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A 'NewsHour' filled with reruns and PBS promotion -- not so much the news

JournalismTelevision IndustryPBS (tv network)Media IndustryEthicsSt. Mary's University of Minnesota

Earlier this year, I wrote about PBS "NewsHour" losing almost half its audience the last eight years and now averaging under a million viewers a night. I attributed that in part to the program not actually reporting news as much as talking to reporters and analysts about news that had already been reported on other outlets.

Tuesday night, as I was cycling through the nightly newscasts, I came upon something even I couldn't remember seeing: A last half of the "NewsHour" that consisted of two stories that had already aired somewhere else and one interview segment that I would be generous in describing as an infomercial for PBS.

Think about that for a second, two rerun stories -- one of which ran almost three months ago, and an interview that shamelessly promoted another PBS program.

That's the last half of a national evening newscast? Remember when news executives used to talk about how precious and special time on the evening news was? Who knew you could rerun the news -- months later?

The first story, which started at 29:12 into the broadcast, was about abortions in El Salvador.

"A version of this story originally aired on the PBS program 'Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly,'" co-anchor Judy Woodruff said at the end of her introduction to the piece.

The story was reported by Fred de Sam Lazaro, who is director of the "Under-Told Stories Project" at St. Mary's University of Minnesota. It self-describes on its website as "a collaborative project involving international journalism and teaching."

At the end of the report, Woodruff said, "Fred's reporting is a partnership with the 'Under-Told stories Project' at St. Mary's University of Minnesota."

The report, which ran 8:33, had already aired on "Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly" on Dec. 13.

And then, it was on to an interview with Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of PBS' "Masterpiece Theatre" who has a book out. The online headline on the "NewsHour's" website most succinctly defines the tone of the fawning Jeffrey Brown interview: "The magic behind 'Masterpiece.'"

The book, "Making Masterpiece: 25 Years Behind the Scenes at Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! on PBS" was published Oct. 29. The piece promoting the book, Eaton and "Masterpiece" ran 7:25. At least it hadn't already aired elsewhere.

That's slightly longer, by the way, than the 6:15 the "NewsHour" devoted to an interview with Jim Lehrer promoting his book, "Top Down: A Novel of the Kennedy Assassination." That one ran on Oct. 15.

The "NewsHour" can always find time, in seems, to promote books by friends and family in segments that run five minutes or more. Imagine if ABC, CBS or NBC did anything that blatantly self-serving on the nightly news.

Finally on Tuesday's "NewsHour" came a trend story that first ran Sept. 22 on the new PBS "NewsHour" weekend show done out of WNET in New York instead of WETA, in Washington, where the show anchored by Woodruff and managing editor Gwen Ifill is produced.

At the end of her introduction to the story about people living in tiny apartments in urban areas, Woodruff said, "It first aired on the weekend edition of the 'NewsHour.'" She didn't say it was almost three months ago.

After the report, which ran 9:10, she told viewers, "You can find that story and all the PBS weekend signature segments on our website."

"Signature segments" -- is that like NBC's "encore presentations" term for sitcom reruns, which were accompanied by the motto, "new to you" in the 1990s?

Or, maybe the "signature" designation is included to suggest that the segment is so fabulous and timeless that it's OK to air it again almost three months after it first ran.

Believe me, this trend story was neither fabulous nor timeless. Nor was it actually new. It wouldn't lead a weekday lifestyle section in a small daily newspaper in its first run. That's the sort of thing "NewsHour' routinely pads with.

I'm serious, this last half of Tuesday's "NewsHour" was a phantom newscast. If they don't have the energy, resources or pride to fill the hour with real news and hard-eyed analysis of the news, maybe it's time to cut back to a 30-minute nightly newscast on PBS and not ask the public to underwrite reruns and self-promotion.

UPDATE: Thursday morning I ran what I labeled as a "correction" saying the Rebecca Eaton interview had also aired previously. I did that based on an email from a public broadcasting journalist who read my blog post and then directed me to a web version of the Eaton interview at the "NewsHour" website that said "aired 11/26/13." See it here. I am now told it didn't really "air" on that date, but rather went online at that time. So, the column stands exactly as written.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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JournalismTelevision IndustryPBS (tv network)Media IndustryEthicsSt. Mary's University of Minnesota
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