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Extended Interview: Ed Fouhy

January 17, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT

TERENCE SMITH: If you look at the evening news broadcasts on the networks today, versus 10 or 15 years ago, what strikes you?

ED FOUHY: Less content, less serious tone, more commercials — a lot more “news you can use,” lighter features, more personality, more use of the word “crisis,” when the word ought to probably be problem, not crisis.

TERENCE SMITH: Describe them as they were at the height of their influence, these evening news broadcasts.

ED FOUHY: I think the phrase the “electronic hearth” has been used. It’s not original with me, but there was a gathering of the family after dinner to watch Frank Reynolds or John Chancellor or Walter Cronkite tell you what had gone on in the world. And the family structure and the family hour was a lot different from what it is right now. And I think it was probably the dominant news medium in the country at the time. It was pretty serious. It was a man sitting in a studio in New York and introducing pieces from correspondents around the country and indeed around the world. And the tone was objective, and there was a lot of effort to make it right, and it was very competitive, and I think it was pretty serious.

TERENCE SMITH: And it was the central source of news for Americans.

ED FOUHY: And still is for 30 million Americans every night. Let’s not lose sight of the fact it is still the dominant news source by far in the country. Whether or not it has the same place in our society is a totally different question.

TERENCE SMITH: Although the numbers they draw today are far fewer.

ED FOUHY: Well, the number of viewers has gone up, so that is to say the overall audience is much larger. So the proportion is smaller, but the absolute numbers are roughly the same.

TERENCE SMITH: What’s different about the structure of the evening news today?

ED FOUHY: Well, it’s loaded with commercials. There’s more commercial, more promotional material. There’s a lot more personality-driven [news], far less foreign news. I think there is an effort to really do a very good job on the story of the day, and it dominates the news. There is far less on the second, third, fourth, fifth most important stories of the day. They go quickly to the features, as if they’re almost ashamed to be in the hard news business.


ED FOUHY: That’s something that I can’t figure out, Terry. I think part of it, to be perfectly fair, is everybody in the news business, whether television, print or cable, is trying to figure out what their role is in a world where more and more people, particularly young people, the ones the advertisers really want them to reach, are getting their news from the Internet.

TERENCE SMITH: And so they’re in search of a mission?

ED FOUHY: That’s one way to put it, yeah. I wouldn’t argue with that. They are in search of a role in the society that is as important as it used to be, and so far I don’t think they’ve found it.

Look at it this way. The evening news is essentially the same form now that it was 38 years ago when Walter Cronkite sat down for a half an hour in a studio in New York and introduced the correspondent pieces — 38 years of the same format. Now, I would say to you there are very few things in the world that are unchanged over the last 38 years, and particularly the audience that they’re broadcasting to. The audience is far, far different. The structure of family life is different, and the society is much more diverse.

TERENCE SMITH: How much is that the explanation for their diminished audience — this change in lifestyles and personal schedules?

ED FOUHY: I think that there’s a combination–the lifestyle change and a huge proliferation of other sources and, most of all, the fact that the United States of America is at peace and is very prosperous. There’s no trigger-happy Russian who might hurl a missile down your chimney tomorrow. Let’s remember that all through those years of the Cold War one reason we turned it on was to see whether or not something really awful had happened in the world during the day while we were working.

TERENCE SMITH: How much have these broadcasts been influenced by the 24-hour news cycle and the ubiquity of news on cable news networks and things like that?

ED FOUHY: Not enough. I think if they really thought about it, they’d reinvent the whole form or someone would. I think that they are, in many ways, behaving as if they still had the nation by the ears and the eyes, the way they did when that form was invented 38 years ago.

TERENCE SMITH: Is that the explanation for why they do what you’ve described earlier — a quick, fast, hard look at the news and then features, lifestyle pieces, celebrity pieces for the bulk of the broadcast?

ED FOUHY: I don’t think so. One of the things that all of the studies show is that what people really care about is local news, and the networks, by their very definition, are not in the local news business. So they have to go, to some degree, when there’s very little news, which there generally is, frankly–let’s be serious about it — on most days that affect everybody in the United States, particularly if you define news only as conflict. And that’s, generally speaking, the frame that they use, is a conflict frame.

If you broaden that frame, if you’d redefine it, if you’d get out of the towers in Manhattan, where most of them are produced or the white buildings here in Washington where they define a lot of the news, particularly the conflict that is happening, you’d see that there is a lot of news out there in the country that people really care about that affects their lives — health care, education, things like that. But I don’t think that they’ve ever reinvented their model of what the news is. It is not totally conflict.

TERENCE SMITH: Has there been, from the fact that the networks have been bought out by huge conglomerates, big companies that look to the bottom line?

ED FOUHY: Very important point. The three networks are now owned by very large conglomerates that have many, many economic interests. General Electric, certainly one of the largest companies in the world, owns NBC. Disney owns ABC. Viacom owns CBS.

I get the feeling that journalism is not very high on the agenda of the people in the corporate boardrooms. Is it their fault? I’m not sure that it is. In many ways, I think it’s the fault of the journalists who work for those people. They haven’t been very successful in educating them about what journalistic values are. So they’re treated as just another profit center.

I think journalism is much more important than that. It’s sort of like having a Fire Department. A Fire Department is intrinsically not very cost effective, but if your house is on fire, you want the fireman to be there. So you’re going to pay them when they’re not fighting fires. I think there’s a bit of that in the news business, but trying to make that case to a corporate executive is hard to do, but it’s something journalists have to do.

TERENCE SMITH: Are these evening news broadcasts profit centers? Do they make money?

ED FOUHY: Oh, yeah. Sure, they do. They make good money. But one of the problems of being only a small part of a giant conglomerate is that the parts of the conglomerate that are making money are subsidizing the parts of the conglomerate that are not doing so well, so that the stockholders, in the long run, are the winners, but I think we, the citizens of the democracy that is not getting very good information, are maybe the losers.

TERENCE SMITH: Has there also been an effect from what you could call the O.J. factor? Scandal coverage is another huge growth area.

ED FOUHY: I don’t know what to say about that. You can’t ignore the O.J. Simpsons of the world. You can’t ignore the Monica [Lewinsky]s of the world. Those are major stories.

I think the problem becomes when it’s all O.J. all the time or it’s all Monica all the time or it’s all Elian [Gonzalez] all the time. That’s when you put your limited resources — and they have much more limited resources now than they used to — on one big story that you know the public cares a lot about, and there’s an economy that drives this. And so you’ve got all of these people down in Florida, so you’re going to do another Elian story tonight just because they’re there. It doesn’t always track with the news of the day.

TERENCE SMITH: What do they still do well, in your opinion? What is the evening news and, by extension, the network news divisions, best at?

ED FOUHY: They’re good at covering fast-breaking, intrinsically pictorial stories. They’re good at covering the Middle East because they’ve been at it so long, and that story really hasn’t changed very much, and they all have bureaus over there. They’re good at spotting people who are coming on into the news, usually in a conflict mode, as the [president’s] Cabinet choices are, for example.

What they’re not so good at is doing original reporting, investigative reporting and reporting on news that really I would put in the category of trends that are going to affect everybody in the country. For example, the crisis in, at the moment, in California, that really is a crisis. Is that going to affect the rest of the country? Well, it could. A very tough story to tell. All you’ve got is a picture of a high tension wire, and that’s not very compelling television, but it’s very important to the people who live out there, and eventually to the rest of us.

TERENCE SMITH: What’s happened to foreign news coverage? It’s way down.

ED FOUHY: Way down. Two things I think drive that. The first, and very, very important, is economics. When I was an executive at CBS News, every decision to cover a foreign news story was basically a $25,000 decision because you were sending people and equipment by air to a distant place, and then you’re buying satellite time and so on.

TERENCE SMITH: Is there still room for three network news broadcasts in the evening?

ED FOUHY: The affiliates will always drive the answer to that, and the affiliates’ answer is, yes, there is. Whether there’s an audience for it or not, I don’t know, but the affiliates make most of their money and make their reputations covering news. We forget that the networks have a rather small part of the day. The affiliates have a very large part of the day that they devote to covering local news. And as part of the image that they want to project in the community, they want to have Peter Jennings saying, “Be sure to watch Terry Smith tonight at 6 o’clock for your local news followed by the network news.” That’s important. That’s prestigious. That’s part of the overall news image that they want to project in their community.

TERENCE SMITH: There has been speculation that one of them may go. There has been speculation that, in the next five years, they may move these broadcasts from, say, 7:00 in the evening to 10:00 in the evening and essentially morph them into news magazine broadcasts with a little hard news at the top. Do you find it hard to imagine that sort of change?

ED FOUHY: No, I don’t find it hard to imagine it at all. I don’t think that either one of the scenarios that you outlined is good economics, and it’s economics that’s at the heart of this.

TERENCE SMITH: Then what’s the right formula for these broadcasts as they look at the next five years?

ED FOUHY: I think to take a very hard look at the way that they define the news. Is it all conflict-driven? I don’t think so. I don’t think that people see the world that way. I think I’d like to see a questioning of whether or not having a middle-aged man sitting in a studio in New York and introducing correspondent pieces is the only approach to the news. There must be other ways to do that. There must be other people who ought to be doing that or joining those men who’ve been there for so many years doing it.

I’d like to see them define some of the topics that they cover a little bit differently, maybe some more expository journalism, trying to help us understand how an increasingly interconnected and very complicated world works. I think that would attract an audience. Those are some of the elements that I would look for in a reinvented network news that I think would attract and hold an audience.

ED FOUHY: They’ve got to find a better way to integrate what they’re doing on the air with what they’re doing on the Internet. There’s a lot of flailing about right now. Actually, some of the best is done by the PBS Web site, where they directly relate, and I think ABC has come along and they’ve imitated that, and I think they’re doing a pretty good job too. But there’s a lot to go.

Because when you look at the studies, people under 30 are going to the Internet for their news. If you don’t engage that generation, you’re going to lose them because the people over 50, unfortunately, our mortality is pretty high.