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Flashpoints USA with Bryant Gumbel and Gwen Ifill Photo: Bryant Gumbel and Gwen Ifill
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THE MEDIA TODAY: TRUTH OR LIES? - 9.16.03
In Focus  :  The State of News  :   Transcript
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Flashpoints USA with Bryant Gumbel and Gwen Ifill is an innovative public affairs series from PBS that brings together both compelling examinations of critical issues and a dynamic pairing of two of the most respected names in journalism.


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Media Frenzy Mega-Media The State of News


Bryant Gumbel leads a discussion on the state of the news business with Brooke Gladstone from National Public Radio's On the Media; Ed Bark, the TV critic of the Dallas Morning News; and Max Robins of TV Guide.

Bryant Gumbel:
You've heard us talking about all the problems — if they could be called that — or the trends tonight. The lies of FOX, the screaming and yelling, the New York Times scandal... state of the news business these days...

Brooke Gladstone:
I think it's incredibly robust as Tom Brokaw mentioned earlier. There is a wide variety of sources to choose from. You can pick exactly the viewpoint you want and you can find it in practically every medium.

Gumbel:
Does that mean you give the news business a grade of B, B+?

Gladstone:
I would say that the news media are so diverse that you would give them an A, B, C, D and F!

Gumbel:
Ed, would you be so kind?

Ed Bark:
No, because I think you can make the case there's too much news almost out there right now and it's not the same as if... in say the fast food industry, if you got McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy's all competing you get lower food prices generally benefits the consumer. With all these news channels out there now, especially the three cable channels, the competition, I don't think, leads to better news. It leads to a lot more screaming, a lot more... What's it going to take to get this news program watched?

Gumbel:
To set yourself apart...

Bark:
...whether it's news or not. A lot of times the news, the old definition of what news was doesn't apply at all anymore. I think it's mainly take one story a day and flog it to death and go from one personality-driven show to another in many cases.

Gumbel:
Max, what about you?

Max Robins:
Well, it's kinda all of the above. I mean, Ed's right, Brooke's right. What's happened though, is it's gotten a lot more difficult for everybody, for the public. We all have to be our own media critic, we all somehow have to weed through all this stuff and make some hard decisions about what's really going on. We all have to watch all this stuff — this ton of stuff — out there. It seems like it's a mile wide and an inch deep, Bryant. But to make the decisions we need to make to be informed.

Gumbel:
Is part of the problem now the way the public is willing to define journalism and journalists? Are the confusing talk show hosts with journalists? Are they confusing entertainment shows with journalists? Do they make a distinction between what they see on [Entertainment Tonight] or FOX or 60 Minutes?

Robins:
It's really not that new. I mean, Bryant, one of the most influential people for more than a decade in American life is Oprah. I mean in terms of, of, of giving information. I don't know whether people don't really think of her as a journalist but she has an incredible amount of credibility and an incredible amount of influence.

Gumbel:
But that's part of that blurring of the lines that we talk a lot about between news and entertainment. Is it a problem or is it a good thing?

Gladstone:
I think that we may be selling the public a little bit short. We may decry their taste in pumping up the ratings whenever a Laci Peterson story comes on but ultimately it doesn't mean that they're buying all of that stuff as news.

Gumbel:
I don't know about that. Max, I saw what you said, "are audiences sophisticated enough these days to know the difference between 60 Minutes and Entertainment Tonight." What evidence can you point to that suggests that's true?

Robins:
I think that, well, I think that in terms of who's watching what and how they act upon that information. They're watching those shows for different reasons. You're watching Entertainment Tonight because you want to hear about stars and celebrities. It's not that 60 Minutes doesn't do celebrities... But, you have to look at it like they're like the Sunday New York Times. They'll do a serious investigative piece, they'll do something that's a trend piece and they'll do an entertainment profile. But I think there is, there is a certain segment of the public that does have the appetite for news that is of some import, some import and it has some impact on their lives.

Gumbel:
We've all said before that... what's the line? Americans deserve the government they get. Can the same be said of television?

Gladstone:
Yes!

Gumbel:
Do Americans deserve the television they get?

Gladstone:
Absolutely. Fundamentally it is ever thus. There has always been a blurring of news and entertainment.

Gumbel:
So when they complain about it and say they don't like it — it's what they asked for is that what you're telling me?

Gladstone:
It's the same argument over, and over, and over again. Going back before O.J. and straight on through with scandal after scandal. They'll say there's too much O.J. or too much Diana or too much Laci Peterson but fundamentally they don't think so because that's where they tune in. They also tune in for war coverage. They tune in for a wide variety of things that seems to resonate or fascinate or titillate but they are there. I think this distinction between journalism and entertainment may be one that the public ultimately makes and not the professionals at all. And I think that if there is any great threat, that all this diversity brings with it, it's that you can find precisely the opinion that you're looking for. On the other hand, what's the alternative? I mean, if you look across the media landscape and not talk about news for a minute, do we want three networks with programs that never showed black people, never showed Latinos, never showed Jews, never showed...

Gumbel:
So it's like the 50s.

Gladstone:
Anyway, what I'm saying is, is that diversity has its costs and this is one of them.

Bark:
Well another thing that's going on is this lavish pursuit of the younger demographic which now, even the History Channel, was looking for a younger audience. Are they going to do "Britney Spears: A Life" or what. I don't know. It's gotten to the point... And they think rightly or wrongly you know that the younger viewer does in fact have a shorter attention span which is probably true and that the so called dumbing-down — I think they're trying to hit the younger viewer with what they think will appeal to the younger viewer. And the older viewer, which I guess all of us fit in that category right now, is irrelevant to them. So the whole serious-minded, public affairs program I think is largely a dinosaur.

Gumbel:
Does media consolidation signal a bad omen for journalism?

Robins:
Yes. And where it is especially... where you really... the danger sign goes up big time, not so much on the national news or the international news but what's happening on the local level. That's where the real problem is. Now I would agree, like when Brooke said earlier in terms of, if you want to know about the world it's out there for you. If you want to know about the national issues that information is out there for you to find but local news, boy, that's a problem.

Gladstone:
I think one of the big threats of consolidation is it tends to make news operations more risk averse. When you have a big multimedia company focused more on wider profit margins than they were in previous years you don't do stories that could generate lawsuits. And we saw that a lot in tobacco coverage a few years back. And we still see it. People backing away from stories where there is possibility of litigation. Now I think that really has hurt investigative reporting and I would say that media concentration is one of the reasons why those news operations are so risk averse.

Bark:
I'm thinking like in the old days I guess people like Dick Clarke, Phil Donahue, Charlie Rose they all came up through the local stations and they all had their own shows and they became national stars. That doesn't happen anymore in hardly any markets because the major markets almost all will have O-and-O's [local stations owned and operated directly by the networks] and they don't have room for those kinds of shows. They have room for local newscasts which I think, as Max said, I think are dictated from on high at least as far as what kinds of stories we're going to do in sweeps, what kind of anchors are we going to hire, how do they test with focus groups and all of that. That's gone on for ages. I think that's intensified. You know, where do you see the local show that sort of breeds these new media personalities is almost non-existent now in any market?

Gumbel:
Bottom line. Let me get an out opinion from each of you on this. Future of the news business? Are you an optimist or a pessimist?

Gladstone:
I'm an optimist. We have to have news. If people... ultimately people will get tired of what they are getting and there will be a shift. There will be more reliable information. However, it may not be from the usual places. People may move elsewhere to get the information they want.

Bark:
Oddly enough, although those evening newscasts skew... they give you a 22 minute digest a day of the news that you used to be able to go to a cable channel and get. Now you can't have, with any confidence, turn to FOX news channel or even CNN and say I wanna find out what happened in the world today. If you wanna follow the crawl along the bottom of the screen — maybe. Otherwise you're likely to hear some personalities talking at you. So those things if they can somehow attract younger viewers, which I don't know how they do that, I think in many ways are more relevant now in a cable news universe than they were before.

Gumbel:
Max?

Robins:
On a national, international, kinda global level, I'm an optimist. Locally? There's a problem. And I really hope that if there are young people out there listening to this tonight that they think about covering their own communities.

Gumbel:
Oh my god, we have to worry about that. Max, Ed, Brooke thank you.

All:
Thank you.



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