Sunday, December 05, 2004

The Nascar Nightly News: Anchorman Get Your Gun

The New York Times
December 5, 2004

The Nascar Nightly News: Anchorman Get Your Gun

IF Democrats want to run around like fools trying to persuade voters in red America that they are kissing cousins to Billy Graham, Minnie Pearl and Li'l Abner, that's their problem. Pandering, after all, is what politicians do, especially politicians as desperate as the Democrats. But when TV news organizations start repositioning themselves to pander to Nascar dads and "moral values" voters, it's a problem for everyone.

There's a war on. TV remains by far the most prevalent source of news for Americans. We need honest information to help us navigate, not bunkum skewed to flatter one segment of the country, whatever that segment might be. Yet here's how Jeff Zucker, the NBC president, summed up the attributes of Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw's successor, to Peter Johnson of USA Today: "No one understands this Nascar nation more than Brian." Mr. Zucker was in sync with his boss, Bob Wright, the NBC Universal chairman, who described America as a "red state world" on the eve of Mr. Brokaw's retirement. Though it may come as news to those running NBC, we actually live in a red-and-blue-state country, in a world that increasingly hates all our states without regard to our provincial obsession with their hues. Nonetheless, Mr. Williams, who officially took over as anchor on Dec. 2, is seeking a very specific mandate. "The New York-Washington axis can be a journalist's worst enemy," he told Mr. Johnson, promising to spend his nights in the field in "Dayton and Toledo and Cincinnati and Denver and the middle of Kansas." (So much for San Francisco - or Baghdad.)

I don't mean to single out Mr. Williams, who is prone to making such statements while wearing suits that reek of "New York-Washington axis" money and affectation. But when he talks in a promotional interview of how he found the pulse of the nation in Cabela's, a popular hunting-and-fishing outfitter in Dundee, Mich., and boasts of owning both an air rifle and part interest in a dirt-track stock-car team, he is declaring himself the poster boy for a larger shift in our news culture. He is eager to hunt down an audience, not a story.

He's not an isolated case. You know red is de rigueur when ABC undertakes the lunatic task of trying to repackage the last surviving evening news anchor, the heretofore aggressively urbane Peter Jennings, as a sentimental populist. In a new spot for "World News Tonight," Mr. Jennings tells us that "this is a really hopeful nation, and I think there's a great beauty in that." This homily is not only factually inaccurate - most Americans continue to tell pollsters that the nation is on the wrong track - but is also accompanied by a tinkling music-box piano and a montage leaning on such Kodak tableaus as a fishing cove, a small-town front porch and a weather-beaten man driving a car with a flag decal. Mr. Jennings is a smart newsman, but his just-folks incarnation is about as persuasive as Teresa Heinz Kerry's chow-down photo op at Wendy's.

If the Nascarization of news were only about merchandising, it would be a source of laughter more than concern. But the insidious leak of the branding into the product itself has already begun. Last Sunday morning both NBC's "Meet the Press" and ABC's "This Week" had roundtable discussions about - what else? - the "moral values" fallout of the election. Each show assembled a bevy of religious and quasi-religious leaders and each included a liberal or two. But though much of the "values" debate centered on abortion and gay marriage, neither panel contained a woman, let alone an openly gay cleric. Allowing such ostentatiously blue interlopers into the "values" club might frighten the horses - or at least the hunting dogs.

A creepier example of the shift toward red news could also be found last weekend when ABC's prime-time magazine show "20/20" aired an hourlong "investigation" into the brutal 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard in the red state of Wyoming. "20/20" added little except hyperventilation to previous revisionist accounts of the story, most notably JoAnn Wypijewski's 1999 Harper's article filling in the role crystal meth might have played in driving the crime. But ABC had obtained the first TV interviews with the killers and seemed determined to rehabilitate their images along the way. The reporter, Elizabeth Vargas, told us that while the pair had been "variously portrayed in press reports as 'rednecks' and 'trailer trash,' " they were actually just all-American everymen with "steady jobs, steady girlfriends and classically troubled backgrounds." Aaron McKinney, the killer who beat Shepard into an unrecognizable pulp, wasn't even challenged on camera when he said he had "gay friends" (none of whom were produced or persuavely vouched for by ABC) and that he had only invoked a homophobic "gay panic" defense in his trial because that's what the lawyers told him to do. What's not to like about the guy?

As chance would have it, this episode of "20/20" ran opposite the special "Dateline NBC" farewell to Mr. Brokaw. There could hardly be a more dramatic illustration of the changing of the tone, as well as of the guard, in network news.

Though the retrospective paid tribute, as Mr. Brokaw often has, to his roots in deeply red South Dakota, the career highlights that unfurled were not tied to any agenda but the stories the anchor reported. The newsmakers who made freshly shot guest appearances in the program to augment Mr. Brokaw's own accounts included not just George H. W. Bush and Norman Schwarzkopf but also Betty Friedan (who talked of how women of the 1950's "were supposed to have orgasms waxing the kitchen floor"), the AIDS activist Larry Kramer (whom Mr. Brokaw identified as his friend), Tom Hayden and, for the Watergate recap, a "former impeachment committee staffer" who happened to be Hillary Clinton. If Mr. Brokaw were arriving as anchor instead of leaving, this genuinely fair-and-balanced account of his career would have been vilified by the right-wing press and blogosphere 24/7 - assuming the red-state-besotted suits at NBC would have allowed him anywhere near the anchor chair in the first place.

That both Mr. Brokaw and Dan Rather are going into retirement in the aftermath of the election is a coincidence of timing but widely seen as a fateful one. It's been a cue to roll out once more the funeral rites for network news. We know the litany. The evening newscasts' ratings have been sinking for years, their budgets slashed, their audience forever slipping into the pharmaceutical demographic. The investigation into Mr. Rather's apparent reliance on forged documents in a "60 Minutes" exposé of President Bush's National Guard record is an added embarrassment, perhaps rivaling Rupert Murdoch's publication of the "authenticated" Hitler diaries two decades ago. But the perennial demise of network news has been the slowest final curtain in the history of show business, and is likely to continue indefinitely. All three network newscasts, not to mention the morning-news franchises led by "Today," draw exponentially more viewers than even Fox News's top-rated hits and make tons of money. Though more and more Americans use the Web as a news source, even there they often turn to the sites run by TV news. In the real world of 2004, it's still a TV culture - just look at the flat-screen set breaking some relative's bank this Christmas.

And so network news still counts. The idea, largely but not exclusively fomented by the right, that TV news might somehow soon be supplanted by blogging as a mass medium may remain a populist fantasy until Americans are able to receive blogs by iPod. (At which point they become talk radio.) The dense text in the best blogs often requires as much of a reader's time and concentration as high-end print journalism, itself facing declining circulation. Since blogging doesn't generate big (if any) profits, there's no budget for its "citizen reporters" to reliably blanket catastrophic and far-flung breaking news. (There are no bloggers among the 36 journalists thus far killed in the Iraq war.) Bloggers can fact-check documents (as in the Rather case), opine, organize, talk back, leak early exit polls and publish multimedia outings of the seemingly endless supply of closeted gay Republican officials. But if bloggers are actually doing front-line reporting rather than commenting upon the news in a danger zone like Falluja, chances are that they are underwritten by a day job on the payroll of a major news organization.

Kevin Sites, the freelance TV cameraman who caught a marine shooting an apparently unarmed Iraqi prisoner in a mosque, is one such blogger. Mr. Sites is an embedded journalist currently in the employ of NBC News. To NBC's credit, it ran Mr. Sites's mid-November report, on a newscast in which Mr. Williams was then subbing for Mr. Brokaw, and handled it in exemplary fashion. Mr. Sites avoided any snap judgment pending the Marines' own investigation of the shooting, cautioning that a war zone is "rife with uncertainty and confusion." But loud voices in red America, especially on blogs, wanted him silenced anyway. On right-wing sites like Mr. Sites was branded an "anti-war activist" (which he is not), a traitor and an "enemy combatant." Mr. Sites's own blog, touted by Mr. Williams on the air, was full of messages from the relatives of marines profusely thanking the cameraman for bringing them news of their sons in Iraq. That communal message board has since been shut down because of the death threats by other Americans against Mr. Sites.

The attempt to demonize and censor Mr. Sites simply for doing his job is not an anomaly. Last spring The New York Post smeared Associated Press television cameramen as having "a mutually beneficial relationship with the insurgents in Falluja" simply because their cameras captured the horrific images of the four American contract workers slaughtered there. Well before the National Guard fiasco at CBS, red-state news-hounds tried to discredit Mr. Rather's scoop on the photos of Abu Ghraib as overblown if not treasonous. This hysterical rage at the networks is a testament to their continued power - specifically the power of pictures in each of these cases.

Such examples notwithstanding, the networks were often cautious about challenging government propaganda even before the election. (Follow-ups to the original Abu Ghraib story quickly fell off TV's radar screen.) As far back as last spring Ted Koppel's roll-call of the American dead on "Nightline," in which the only images were beatific headshots, was condemned as a shocking breach of decorum by the mostly red-state ABC affiliates that refused to broadcast it. If full-scale Nascarization is what's coming next, there will soon be no pictures but those promising a mission accomplished, no news but good news. And that's good news only if you believe America has something to gain by fighting a war in the dark.