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.)