Money for Nothing
On February 23 the New York Times reported that ABC News had decided to reduce its staff by a whopping 300 to 400 people, or approximately a quarter of its workforce. Three days later, the paper ran a full-page ad featuring a Photoshopped crowd of the network's biggest and best-compensated celebrities. It included the stars of Lost, Desperate Housewives and Grey's Anatomy alongside newly promoted newscasters Evening News anchor Diane Sawyer and Good Morning America host George Stephanopoulos.
Viewed side by side, the advertisement and the news story led to an obvious conclusion: ABC is looting its news division to invest in its stars. CBS did much the same when it enticed Katie Couric away from NBC with a promise of a reported $15 million annual payday plus promotional advertising worth at least another $10 million. Sawyer's and Stephanopoulos's new compensation packages are not public, but in 2006 Sawyer was already reportedly making $12 million a year in the job Stephanopoulos now has. When Peter Jennings died five years ago, he left an estate valued at $54 million. (Morning show hosts are paid like anchors because, while less prominent in the media, their shows rake in the big bucks from advertisers.) And yet despite the implications of ABC's advertising campaign, it is the network's news rather than its entertainment division that must carry the weight of these salaries. Can it be mere coincidence that the network cannot afford actual journalists anymore?
The news business is everywhere in crisis. CBS's news division is losing around 6 percent of its staff, and NBC has also made significant cuts, despite its being buoyed by the ability to amortize its costs across MSNBC, CNBC and MSNBC.com. Ironically, given the timing, ABC News president David Westin recently received the Radio-Television Digital News Foundation's First Amendment Leadership Award. Referring to the "wave after wave" of network cuts, he warned fellow broadcasters, "I can see no greater challenge to the First Amendment than the threats that are being faced by so many of our news organizations...threats to their ability to have the wherewithal to employ reporters and support them with the resources that they need."
Well, I have an idea. Imagine a world in which evening anchors, morning hosts (and even network news division presidents) were paid like journalists instead of hedge-fund managers. How many "resources" would that free up to invest in genuine news-gathering operations? Veteran print editors and reporters at places like the Times and The New Yorker manage to feed and clothe their families without costing their companies a million bucks a month, and they produce a great deal more valuable reporting and analysis than the network news stars do. So, too, do the folks at PBS and NPR. Would any sane person argue that the work of Bill Moyers or Terry Gross is somehow inferior to that of their network counterparts? (Here at The Nation, well, let's just say salaries are more in line with real cops than the actors who play them on Law & Order.)
Westin is worrying about the threats to the First Amendment of laying off a quarter of his staff, but whose idea was it for the networks to gut the news division of journalists to pay movie-star salaries to celebrity hosts in the first place? (Though, to be fair to movie stars, George Clooney reportedly did his brilliant performance in Up in the Air for just $2 million, less than a seventh of his usual fee.)
I teach a class at Brooklyn College on the portrayal of journalists in film since the days of The Front Page, and I found one could track the evolution of this attitude toward star compensation through two relatively recent films. In The Paper (1994), directed by Ron Howard, a crusty old veteran editor played by Robert Duvall tells the ambitious, obnoxious Glenn Close, who wants a raise to pay her decorator, the following fable about what it used to mean to be in the news business. (I found it transcribed on David Warsh's Economic Principals blog.) Duvall explains:
In '68, a bunch of us that were covering the Olympics in Grenoble decided to go to the best restaurant in town. Now, the menu didn't have any prices, but we were on expense accounts and we figured, screw it, got drunk. There ended up, I don't know, being fifteen or twenty of us at the table. And when the check came, woo, it was $9,000! So there we are, all starting to point fingers, we're trying to remember who invited who, we're talking about going down to Western Union to get money cabled. And just when it was starting to get really embarrassing, this funny little guy at the next table called the maitre d' over, drew a couple of squiggly lines on a napkin, signed his name to it, winked at us, and that was that. The old guy was Pablo Picasso. And that napkin paid our bill. The people we cover, we move in their world, but it is their world. You can't keep up. If you try to make this job about the money, you'll just make yourself miserable. Because we don't get the money. Never have, never will.
That was then. Now cut to James Brooks's Broadcast News (1987), where much of the staff of the network's Washington bureau are being forced to clean out their desks and rewrite their résumés in what we now know was just the first wave of apparently endless personnel cuts. The overpaid anchor, wonderfully underplayed by Jack Nicholson, is evincing crocodile tears over the human cost of heartless corporate bean-counting: "You can make it less brutal by knocking a million off your salary," avers a brave colleague. Nicholson gives him a look of death.
Today, the producer would have to say at least "10 million" to make the story credible, but I'm afraid the look on Jack's face would be much the same.