Rep. Dennis Kucinich's stated intention to revisit the Fairness Doctrine as part of upcoming hearings on media reform is welcome news. Maybe not for station and network owners, or for the people who now run their news divisions. But this promise to consider reinstituting some form of regulation over the electronic media is something that true news people and all Americans who want honest, informed news should embrace. And any effort to bring back the Fairness Doctrine must include extending its umbrella to the cable news industry, as well.
Fourscore less seven or so years ago, when the government first recognized the power and potential of the airwaves, it held every broadcaster to a strict contract: serve the "public interest, convenience, and necessity" or risk losing your license. Stations and networks could make money with entertainment programs, as long as they kept them clean, but the rules for news were tougher. Under the Fairness Doctrine, fair and balanced coverage was an actual requirement, not a cynical slogan. Gathering and reporting thorough, accurate news may have been expensive -- a loss leader for much of the industry, in fact -- but for more than four decades, it paid off at license renewal time.
Then, in the late 1970's, came deregulation, and the quality-news incentive began to erode. As the Federal Communications Commission relaxed programming standards, owners no longer routinely wrote off their news budgets in red ink. They found that, by treating news as entertainment, it could be just as profitable. So they began taking calls from those pesky "consultants." And they were won over by their brassy concepts ("Eyewitness News" et al); by their focus groups, which (surprise!) preferred young, good-looking newscasters to seasoned, avuncular ones; and, inevitably, by their ideas on cutting budgets.
Experienced journalists were laid off wholesale; novices willing to work long hours at minimal salaries took their place. The savings went toward fancier sets and glitzier graphics. Stories that were less newsworthy but more visually compelling moved higher in newscasts. "If it bleeds it leads" became the new standard.
Significantly, it was in this tabloid climate that all-news cable was born. When Ted Turner launched his Cable News Network in 1980, he promised a quality alternative that would break the broadcast establishment's hammerlock on news. And, in fact, CNN's early monopoly on all-news cable was a boon to television journalism. Staffed, ironically, by experienced news people from the broadcast ranks, Turner's network strove to survive on the quality of its coverage. The numbers were so small, so few homes had cable, that CNN's long-term success would depend much more on its reputation than on its ratings. Turner also had the foresight to go international -- at a time when the cost-cutting, ratings-driven broadcast networks were closing foreign bureaus willy-nilly. This paid off famously for CNN when the bombs of Desert Storm began dropping on Baghdad.
But now, with cable news itself validated, others entered the field. By the late 90's, CNN was sharing the market with three new 24-hour networks - CNBC, MSNBC and Fox News Channel. Conventional wisdom holds that competition breeds a better product. But few would argue that the quality of television journalism has improved in this age of all-news cable.
I have had the fortune - and misfortune - of witnessing the journalistic train wreck that is cable news from the inside. In 1997, early in my six-year stint at Fox News Channel, when I complained about the abundance of ear-splitting on-camera cross-talk, my immediate boss set me straight. Basically, he said, cable viewers are sitting out there, remotes in hand, "clicking through" the dial; if they come to a channel and don't see something exciting, like a shouting match (or a sexy anchor; but that's another issue), they'll click right on by.
An even higher-placed exec accosted me one day with some advice about the media criticism show I was producing. "Sleaze it up, sleaze it up," he chanted, earnestly and in full voice, right there in the heart of the newsroom. The next day brought a follow-up exhortation from the same v-p: "Dumb it down, dumb it down."
No wonder, then, that so much of cable "news" is what it is today: a non-stop barrage of opinion -- loud, uninformed, and often unintelligible for all the shouting. No wonder the standard for success for reporters and anchors is no longer how knowledgeable, informative or unbiased they are, but how "hip," "edgy," or provocative their on-air personas are. No wonder so many of the key newsroom personnel come from tabloid TV, able to "make good television" with jazzed-up graphics and sound effects (WHOOSH!), but with no actual journalism experience and surely no business making editorial decisions.
And no wonder cable has become what only the most cynical among us might ever have imagined - a platform for political propaganda masquerading as news. It's easy to blame Fox News Channel, and I do, because this particular deception is precisely - and by design -- what the FNC "brain trust," chairman Roger Ailes and news v-p John Moody, brought new to the medium. And now, with Fox's success, we can only expect its cable competitors to follow the same low road.
Why is cable news important to the debate on broadcast deregulation? Simply because it's the new standard for all of television news. It's where the media moguls have been investing their money and their futures. And as the FCC, which no longer makes quality journalism a "public interest" requirement for broadcasters, further deregulates the industry, it might well ease them out of the news business altogether. Then, cable news will be the only game in town. And when that happens, we all might find ourselves longing for the "good old days" - not only of Walter, Chet and David, but of Brian, Charlie and Katie.