Television news picture darkening Commentary: Competitors take aim at CNN in an eventful week that provides a sobering preview of what's coming next in TV news.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PASADENA, Calif. -- Don Imus and Rush Limbaugh. Is this the future of network television news?

That is one of the questions begging to be asked after a week that started with one of the biggest channel launches in the history of cable television -- 24-hour, all-news MSNBC from NBC and Microsoft -- and ended with Fox announcing a series of deals for its coming all-news cable channel that amounts to nothing short of a declaration of war.

The war of egos involving Microsoft's Bill Gates, NBC's Bob Wright, Fox's Rupert Murdoch and all the big-name talent they own is not without interest. But what matters most about this war is that it will likely determine to a large extent not only what kind of news we see on television in coming years but also who has access to it.

Cable subscribers who live in Howard and Harford counties, for example, have already found out what it's like to be left out of this new world of television news, as they searched in vain early last week for the MSNBC channel that everyone seemed to be talking about. MSNBC wasn't on their cable systems because Murdoch was paying Comcast to keep it off, according to Wright, the president of NBC. That, he said, is the kind of dollars-and-cents hardball that is being played when it comes to the Realpolitik of delivering television news into cable homes.

But the first question that must be asked after seeing a week's worth of MSNBC, as well as CNN's attempts to counter, concerns what the networks are now calling news.

The look of MSNBC is high-tech -- with television monitors and computer terminals everywhere, lots of metal and chromium steel, brick walls, espresso machines and coffee cups -- all of which contributes to a style of presentation that is sleek, polished and professional.

But the content is predominantly repetitious, bloated, given to cyber-babble and endless self-promotion from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. -- the hours when MSNBC is in its regular news-analysis mode.

The worst kind of bottom-feeding takes place when anchors, like Jodi Applegate, are chatting with such MSNBC "contributors" as Laura Ingraham, a former Reagan aide and Clarence Thomas law clerk, or Jay Monahan, a lawyer married to NBC superstar Katie Couric.

In the main, this isn't news, and it isn't analysis -- at least not in the traditional journalistic notions of those terms. It is mostly empty and highly opinionated talk -- the kind that radio, unfortunately, has come to be filled with in recent years.

Radio talk embraced

While one NBC News executive bristled at the comparison of MSNBC to radio talk in an interview Monday, by Wednesday he and his bosses were embracing it in a press conference to announce that Imus' New York radio show would be carried live on MSNBC from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. weekdays starting Sept. 3.

Imus is the veteran disc jockey who made headlines recently for his comments about President Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton during a Washington event that they were attending. If Howard Stern is a shock jock, it would probably be unfair to use that term to describe Imus. But comparing Imus to NBC's John Chancellor, who died July 12, gives some sense of the change in recent years in what the network news divisions consider political commentary.

And what about the widely published reports that Rush Limbaugh is going to be a featured player on Murdoch's Fox News Channel when it launches in 12 million homes Oct. 7?

Roger Ailes, the former Reagan handler and Limbaugh television producer who will run the Fox News Channel, said here Thursday that he has talked to Limbaugh but that no deal has been struck. "Rush is a free agent but I certainly think he could be appropriate," Ailes said, doing his own bristling at the suggestion that Limbaugh might have no place on an all-news network.

And there was more bristle from NBC News President Andrew Lack when he was asked how he can consider what Imus does on the radio appropriate for an all-news network. "You know, the criticism that we're not doing news because we're not doing CNN is just stupid," Lack said. "I said since day one that we are not going to do CNN."

Wednesday night, though, when TWA Flight 800 crashed, MSNBC did try to do CNN -- covering its first big story with its news throttle wide open. That coverage provided an equally dark glimpse of the future of television news.

CNN's tendency to put unconfirmed information and sensational speculation on the air in such situations was taken to a new level by MSNBC overnight and by morning anchors Ann Curry and Ed Gordon.

Thursday morning, Gordon was telling viewers that "law enforcement authorities are leaning toward the belief that terrorists were involved," long after someone should have reined in that kind of talk in favor of gathering facts. But such anchor-desk speculation had been going on for 12 hours -- with CNN and MSNBC in a dizzying competition to see how many "analysts" they could get on the air to talk about terrorism and possible connections to the Olympics before any such links were established.

There were other troubling aspects of this first week with future-news, such as the way MSNBC gave over its prime-time interview show, "Internight," on Monday to President Clinton. MSNBC got the marquee value of an exclusive presidential interview, and the president got an hour of air time featuring gentle questions from Tom Brokaw.

Equally disconcerting was the way CNN responded to the MSNBC exclusive by playing campaign footsie with Bob Dole through the even gentler questions of Larry King Monday.

With MSNBC "Internight," CNN's "Larry King Live" and Murdoch's channel this fall, will any candidate ever have to submit to tough questions again?

And what about conflicts of interest involved in the corporate marriages giving birth to these all-news channels?

Lack brushed aside questions as to why anyone should trust NBC's reporting on Microsoft, saying: "We're getting real used to these conflicts of interest It comes with the territory these days. I don't think there is a media company of any scale left in the world that isn't encountering this problem in its newsgathering activities."

This came just after he announced that MSNBC and the New York Times had closed a deal that would result in a prime-time newsmagazine show, "The Sunday Times on Saturday Night."

The corporate marriages result in more than just potential conflicts of interest in newsgathering. They are the reason some Baltimore-area viewers can see MSNBC and some cannot.

Cable television is not regulated by the government in the same way that broadcast networks and stations are. As a result, the audience of 70 million or so cable homes in America is being carved up by media giants these days the way the American frontier was sliced and diced in an earlier time.

The fight among the cable news channels is currently in such flux that on Monday NBC's Wright announced in Pasadena that all Comcast systems would be carrying MSNBC. Meanwhile, back in Maryland, Comcast was carrying MSNBC on its system in Baltimore County, but not on those in Howard and Harford counties.

Situation explained

MSNBC executives later explained the situation by saying Comcast had struck a deal with Murdoch, which resulted in Murdoch paying Comcast $50 million to carry his all-news channel on its systems starting in October. Part of the deal also involved Comcast only carrying MSNBC on its cable systems that had previously carried America's Talking, the cable channel that NBC shut down Monday so that it would have an instant distribution system of 22.5 million cable homes for MSNBC.

David Nevins, a Comcast spokesman, said he was unaware of any such deal. But, in terms of what viewers in Harford and Howard can and cannot see, he added that there are no immediate plans to add MSNBC to those systems.

One of the bedrocks of conventional journalistic wisdom is that competition is good in that it supposedly makes each of the competing news organizations better, which serves the consumer.

It is far too early for any definitive judgment. But what we have seen so far -- one week into what MSNBC assures us is the future of television news -- suggests just the opposite.

Pub Date: 7/21/96

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