" remains to be seen.
When the media's biggest megastars gathered at Carnegie Hall last week, an uncomfortable question hung in the air: Were they bidding farewell to Peter Jennings or the kind of journalism he embodied as well?
Despite shrinking audiences for the network newscasts, Brian Williams, the NBC anchor who succeeded Tom Brokaw and won plaudits for his coverage of the New Orleans floods, says they are "too important a franchise" to fade.
"When tragedy befalls the United States, when the event takes place that demands our attention, viewers come roaring back to the broadcast networks," he says. "It's the resources we can bring to bear on a crisis that sets us apart. We were able to operate in New Orleans in places where the federal government was not. We beat the first responders. We set the agenda during this particular event. We were witnesses, so we drove the story."
Williams says a long period of reticence by news organizations -- which he dubs "the 9/11 syndrome" -- ended with Hurricane Katrina.
Bob Schieffer, who took over for Dan Rather as CBS anchor, says of Jennings's passing: "We've come to the end of, I don't know if 'era' is the right word, but there will never be another time when three anchors command the attention and have the influence that these three did. One reason is that you now have 200 channels."
But Schieffer remains optimistic: "Does it mean we're at the end of good journalism? I don't think that's the case. We are the most informed people and have access to more information than at any time in the history of the world."
ABC correspondent John Cochran says no one is irreplaceable. "I expect to be in my rocker 10 years from now and there will still be stories about how TV news is going to hell in a handbasket, and it won't."
It fell to ABC veteran Sam Donaldson to acknowledge the demographic reality: "The average age of people watching the news on the three broadcast networks is 60. The average age of Americans is 35. We just can't keep doing this."
For the nightly newscasts to thrive, they will have to make themselves more compelling every week, not just during hurricanes.
At CBS, where Schieffer was tapped as an interim replacement, network chief Les Moonves is enamored of a multiple-anchor format. He has rejected one pilot that featured John Roberts delivering about five minutes of headlines with brief reports, followed by longer features in which the correspondents introduced themselves. Now the evening news staff is working on a new pilot.
Many CBS journalists were demoralized by a recent New York Times magazine article in which Moonves was reported to have told friends about the news division: "I want to bomb the whole building."
It was no accident last week that the Los Angeles Times was excluded from a round of interviews granted by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Relations have been chilly since the paper reported during the 2003 recall campaign on allegations by numerous women that the former movie star had groped them. But they have gone into a deep freeze since Schwarzenegger, whose approval rating has plummeted to 36 percent, began campaigning for several initiatives in a special fall election.
"I'm sorry to say it but your paper is so deep in the anti-Arnold tank now I think we are wasting our time dealing with you," Schwarzenegger adviser Mike Murphy told a Times reporter in an e-mail. "Can you blame us? Incessant anti-Arnold slant, an op-ed page that is closed to us, and stories where we don't even get called for comment?"
Times Editor Dean Baquet says that "we've been really fair in our coverage of him. I suspect that some stories, from the groping story on, they may have found upsetting. But we cover his policies in a straight-ahead way. We have the most people in Sacramento devoted to covering him."
Schwarzenegger spokesman Rob Stutzman traces what he calls the paper's "anti-Arnold mentality" to the groping stories in the campaign's final days, after which "Arnold Schwarzenegger won big. It was a big losing day for the Times."
Stutzman says reporter Mark Barabak wrote a story about a "bogus" group of Latino Republicans criticizing the governor's record in a letter. Barabak says one of them had been the party's liaison to Latinos and "the letter gave me an opportunity to write about sentiments that are quite widespread. . . . The Schwarzenegger people are doing exactly what I'd do in their position -- complain, push back. It works to their advantage because a lot of Republicans believe the L.A. Times is biased against the governor."
The governor's team also objected to a story about anti-Arnold activists, led by a "Dharma and Greg" actress, in which they were not called for comment, and the paper's rejection of an op-ed piece by Schwarzenegger. They were particularly angry that when Schwarzenegger announced he would seek a second term, the subhead on the Times story said he was "providing a media boost to two relatively obscure Democratic rivals."
Baquet says he isn't worried about Schwarzenegger stiffing the paper during last week's interviews because "by and large we get pretty full access to him and his people."
Moving right along...We'll probably get SCOTUS nominee No. 2 this week, and could that person be too liberal?
"As President Bush moves to fill the second vacancy on the Supreme Court," says the New York Times | http://nytimes.com/2005/09/25/politics/politicsspecial1/25roberts.html?hp&ex=1127620800&en=97d1792149f041c4&ei=5094&partner=homepage, "he faces a new challenge in finding a jurist who can not only withstand Democratic scrutiny but hold together the support of Senate Republicans as well.
"Polls have shown Mr. Bush's approval ratings near the lowest levels of his presidency. And Senate Republican strategists say that since his nomination of Judge John G. Roberts Jr. to the court, members of their conference have grown increasingly willing to disagree with the White House, notably on matters like stem cell research, Mr. Bush's choice for ambassador to the United Nations and the war in Iraq. . . .
"Now, both socially conservative and more liberal Republican senators say they may vote against confirmation of the next nominee if the pick leans too far to the left or the right on prominent issues like abortion rights."
My gut tells me this is not going to be a problem.
Time | http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1109345,00.html has a big piece on other Michael Browns sprinkled throughout the federal bureaucracy (about time someone did this kind of digging!):
"Some of the appointments are raising serious concerns in the agencies themselves and on Capitol Hill about the competence and independence of agencies that the country relies on to keep us safe, healthy and secure. Internal e-mail messages obtained by TIME show that scientists' drug-safety decisions at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are being second-guessed by a 33-year-old doctor turned stock picker. At the Office of Management and Budget, an ex-lobbyist with minimal purchasing experience oversaw $300 billion in spending, until his arrest last week. At the Department of Homeland Security, an agency the Administration initially resisted, a well-connected White House aide with minimal experience is poised to take over what many consider the single most crucial post in ensuring that terrorists do not enter the country again. And who is acting as watchdog at every federal agency? A corps of inspectors general who may be increasingly chosen more for their political credentials than their investigative ones.
"Nowhere in the federal bureaucracy is it more important to insulate government experts from the influences of politics and special interests than at the Food and Drug Administration, the agency charged with assuring the safety of everything from new vaccines and dietary supplements to animal feed and hair dye. That is why many within the department, as well as in the broader scientific community, were startled when, in July, Scott Gottlieb was named deputy commissioner for medical and scientific affairs, one of three deputies in the agency's second-ranked post at FDA."
The New Republic delivers a hard slap to John Kerry in this Michael Crowley | http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=w050919&s=crowley092305 piece:
"Had 60,000 Ohioans voted differently, he would now be leader of the free world. After the election it seemed possible that Kerry would soldier on as the voice of national Democrats. Yet in a matter of just months he's gone from the face of his party to another face in the crowd.
"It's not that Kerry isn't trying. Kerry has done anything but slink off into a post-defeat hibernation the way some other recently vanquished presidential nominees--Bob Dole, Michael Dukakis, even Al Gore (remember the beard and the European vacation?)--have done. Well before this week, Kerry was traveling the country campaign-style to promote a children's health care plan he has, at least for the moment, made his top priority. . . .
"Kerry seems hell-bent on redemption at the ballot box in 2008. You can see it in his strident attacks on the Bush administration...Yet while the political world hangs on every word from Hillary Clinton's mouth, and Joe Biden seems to be getting more airtime than Anderson Cooper, no one appears terribly interested in what John Kerry has to say anymore. . . .
"None of this should come as a shock. Kerry was never an inspiring candidate. He overcame Howard Dean at the last minute in large part because he could afford to give his primary campaign a huge loan. His feeble response to last summer's swift boat attacks revealed his clumsy political skills. Everything good about the Kerry campaign -- its phenomenal fundraising, the passions it harnessed -- derived mainly from Democrats' Bush-hatred, not from Kerry himself.
"In the midst of Kerry's typically windy John Roberts speech, he paused and looked up to the Senate rostrum. 'Mr. President, how much time do I have left?' Kerry asked. 'The gentleman's time has expired,' came the reply. And so it has."
Jonah Goldberg | http://nationalreview.com/goldberg/goldberg200509230811.asp uses the hurricane to rip Bush's old campaign theme:
"Outside of people inside the administration, I've never met anyone who really likes the president's 'compassionate conservatism.' To the extent conservatives praise it at all, they celebrate the fact that compassionate conservatism got Bush elected...
"Welfare-state liberals insisted they 'cared' more because they favored higher spending on schools. The compassionate conservatives responded with 'care all you like, but the schools stink.' The best summation of the entire enterprise was Bush's mantra about 'the soft bigotry of low expectations.'
"So, if I agree with all that, what's the problem? First, as a political slogan, compassionate conservatism was always a low blow. Almost by definition, people who claim to be compassionate conservatives are suggesting that other kinds of conservatives aren't. Conservatism, rightly understood, never needed the adjective.
"The second problem is that compassionate conservatism necessarily demands government activism. If normal conservatives are either too cheap or too uncaring to spend billions of dollars of other peoples' money on dubious social improvements, then compassionate conservatives must feel and do otherwise."
Some liberal bloggers are amazed that even Ann Coulter | http://www.anncoulter.com/cgi-local/welcome.cgi seems to be chiding the president:
"Bush has already fulfilled all his campaign promises to liberals -- and then some! He said he'd be a 'compassionate conservative,' which liberals interpreted to mean that he would bend to their will, enact massive spending programs, and be nice to liberals. When Bush won the election, that sealed the deal. It meant the Democrats won. Consequently, Bush has enacted massive new spending programs, obstinately refused to deal with illegal immigration, opposed all conservative Republicans in their primary races, and invited Teddy Kennedy over for movie night. He's even sent his own father to socialize with aging porn star Bill Clinton."
I wrote recently about how NYT critic Alessandra Stanley had misdescribed an incident involving Geraldo in which he was showboating, but not in the way she described. Times ombudsman Byron Calame | http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/25/opinion/25public.html agrees:
"One of the real tests of journalistic integrity is being fair to someone who might be best described by a four-letter word.
"The New York Times flunked such a test in rejecting a demand by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News for correction of a sentence about him in a column by the paper's chief television critic." (Calame also goes to print with his criticism of Paul Krugman, which I've mentioned.)
Ed Morrissey at Captain's Quarters | http://www.captainsquartersblog.com/mt/archives/005503.php comes down on Frist for selling his HCA stock before it tanked, noting that the AP reported his blind-trust man told him he owned shares in the family firm:
"If the documents prove to be authentic -- and we all know how important it is to verify that -- then Frist has landed himself into a world of trouble. As insiders started dumping HCA stock, Frist jumped in along with them, having illegal knowledge of his portfolio. Compound that with possible insider information and Frist may have serious legal problems over the next few years, the kind that lands corrupt politicos into Club Fed for extended vacations.
"These charges seem rather specific, and if the AP did their homework properly (a big if, of course), the evidence gives at least some credence to the charges. It seems appropriate, with this kind of investigation going on, for Frist to step down as Senate Majority Leader and allow another Republican to take the reigns."
And here, via Drudge, is a hurricane angle you've probably never considered:
"To the rest of the country," says the Idaho State Journal | http://www.journalnet.com/articles/2005/09/23/news/local/news05.txt, "Scott Stevens is the Idaho weatherman who blames the Japanese Mafia for Hurricane Katrina. To folks in Pocatello, he's the face of the weather at KPVI News Channel 6.The Pocatello native made his final Channel 6 forecast Thursday night, leaving a job he's held for nine years in order to pursue his weather theories on a full-time basis. . . .
"Since Katrina, Stevens has been in newspapers across the country where he was quoted in an Associated Press story as saying the Yakuza Mafia used a Russian-made electromagnetic generator to cause Hurricane Katrina in a bid to avenge the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima. He was a guest on Coast to Coast, a late night radio show that conducts call-in discussions on everything from bizarre weather patterns to alien abductions. On Wednesday, Stevens was interviewed by Fox News firebrand Bill O'Reilly."
So who's responsible for Hurricane Rita? The North Koreans?
Don't you hate when someone quotes a blog and attributes a comment to the wrong person? Me too! So when I picked up a hurricane account from John Roberts on the new CBS blog written by Vaughn Ververs | http://www.cbsnews.com/blogs/2005/09/23/publiceye/entry880415.shtml, I should have realized that the following comment didn't come from Roberts: "And to those reporters (all on cable, of course) who did grandstand, well, you know who you are."
Apparently he's not as snarky as Vaughn.