TV networks trample over public's interests

By Newton N. Minowand and Craig L. LaMay. Chicago attorney Newton N. Minow was chairman of the Federal Communications Commission from 1961 to 1963. Craig L. LaMay is a professor at the Medill School o

August 1, 2004

TV anchors Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather all asked their bosses at NBC, ABC and CBS to increase the airtime for televising the national political conventions. No, said the bosses, only an hour a night for three nights is enough. Why? The bosses say the conventions are not newsworthy; they are merely carefully scripted and choreographed infomercials, without suspense, without excitement, and they are not important.

Not important? Writing in the Los Angeles Times, staff reporter Paul Brownfield responded: "The networks that give us `Fear Factor,' `Big Brother' and `The Bachelor' didn't see good business in showing us the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday night. It's true enough that, as a reality show, the convention doesn't offer people eating worms or pledging their undying love to a hard body they met a few hours ago. Is this a violation of public trust ...?"

Those of us old enough to remember the early days of television remember the pride our television networks took in their live coverage of our national political conventions. The conventions were first televised in 1948, and by 1952 the networks regarded their broadcasts as one of their highest and most important responsibilities. The top management of ABC, CBS and NBC sent their best journalists to the conventions, and enabled American voters to learn about their candidates, learn about the issues, and participate directly in the most important part of the democratic process, becoming informed citizens ready to choose their leaders.

Today, management at ABC, CBS and NBC do not judge national conventions as "real" news.

Yet we know, as reporter Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post points out, that many things whose outcomes are predictable--from postgame sports interviews with athletes to the arrival of cicadas--are routinely covered as "real" news. So, too, are other "scripted" and ceremonial political events, such as the presidential inaugurations. This year, when President Bush asked the networks for airtime to speak to the nation about the Iraqi war, the networks said no--nothing new--not newsworthy.

The conventions are newsworthy, even very newsworthy. There are six times as many journalists at the Democratic convention as there are delegates. Certainly, the 15,000 members of the media in Boston believe the conventions are newsworthy. The 2004 nominating conventions come less than four years after the most bitterly contested presidential election since 1800, on the heels of a war that has divided the country and the world, and in the midst of a global security challenge unlike any we have ever known. Obviously the estimated 15,000 journalists in Boston think this is important, and the good ones do not keep to anyone's script. Instead they work the convention, seeking out new angles and views on the party platform and trying to connect them to the issues that matter to their readers and viewers. Political scientist Thomas Holbrook has written that as many as a quarter of eligible voters decide who they will vote for after watching the nominating conventions. Not important?

Until 1976 the networks covered the conventions in their entirety, and since then they have increasingly cut back, leaving the conventions to cable news channels and, this year, to about 35 bloggers. The good news is that what coverage of the conventions exists has probably never been so diverse. The bad news is that it has probably never been so incoherent. Sadly, the networks' news divisions no longer see themselves as serious or innovative journalistic enterprises, or they have come to define "newsworthiness" exclusively in economic terms.

Indeed, the failure of the networks to cover the conventions has become a central story about the conventions, second only to the endlessly repeated claim that they are not news. During the Democratic convention last week, network ratings went down, public broadcasting and cable ratings went up. For the network bosses, unfortunately, they don't go up high enough. For that you need worms.

In 2004 the networks have driven another nail in the coffin of the public interest they are supposed to serve. True, we may not know whom "The Bachelor" may choose to marry or who will outlast the others on "Fear Factor" until the final episode. But neither do we know yet whom the American people will choose as their president in November, only that the world will be watching as we do. Not important?

Copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribune