News War [site home page]
  • Home
  • Interviews
  • Site Map
  • Discussion
  • Part 1
  • Part 3
  • Part 4
  • Watch Online

What counts as news?

Tom Bettag

Former executive producer, Nightline, CBS Evening News

Tom Bettag

You gave a very interesting talk about the evolving definitions of news. This was a while ago. And you said when you started out in this business, you were working with old-school guys, old pros who had a pretty elitist attitude about what was news: "It's news if we decide it's news." You've seen that evolve over time. But in this talk you come back to the idea -- maybe there was something to that idea, being held accountable to the idea of "We're putting this on; our reputations are on the line." Tell me about that a little bit.

As strange as it sounds to have experienced reporters saying, "News is what I think it is and I will try to tell you what I think is out there" -- that sounds very arrogant, but I'm a small-town, Midwestern person, married to a small-town Louisiana Cajun. When I go to my relatives and say, "What do you want to see on Nightline?," they look at me with a strange look and they say, "I want to know what Ted Koppel thinks is important." [They are] looking for that leadership of "Tell me what you think is important; you're the guys who know." …

That's the problem with television research today and working by focus groups. This is the equivalent of politicians governing by focus groups: Ask people what they think a popular position is, so that will be my position as I run for president. That's the kind of lousy leadership that makes for bad politics, and I think just asking focus groups "What do you want to see on television?" is the kind of lousy leadership that makes for bad journalism.

John Carroll

Former editor, Los Angeles Times

John Carroll

Isn't it possible that the kinds of journalism that you like, that you grew up with, ... are not the kind of journalism that people want to read?

Yeah, it's possible. Different people like different things, and there's definitely an audience for that kind of high-end journalism. Does it have wide popular appeal? Some of it does; some of it doesn't. It depends on the story. But ... a newspaper has to play a lot of notes. They have to have a horoscope; you have to have certain things that aren't great journalism --


Yeah, it's entertainment, and a newspaper should have a broad appeal to a lot of tastes, one of which is very high-end journalism. ...

Very few readers will tell you they want more news. ... [Would putting more entertainment coverage increase newspaper circulation?]

If you were to follow the referendums, you would end up with a newspaper that's about Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, terrible crimes and a lot of entertainment stuff. But do you take a serious news organization and turn it to that purpose? I think not.

First of all, it's a practical matter. It's a very, very crowded field. These subjects are already being covered extensively. Second, they're being covered in a more entertaining way than newspapers do, and sometimes they're very loose with the facts. That's just inherent in that type of gossipy coverage.

Imagine the New York Times, the L.A. Times, getting into that type of stuff on Page 1. It would discredit the rest of the paper. It would discredit them when they're reporting on serious subjects. It would cut into their credibility, so that would be a mistake.

Serious news may not be the number one thing that Americans want, but Americans want it. ... It's a very good niche, and it's our niche. It's what we know how to do. It has the interest of the public and a high social purpose. Social purpose isn't valued as much in business today as it was back when the newspapers were locally owned. ... But the paper had a larger purpose than simply to crank out more money this year than it did last year. Unfortunately, the purpose of the paper has been diminished under this form of ownership. ...

Walter Cronkite

Former anchor, CBS Evening News

Walter Cronkite

When I make that judgment of impact, that is what journalism is about. We make the judgment as to whether something is important or not. That's how things get in the newspaper. That's how things get on the evening news broadcast. What they think is important, it may not be what we judge to be important. When we judge it, we're not judging it from on high, but through the journalism standards, on what interests most of the people at any given moment in time, and that which is important to most of the people gets on the air.

Every speech they make on that same subject in Congress isn't entitled airtime. The fact that they're bringing the subject into the Congress [when] it's a new subject, or a solution to our problems, or a response to somebody else's solution to our problem when that problem is forefront in the news, they're going to get on the air. What they're unhappy about is that every time they have done a lot of work on getting a speech organized, ... they expect it [to be covered] because they have worked on it so hard. ... They feel that they're entitled to airtime. We don't have that much airtime. We can't do that. ...

Jeff Fager

Executive producer, 60 Minutes

Jeff Fager

The 60 Minutes news magazine was replicated at the other networks, or there [were] attempts to replicate it, but they look significantly different today. What's happened?

They do. I think a lot of things have happened. First of all, it's hard and it's expensive to do what we do. You send a team into Iraq to do a story on the war, and you pay a lot of money to cover that story. It's risky and it's difficult. There is a conventional wisdom in the television business that you can't make that interesting to the American public, which is, I think, astonishing. ... We're at war in the Middle East; we need to be covering that story. ...

It's easy to go the other way. It's easy to go tabloid, to be interview-driven, to be celebrity-driven. It's cheap. It's not getting as big an audience. What we're proud of is that we can still do the kind of reporting that we do and put it on 7:00 on Sunday night and do as well as we're doing.

So someone would do something like [NBC's Dateline: To Catch a] Predator, lure alleged sexual deviants into situations and film it and show it on the air. It's cheaper, it's more exciting, and then they say it's news.

That's right. And if we did that, we would plummet, because when they see the [60 Minutes] stopwatch, our viewers do not expect that. ...

If you talk about Dateline, over the years they've done tremendous pieces and excellent reporting. They've gone away from it more in recent years, and I think part of it is because it's expensive. I think there is conventional wisdom that says that people are less interested in Iraq and more interested in that, less interested in international reporting and traditional reporting and more interested in celebrity profiles. ...

It's a different kind of reporting. It's a niche that they've found, and I think they've done better with it than just about anything else they've tried in recent years.

I read to the president of ABC News [David Westin] the lineup on Primetime -- teenager has oral sex and gets 10 years in prison; Amish sex; child abuse in various communities -- and his response was, it isn't that the definition [of news] has changed; it's broadened. Nothing wrong with it?

Well, I tend to stick to a more traditional definition of news, which is anything somebody's trying to hide, and all else is advertising. I think that's important, because when we stop thinking about uncovering information that's going to be useful to the viewer, to the American public, that's when we're not in the news business anymore.

What's nice about a magazine is that we can mix it with a nice profile of a Hollywood celebrity; we can mix it with a story about a writer, about an adventure into Africa. But the bread and butter of what we do is news, and that is working on a story that someone doesn't want us to tell.

Let me read you something that Ted Koppel said: "We're now judging journalism by the standards that we apply to entertainment, giving the public what it wants, not necessarily what it ought to hear, what it ought to see, what it needs. It may prove to be one of the greatest tragedies in the history of American journalism." Or as [editor] Dean Baquet at the L.A. Times -- before he got fired -- said to us, my job is to "give people broccoli," not just what they want to see.

Well, my job is to do both. It's a little bit arrogant of us to say we're the ones [to] give the viewer only what they need, as if there isn't more in our world. A combination of the two is more accurate in terms of what we do, which is that we try to do what's important and make it interesting, but we also try to add some life to that. 60 Minutes was created, if you go by how [creator] Don Hewitt remembers it, that Life magazine is part of the inspiration, and Life magazine covers the world in every aspect, from the circus to the war. ...

Lauren Rich Fine

Managing director, Merrill Lynch

Lauren Rich Fine

If you look at the media landscape today, a lot of the growth is in television or radio or even print where there is attitude, where there's satire, where there's comedy, where there's point of view, where there are people yelling. Is that the media landscape we're in now? That's what people want?

I think that's what a portion of the population wants. There's obviously other people who would prefer to just have the news and nothing but the news. And the question is, can you satisfy all those different constituents? I think newspapers need to distinguish themselves by having a slightly greater point of view, and by that I don't mean bias. It should be clear it is someone's opinion. ... It doesn't have to be an article on a big event that has an opinion, but it could have a sidebar of this columnist's opinion of this event and how it impacts Cleveland. It should be something that says, "Let's go beyond the event and really get at how does this impact different people." ... People want contact with people, and seeing names of people they know in the paper or getting a sense of who they live around and what they think is enormously powerful.

In the heyday of newspapers, columnists were the meat and potatoes of papers. I mean, that's who people went to.

I think they still are. You look at what The New York Times has done with TimesSelect; it's basically said, "This is what distinguishes us, and so if you're not a subscriber and you want access to it, you have to pay for it." The numbers aren't huge, but there is a business model out there that says, "That makes sense; we did get extra revenues as a result of that." ... One of the best things these columnists can do is make sure they speak frequently in a community and get to know their audience. It doesn't mean they have to cater to them, but form a tie with them so that that person wants to read them, whether it's online or in print. It's not that hard to do. ...

When you do surveys, you find a lot of people who say just what you want: They want an investigative piece to come to a conclusion, to say what ought to be done, to have some kind of impact. But we're trained not to do that. That's not being objective.

But historically newspapers weren't objective. Historically they were all family-owned or locally owned, and that was why they existed, was to be very opinionated. It's why you had two newspapers in every town, to make sure you were getting both sides of an event or something going on. That's what some of the industry has lost, and I don't think that was because of Wall Street. It might be, but I don't know.

Larry Kramer

Former head, CBS Digital Media

Larry Kramer

You know, television, even though it had less and less time to devote to news over the years, still did invest in people to do long-term and investigative reporting, whether we put it on 60 Minutes at CBS or 20/20 [on ABC] or whatever else. Fewer of them existed 25 years ago. More of them came; they became a hit ratings success, and that helped news divisions, I think, to some extent fund what they're doing. But they didn't do them as part of a 30-minute broadcast at 6:30.

No, but what's happened is that the squeeze on the marketplace of television, the narrowing of its audience, the content of a lot of these magazine shows has gone downmarket to do stories that you would never consider --

To get ratings.

Right -- that you wouldn't consider to be news.

The ratings issue is an interesting one, because this is the chicken-and-egg problem. Do you do stories that taste good, or do you do stories that are good for you? And will people view and read stories that are good for you, or will they read the stories that taste good? It's a never-ending problem.

I used to laugh, at The Washington Post -- every Sunday and many days of the week we'd have a story that would start on the front page down in the corner, and it would be two columns wide and there would be a headline, and then there would be a jump, and you'd open up the page, and there would be two pages on the inside on this story. ... But the reality is most people didn't read all those stories. They wanted those stories to be there. They read the lede; they read the headlines. They read some -- depending on their interest in the subject matter, read deeper and deeper into the story perhaps. But most importantly, they wanted to know that The Washington Post was watching these institutions and was devoting the resources to see if we, as the public, were being ripped off in a way that we could never find out ourselves. That's great journalism. ... That's still true.

I still think people want those stories, and I still think Web-based news organizations will do them, too. In fact, I think it's easier because we can do them, and the way we present that story, you can drive somebody deeper and deeper into it, but you don't have to kill 10 pages of newsprint in every paper, even though somebody isn't going to read all that stuff. ...

David Westin

President, ABC News

David Westin

In your experience here at ABC News and even before, I'm sure, as a consumer of news over the last few decades, the definition of news has changed. What ABC News would include as something that had news value has changed dramatically, hasn't it?

Well, I wouldn't put it that way. You could certainly argue that, in fact, what is included in news has changed -- you're right -- over decades and has gone back and forth. Actually, I read a speech recently by [former New York Times editor] Abe Rosenthal, I think it was, he gave out in Denver, where he'd gone back to The New York Times in the 1920s and taken a look at the front page, and a greatly disproportionate number of the stories were actually about prizefighters. He had a thesis, actually, that there was a shift in news starting after World War II as we went into the Cold War. So certainly it's changed.

What's happened more, though, than a shift in the definition of news is the number of outlets. If you go back 20, 30 years, when Roone Arledge started here in 1977, all of ABC News consisted of a half-hour evening newscast and a half hour on Sunday and some specials they would do occasionally.

That was all of ABC News. There was no Good Morning America; there were no prime-time news magazines; there was no Nightline. It was a very limited amount of programming. As that programming has expanded out, absolutely, there's been a wider range of topics covered on the news programs taken as a whole. That's clearly right. ...

What I mean is I look on the Web and you see your programming, let's say, for Primetime and it's "Teenage Girl Gets Ten Years for Oral Sex" or "Guides to Teenagers for Dating." That's news?

Well, I think news is what matters to people. I think that really is true information about what matters to people is news.

It's not current affairs. It's not the kind of news that you would consume. You have children, right?


You might have questions about having your children watch these stories.

Sure. Equally true of The Washington Post or The New York Times. There's a style section in The Washington Post; it doesn't mean that they don't cover matters of public interest. In fact, that's always been true, as far as I can tell. That's not different. There are new outlets. There are new ways of conveying things, but the range of topic subject, I honestly am not aware that that has changed dramatically. If it has, I'm just not aware of it.

Well, let me give you an example. On Sept. 10, 2001, the news organizations, particularly the broadcast news organizations and cable news, were consumed with [Rep.] Gary Condit [D-Calif.].

And shark attacks. I mean, we've gone back and talked about that since, that it was all shark attacks and Gary Condit that summer. Absolutely right.

And news divisions were involved in cutbacks. There were layoffs going on at CBS. There were some layoffs here at ABC News. Sept. 11 happened. People were being hired back because of the emergency, and for the first time really in memory, international news -- what was going on in Saudi Arabia, what was a Wahhab -- became the front of the book for ABC News and many other people.


And now, in many ways, it has gone back to where it was before. What happened?

Well, first of all, I'm not at all aware that it's gone back. You assert that, but I'm not aware of that at all. We're investing millions of dollars every year in a Baghdad bureau that didn't exist before 2003, the spring of 2003. We have invested a lot of money, and we're continuing.

And take Sept. 10, 2001. [We had] an investigative unit that had been following bin Laden for, what, at that point, three years, as I recall. I think John Miller's interview with bin Laden was '98, I think it was. So we have been investing in that area for some time. Now, does it go up and go down? Absolutely. There was a huge investment in Moscow around about the time of the coup. ... So absolutely investment follows the news.

One of the things about the news, which is different from entertainment, is we can't make it up. We have to cover the news where it is, when it happens, where it happens. Sometimes that will be domestic, and sometimes it will be foreign, and sometimes it will be political, and sometimes it will be military. ...

Just recently, CBS debuted a new evening news broadcast. An analysis of the broadcast -- someone named [Andrew] Tyndall [looked at] who does hard news, soft news, said that week CBS only had 19 minutes of what he considered to be hard minutes; ABC had 46 minutes; NBC had 44 minutes. He was implying that this attempt to get a new audience was basically going downmarket, was going for soft news. Is that the trend?

There are trends that come up and go down. I'm not in a position to comment on what CBS put on the air. They're obviously putting on what they think is appropriate and will be successful.

Our theory of the evening news is to cover the news, and we will continue to cover the news because we think that there is a role for a well-produced, well-edited, concise broadcast in the evening that summarizes the things that you want to know about.

But no one's contending that the evening news doesn't try to present the news. I guess I'm a little surprised that your magazine shows have a peculiar story selection editorial bent to them, if you will. ...

Right. But as I perceive it at least, they tend to be more what I would think of as "back of the book," to use the magazine expression. I mean, they tend to be more of what you'd see in the second half of Time magazine or the second half of Newsweek or something.

"Teen Girls Tell Their Stories of Sex Trafficking and Exploitation in the U.S." -- you've seen that in Time magazine?

I'd have to go back and look, but that's ... certainly not inconsistent with things I've seen in Time magazine, certainly not. …

What I'm getting at is that after Sept. 11, there was a greater interest because of the national emergency in international news and national security news, and it wiped Gary Condit off the face of the tube.


And there was, in some people, a sense that the news was really doing what it was supposed to be doing.

We do much better work when there's a big story. There's just no question about it.

You even do documentaries.

Well, we've done documentaries throughout. ABC News -- I'm very proud of the fact that we've done documentaries right straight throughout, and we're committed to [doing] documentaries.

You did more of them in that period of time on international subjects than you had for quite a while before -- documentaries with Peter Jennings appearing on the air regularly, explaining to the public what was going on. I guess I'm trying to say, to many people, there was a sense that possibly the news divisions were really going to do the kinds of things they really wanted to do.

Listen, we love to cover big stories. And foreign stories, in some ways, for at least some people in the news division, are the most interesting and challenging to cover. There's no question about that.

But again, I'm sorry to question your facts, but -- and I'd have to go back and do this. If you look at the documentaries Peter did in 2001, 2002, I don't think any of them were about foreign topics. I think they were all domestic. Now, we did do -- I will agree, because I was proud of it -- we did do three hours, I think, on the eve of the war in Iraq in early 2003. That's absolutely right.

But if you look at the documentaries we did, 2002, 2003, and certainly the ones Peter was working on, my recollection [is that] they were on things like the role of government health policy and a policy subsidizing wheat and on obesity, which was a really important documentary. It was done on a topic that hadn't been covered. They were on topics like that. So part of it is that I really don't know the things that you're saying are true, and they may be true, and I just don't know them.

But part of it is I think that it's easy to oversimplify. There's sort of a broad brush, you know -- network news has just gone soft, and it's because of a profit motive. And it makes a really good story that particularly people in print like to write. The subject is more complicated than that and more subtle than that.

In what way?

In fact, I think the soft/hard distinction is much harder than people would like to make it out to be.

home + introduction + watch online + interviews + parts 1 + 2 + part 3 + part 4 + join the discussion + producer chat
site map + press reaction + dvd/vhs & transcript + credits + privacy policy + journalistic guidelines
FRONTLINE series home + wgbh + pbs

posted feb. 13, 2007; last updated feb. 27, 2007

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
photo illustration copyright © entropy media
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation