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In Search of Intelligent Life on the Network News

Viral video has taken over the nightly news, while once-maligned local newscasts are newsier than ever.
  • David Muir, Norah O'Donnell and Lester Holt helm the (once) big three network newscasts.
    David Muir, Norah O'Donnell and Lester Holt helm the (once) big three network newscasts.
    Overwhelmed by Peak TV? Aaron Barnhart is your guide to the good, the great, and the skippable. Subscribe to get all his Primetimer reviews.

    God knows why, but every weeknight my wife and I watch ABC World News Tonight with David Muir. My news habits have not changed since childhood: papers in the morning (or rather, “papers”), nightly news over dinner. I choose ABC because usually it’s No. 1 in the 25-54 age demographic that I’m barely clinging to, and because — although it’s a terrible program — it’s well-produced and David Muir is a best-in-class anchorman.

    Before that we watched Brian Williams for years on NBC, and occasionally poked around the hermetically sealed crypt known as the CBS Evening News. To a large extent this analysis of ABC’s nightly newscast applies to them all. They all overpromise and underperform ... but nobody overpromises and underperforms quite like ABC.

    Griping about the nightly news is as old as the nightly news. Seventy years ago, NBC began airing a 15-minute network newscast titled Camel News Caravan. It was sponsored by a cigarette and anchored by John Cameron Swayze, better known as a pitchman than journalist. Within days the great Jack Gould, television critic for the New York Times, was writing it off.

    “Television has a responsibility to report the news with reasonable thoroughness,” wrote Gould, but with the News Caravan “this is not the case.” On a recent newscast, he noted, “NBC television did not mention two of the major stories of the day,” instead devoting precious minutes to films of a West Point cadet parade, a polio victim riding cross-country in a wheelchair, and the new police chief of Evarts, Kentucky.

    “Television has a serious problem if it must resort to distorting news values in order to present a program with high picture appeal,” Gould argued.

    By the 1960s, though, this problem (if it was an actual problem) was solved by lighter, cheaper cameras and videotape, which could turn almost any story into one with at least some “picture appeal.” By 1968 — arguably the peak of network news relevance — more than 80 percent of the country tuned in nightly to watch compelling video of assassinations, police riots, the Vietnam War, Congressional hearings, and more.

    This seriousness carried into the 1970s, when I started watching. We associate that era with Walter Cronkite on CBS, but I was more a fan of last-place ABC, which in 1978 rebranded its newscast World News Tonight and for a while had a crazy format that rotated between three anchors in three cities on two continents. Frank Reynolds led off that first newscast from Washington by promising viewers “an accurate, responsible, and meaningful report on events at home and abroad.” Meaningful.

    Blowhardy as that sounds now, it was the news game back then — win viewers’ trust with in-depth reporting. That first ABC World News broadcast led off with a solid 12 minutes of stories examining the plight of dissident Soviet Jews, including a Barbara Walters interview with lawyer Alan Dershowitz that was as informative as it was visually stultifying.

    So how did we get from that to this

    “In Florida a woman accused of stealing an ambulance is under arrest. Police in Fort Pierce capturing the scene on dash cam...” 

    “This dash cam video captures the dramatic incident unfolding during what started as a normal traffic stop...” 

    “Dash cam video capturing the moment a man begins repeatedly punching the driver...” 

    “And the close call caught on a driver’s dash cam on a Utah highway — that Subaru Outback narrowly missing the car doing the filming.” 

    Those are just a few recent examples of the journalism that exemplifies ABC’s World News in 2019. Dash-cam stories check all of Gould’s boxes from 1949 — they have “high picture appeal,” but are often dated and, in the global scheme of things, “relatively unimportant.” 

    World News is filled with cheap filler like that. Local crime news (often involving a missing white woman). Celebrity happenings (two Kevin Hart car-accident updates in three days). Viral videos (often of people behaving badly in Australia or at 35,000 feet). Some of these are teased not once but twice in a newscast, so that the story itself actually takes less time to read than the promos.

    And then there’s the closing nightly segment of World News,  “America Strong,” a heartwarming feature about a special teacher, pet, child, volunteer, or member of the military. On a recent newscast, Muir went out to Central Park with a camera crew and interviewed kids about their first day of school. “It was average,” said one. A completely pointless story, but as Muir reminded viewers, “it’s become a tradition.” 

    Muir likes to say that his newscast is “actually more valuable” than it was before he took over in 2014. “People are inundated all day long from the moment they get up in the morning when they check their iPhone,” he told NPR. “People are hungry for someone to break through the noise.”

    For many years, I thought the deterioration of the nightly news simply reflected the takeover of television by the entertainment industry. This was the argument of Neil Postman in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death — that TV news people are fundamentally unserious people there to perform, not inform.

    But as James Poniewozik argues in his brilliant new book, Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television, and the Fracturing of America, that’s only partly what happened. More crucially, cable TV came along, and niche channels like ESPN and MTV began picking off key chunks of the audience with programs that appealed only to those viewers. The “noise” David Muir refers to is the sound of a million channels competing for people’s attention.

    Poniewozik — Gould’s latter-day successor at the Times — argues that no one capitalized on this shift more than the current occupant of the White House. He compares an interview that a young Donald Trump gave in 1980 to NBC’s Tom Brokaw with Trump’s weekly call-in chats on Fox & Friends in the early 2010s. 

    The 1980 Trump edition doesn’t want to piss off 30 million viewers. “His manner of speaking is mild,” Poniewozik notes. “Given a chance to engage a controversy, he deflects it. He’s trying to charm rather than incite.” But the Trump of Fox & Friends isn’t worried about offending that show’s 5 million viewers — he’s concerned about having their undying loyalty. Birtherism does the trick.

    World News Tonight has more people watching it than any Fox program, with about 8 million viewers per night. And in a way, Muir does cut through the clutter of the day. He’s an incredibly lifelike prompter reader, with a software upgrade that allows him to emote around humans. His amazing talent for writing without verbs gives his newscast a propulsive energy his competitors can’t match. (According to one report, the reason CBS dumped Jeff Glor as anchor of the Evening News is that he “tried too hard to imitate the fast-moving visual style of ABC World News Tonight.”)

    Alas for them, the audience for all network newscasts is in decline. It’s not just old age carrying viewers away (or lung cancer, judging by the preponderance of anti-smoking commercials that air during World News). It’s Trump. Ratings for MSNBC and CNN have soared since he took office. For some ABC viewers, it seems, a two-minute report from Jon Karl at the White House wedged in between weather reports and random terrifying video isn’t cutting it.

    Lately, I’ve even found myself fast-forwarding through the network newscast (like the president, we TiVo the news) and watching the 6 o’clock report from our local ABC affiliate. It’s packed with real journalism, and not just stories off the scanner. There’s quite a bit of city and county government news, campaign coverage, consumer investigations, upcoming events and, yes, all the weather.

    Local newscasters used to be the unserious ones. Not that long ago a listing for a TV job in our market actually quoted Anchorman. But with newsrooms everywhere shrinking, the humble hometown TV newscast seems more vital than ever. It has something for everybody. It’s virtually Trump-proof. It’s — dare I say — meaningful. 

    My only complaint is that it should start a half hour sooner.

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: World News Tonight, ABC, NBC, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, David Muir, Walter Cronkite, Cable News