December 2, 2004


The Nascar Nightly News: Anchorman Get Your Gun (FRANK RICH, 12/05/04, NY Times)

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.

It's obvious from his tone that Mr. Rich doesn't exactly have his finger on the pulse of America, but he's right that people will see through these posturing phonies. The networks, or at least one or two of them, are going to have to go Fox to get an audience. If CBS News had any sense it would take advantage of having nothing to lose and make a major play for Red America.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 2, 2004 12:00 AM

You've got to figure, though, that Fox will beat them all to it, and do to broadcast news what they did to cable news.

And while the changing of the guard at both CBS and NBC provides those networks with an opportunity they'll surely ignore, it also removes their "trusted face" advantage, giving Fox a level playing field it doesn't need.

Posted by: Timothy at December 2, 2004 1:33 AM

Ditto Timothy's comment.

Posted by: Tom Wall at December 2, 2004 1:59 AM

The Fox network has never shown any interest in broadcast news shows.

My guess is that they won't start now.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at December 2, 2004 2:01 AM

"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."

If you're going to "pander" to the American viewer, you gotta understand that nobody cares that foreigners hate us. If you want a news story, go find some foreigners that actually like us. They're out there, Mr Rich.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at December 2, 2004 3:12 AM

When there was a report a couple of weeks ago that Liberty Media was going to make a play for Fox's parent News Corp., I thought that would be one way to shut up the sudden cultural diversity in TV news programs -- buy out the competition (even though Liberty itself isn't considered liberal) and then just blow up the inner workings of Fox's news division.

That's pretty much what you would have to do going the other way with the Big 3 networks. A story or two occassionally slips through that doesn't conform with the standard bias -- Brian Ross' report last night on ABC linking Marc Rich and the Oil-for-Food scandal being a recent example -- but the problems go beyond just the anchorman and reporters to the writers, proucers and news division executives at the three major networks and CNN. To effect any lasting change, either those people would have to put potential ratings gains over ideology or there would have to be a full-scale house cleaning. As Michael Medved has pointed out with Hollywood's long=-time refusal to make family films that appeal to Red States, there are limits to what liberals will do to make a buck.

Posted by: John at December 2, 2004 8:10 AM

CBS should hire Bill O'Reilly. He wants the job, as evidenced by his defense of Rather and maintaining ties to CBS. He does that populist shtick that at least is more convincing than Dan's folksy "Texas" sayings. And hiring him might also hurt Fox's ratings.

It won't happen, but CBS should go for it. As you say, what do they have to lose?

Posted by: kevin whited at December 2, 2004 10:03 AM

Weirdest thing of all about Rich's piece is that it's datelined Dec. 5, yet was posted on Dec. 1, and refers in the past tense to Dec. 2.

Whatever the merits of Rich's column, why would the New York Times steal its own thunder by publishing free online material from its Sunday marquee edition ... four days early???

Posted by: Semolina Pilchard at December 2, 2004 11:28 AM


Considering that Rich used to write theatre reviews for the Times without bothering to actually see the shows, nothing he does is unusual.

BTW, how is Peter Jennings, a high school dropout with a funny foreign accent, in any way urbane?

Posted by: Bart at December 2, 2004 12:07 PM


He looks much better in his suits than Rather or Brokaw ever looked in theirs.

However, Dan actually could pull off looking like a Pashtun. Jennings - no way.

Posted by: jim hamlen at December 2, 2004 12:15 PM


That's not entirely true. The Seattle broadcast affiliate, at least, already has a news show. It's hardly a stretch to add a nationwide broadcast. With the resources of Fox News, it would cost them practically nothing. I have a hard time believing that News Corp is going to just completely pass up a chance at free money.

Posted by: Timothy at December 2, 2004 3:53 PM

One or more networks will just shut down or outsource their news divisions.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at December 3, 2004 1:57 AM