The launch of Katie Couric a year ago as the anchor of the CBS Evening News was hailed by CBS as the biggest thing in news since, well, the invention of denture fixative commercials. It was also the biggest flop. The CBS Evening News Without Dan Rather or Bob Schieffer had its lowest ratings since Nielsen began tracking evening news shows in 1987. This turn of events stunned CBS executives--who had given her the famous "Kiss Me Kate" contract, which paid Couric $15 million a year--and the news consultants who thought she was the answer to CBS being mired in third place in the network news race for the past ten years. The news doctors who have been paid millions trying to fix the show for the past year have only made it worse. It didn't matter how many times the consultants got it wrong. Remember what they did to poor Dan Rather? Smile, don't smile. Wear a sweater, don't wear a sweater. Stand up to deliver the news, sit down. It is a law of the news consultancy/network relationship: If we are paying so much money, it must be right. Otherwise, why are we paying so much money?
So, as a TV critic who has logged millions of hours of viewing to help save one of my three favorite commercial networks, I decided to volunteer my services to the Save CBS Campaign. Here's what I would do: First, I would dump the Walter Cronkite school of reporting, of which Katie Couric is the latest practitioner. The objective that's-the-way-it-is style they use at all the network evening news shows is so old, so over. No wonder all the network news programs are falling in the ratings. Katie Couric is just the hardest hit.
What the evening news shows need is less "objectivity" and more analysis. The problem with objective journalism is that it doesn't exist and never did. Molly Ivins disposed of the objectivity question for all time when she observed in 1993, "The fact is that I am a 49-year-old white female, a college-educated Texan. All of that affects the way I see the world. There's no way in hell that I'm going to see anything the same way that a 15-year-old black high school dropout does. We all see the world from where we stand. Anybody who's ever interviewed five eyewitnesses to an automobile accident knows there's no such thing as objectivity."
What I'm proposing is nothing new. Before Walter Cronkite became the model "objective" newsman, there was Edward R. Murrow. In the late 1930s Murrow started the tradition of reporting the news and analyzing it, giving his opinion of what it all meant. The Murrow legend was built on his opinionated analyses on the CBS Evening News.
For those who never saw Murrow's news show, here's how it would go: After running through the headlines, he would call on reporters at home and abroad to give reports on the scene. These so-called Murrow's Boys were real TV journalists, not actors who played them on TV. CBS News in the Murrow years had people we respected because of their expertise, not because they were famous TV names. The foreign correspondents weren't empty trench coats but real experts like William Shirer, who reported from Berlin on the menace of Hitler in the 1930s. It didn't matter that Murrow's Boys were bald like David Schoenbrun, who reported from Paris in the glory days, or older than the 18-49 demographic like Dan Schorr. They were specialists in specific areas.
Then Murrow would do his closing essay, in which he would comment on some hot issue, continually treading dangerous waters: McCarthyism at home, apartheid abroad, J. Edgar Hoover, the atomic bomb, stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction--all of which he opposed. He was pro-union and anti-business. He was a dissident on US foreign policy post-World War II. He spoke out against the Truman Doctrine, which had America supporting fascist dictatorships in Greece and elsewhere because they were anti-Communist. He was against funding Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist army, which John Foster Dulles told us would retake the mainland someday, if they didn't die of old age first. He was hard on Douglas MacArthur when he took his troops across the 38th Parallel in the Korean War. He criticized the Pentagon snafus that were getting our troops killed. He was critical of US support for the French in Indochina (pre-Vietnam) and of the Eisenhower Administration's embrace of the French puppet government in Saigon led by a Riviera playboy, Bao Dai. He was against Red Channels and blacklisting and the House Un-American Activities Committee, which identified a Communist under every bed. He even attacked television itself, warning that it had the capacity to "distract, delude, amuse and insulate us."
"No one can eliminate prejudices--just recognize them," Murrow said. His approach was so successful that all the other network news hours copied him.
Finally, CBS president William Paley made Ed Murrow shut up--by canceling his shows. In the dark ages after Murrow, the most powerful commentary on network news was the raised eyebrow of David Brinkley after reading a piece of news on NBC. A generation of telegenic and totally uninvolved journalists followed.
In short, what CBS (and all the others) need is a new Ed Murrow. Good news! There's already one out there on the launchpad who has demonstrated his qualifications. I'm talking about Keith Olbermann of MSNBC. He has the journalistic chops and the mind, heart, instincts and courage.