It's too bad David Letterman is staying at CBS. Moving to ABC, and forcing "Nightline" into an early retirement, might have served as a wake-up call to a slumbering media establishment.
Not surprisingly, members of the news elite saw it differently. They furiously, and nervously, rallied behind Ted Koppel. They rushed to defend themselves as the indispensable source the public relies on for its information.
But over the last decade, while the elite media weren't looking, a funny thing happened: Letterman, Jay Leno, Oprah Winfrey, "Saturday Night Live" and MTV became the deliverers of the news mainstream Americans want. Pop culture shows pay more attention to politics and give it more time than their counterparts in the news division. According to the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a research group funded by the MacArthur, Ford and Pew foundations, among others, the average sound bite in the 2000 election fell to a mere seven seconds, three seconds shorter than in 1988. Voters who wanted to hear Gov. Bush or Vice President Gore couldn't rely on the network news. After Labor Day, the center found, reporters filled 74 percent of the airtime in the average evening news piece, while candidates talked 11 percent of the time. Other sources filled the remaining 15 percent.
By contrast, the pop culture shows offered viewers a chance to actually see and hear the candidates. When Bush went on Letterman in October 2000, he got 13 minutes of airtime. That's more time than he received on all the network news programs during the same month.
Similarly, when Secretary of State Colin Powell went on MTV last month to answer questions from a worldwide audience, viewers were treated to a free-flowing, 90-minute presentation on the government's priorities. The Bush administration was given a chance to deliver its message, unfiltered by broadcasters and Washington journalists, to an audience that MTV estimated at 370 million.
Pop programs are giving people more of what they want. During the last election, when Oprah announced she would be having Gore and Bush on her show, she told her audience that her intention was to break through the "wall" of sound bites and "practiced answers" to reveal the real man. When sizing up potential presidents, or the current administration, these exchanges are far more important to the average American than listening to politicians repeat scripted statements on taxes or prescription drugs to Koppel or Tim Russert.
At one time, Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America. Today's news personalities don't garner that type of respect, but the talk show hosts do. Lionel Tiger, the Charles Darwin Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University, puts it this way: "People have been watching Letterman for so long, they've had the day-in and day-out exposure to him for years. They like him, and when he's asking questions to a Bush or Gore, he's really acting as a surrogate for the population."
Journalists used to be governed by the creed that they "told truth to power." Nowadays, when they belong to the same clubs as the politicians, go to the same dinner parties and appear on the same cable chat shows, they lose their credibility and their objectivity. To most hardworking Americans, powerful politicians and "watchdog" journalists are all part of the Washington Establishment.
The late-night talk shows haven't been co-opted in this manner -- and Americans know it. A study conducted at the height of the 2000 campaign by the Pew Research Center revealed that more than half of Americans were getting information about the candidates from comedy programs such as "Saturday Night Live" and such nontraditional outlets as MTV. Viewers who get their political information from these shows represent the nonideological center who can swing elections, and the mood of the nation.
"These shows are major players and they should be," says Norm Ornstein, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "We have built into our culture that no one is royalty, and that the mighty and the powerful can have feet of clay. That's one of our strengths. These shows take our leaders down a peg."
ABC always insisted that its pursuit of Letterman was about garnering more of the younger viewers advertisers covet. But it's time we have a conversation about how Americans are getting their information. It's not a discussion the establishment media want, because they might be forced to admit what Americans have known for some time. Pop culture shows have become an important link between a cynical nation and its government, and in the process, a viable alternative to the traditional news outlets.
The writer is a graduate student at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.