A changing of the guard in the news business


NEW YORK -- The last question for Walter Cronkite, appearing at a Freedom Forum program last week, came from Raymond Schroth, a Fordham University professor, who asked: "Your book and others on journalism these days all seem to have sad endings. Why? Is there no hope?"

"A Reporter's Life," the best-seller written by the wire-service war correspondent who became America's anchorman emeritus, ends with the takeover of television news by the money managers who now run network television. Mr. Cronkite writes:

"The lack of respect in which [serious broadcast journalists] are held by their network managers is rubbed in their nose every day when the network-owned stations put the trashy syndicated tabloid 'news' shows on in the preferred evening hours once occupied by the genuine news programs. . . . These schlock broadcasts lure viewers and make money. . . . They have the same relationship to the network news broadcasts as the Enquirer has to the New York Times."

At the Freedom Forum, Mr. Cronkite waited a few long moments before answering the question about hope for the future. Then he shook his head and answered sadly, "I don't know."

I don't know, either. Good, bad or indifferent, network news as we know or have known it for 40 years may be inevitably going the way of the flatbed press, linotyping and black-and-white photos. All of us, journalists or blacksmiths, can only bob along on the currents of technological change -- that is the way of mankind.

Mr. Cronkite's book is about the past he helped shape. But others are shaping a present and future, some of it more promising than network television news seemed to be in its early days.

Take a look at MTV tonight. It won't bite you. Well, maybe it will. But you will be watching the changing of the guard coming on a show called "MTV News UNFiltered." Offensive or not, the idea behind the show, created by a 34-year-old named Steven Rosenbaum, is as important as creating the old anchor desk to "tell" the news.

The show gives people video cameras and other equipment to tell their own stories. Not everyone gets on or gets equipment. Hundreds write in each week, and Mr. Rosenbaum picks one or two or 10 that he thinks might work. That, by the way, is exactly the kind of authority that Mr. Cronkite had when he was both anchor and managing editor at CBS News.

Sophomoric, stupid or self-indulgent

As you would expect, some of the UNFiltered segments are sophomoric, stupid or self-indulgent. Like news. Some are powerful, such as the self-filmed story of a heroin addict on tonight's segment, or a past piece on breast cancer, with a 23-year-old named Tina Pavlou filming her second mastectomy and her chemotherapy sessions.

Or check out Bloomberg's multimedia business news operations. As CBS News and its peers close down offices around the world and around the country to cut costs and raise profits, Bloomberg is opening bureaus in the same places and many more.

There are 68 offices to date, with more than 400 reporters and editors from Beijing to Brussels to Bogota -- not including massive headquarters staffs in New York and Princeton, New Jersey. Bloomberg News is business-oriented, something like an electronic Wall Street Journal published every second, 91,600 times a day -- with instant access to all past issues and research.

Much of what Bloomberg provides is more often information than news, but it must be doing something very well because more than 300,000 clients around the world are paying $1,150 a month for access to the company's database, printed reports, on-line reports, and radio and television broadcasts.

Bloomberg is obviously an elite service, though its news reports are available on television and radio stations, as well as major newspapers around the country. MTV is youth-oriented. But that is the way the future will be. Information consumers are going to have wider and wider choices of narrow channels leading to what it is they personally need or want to know -- again, for better or worse.

Walter Cronkite and I might prefer the shared news he delivered, but that's going the way of the blacksmith's hammer and anvil. Michael Bloomberg, the former Salomon Brothers partner who created Bloomberg Business Reports, had a message for old-timers in the alumni magazine of the Johns Hopkins University, from which he graduated in 1964; he is now chairman of the board of trustees:

"The news business is a simple business. It's hard to make something complex out of it. It is judgment, it is hard work, it is writing skills, it is a publisher who has got the guts to go with difficult stories. . . . You grit your teeth and go with the news side."

He had learned, he said, that you can't get very far in a competitive business if you get caught suppressing or downplaying stories that are bad for the company or its clients. Then he added: "It's not rocket-scientist stuff."

Actually, whether or not he is willing to pass the torch to the new generation, Walter Cronkite would certainly agree with every word of that.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 2/09/97

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