Tim Goodman / San Francisco Chronicle – 2004-07-15 09:44:04
Los Angeles (July 14, 2004) — This is a story about why it’s a good thing Peter Jennings isn’t retiring and it’s also about Ted Koppel and journalism, with a little bit of Tom Brokaw thrown in and the shiny new moon that is Fahrenheit 9/11 illuminating, or perhaps casting a shadow on, the whole thing. And it starts backward, like “Memento,” so be patient.
In all earnestness, Jennings, sitting on a panel in front of the nation’s TV critics on Monday (with Koppel and George Stephanopoulos at his side), said this: “What we’re trying to do every day is really important.”
In equal earnestness, and just moments before, Koppel said this: “There is still, I think, a desperation for down-the-middle-news.”
Literally moments before that, Stephanopoulos recalled talking with people who had seen Michael Moore’s controversial documentary, and he asked them why they went. Their answer: “Because we wanted to get the facts.”
Now, as anyone who remotely follows journalism and media understands, Moore’s documentary and the perception that it gave viewers something they couldn’t get on, say, The Nightly News or from the New York Times, rattles practicing journalists to the core. And that’s why Stephanopoulos, who has been practicing journalism on TV for only a few years since being in politics, said this about those people who went to Moore for the truth, as it were: “At least a few of them had the sense that if it’s coming from the government, if it’s coming from established media, they must not be telling us something, and we have to go to this alternative venue to get the facts, and I think that’s a challenge for all of us.”
Oh, is it ever.
One thing has been clear as journalists of all stripes have come to Los Angeles to talk to the gathered critics here. That’s the notion that what they do is being challenged, if not undermined, and it has them worried and annoyed. Even if you’re not a student of history, you probably know that threats to mainstream journalism have cropped up from time to time and been named the Next Big Thing or believed to herald the End of Journalism As We Know It.
Among the pantheon of threats, there was Matt Drudge and the Internet. There was cable news — and nonstop cheap punditry that blurred the lines of news and opinion. And further from that there was Fox News and its flagrant brand of ideological-associative newscasting. Now there’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” a documentary that in addition to preaching to the choir, has raised the eyebrows of people who don’t read a newspaper or watch the network news on a daily basis.
It’s not that journalists don’t like Fahrenheit 9/11.” They are frustrated that moviegoers may believe Moore is actually breaking news in the documentary when they have, in a far more boring fashion, covered all the stories and most of the allegations made in it.
Koppel perhaps said it best: “What concerns me here is that I’ve seen 9/11.‘ It’s a terrific piece of entertainment. There are even some interesting facts in it. But it is to the documentary what the (Oliver Stone) JFK film was to history. And what is alarming about that is that it becomes increasingly difficult because, I’ll be quite honest — and I’ll only talk about Nightline — Nightline is not nearly as entertaining as Fahrenheit 9/11. ”
Koppel said his news program had done a “number of stories that were reflected in that movie, but we didn’t do them as political polemics. And I’m concerned on both sides of the political spectrum that if what Americans feel they have to get is news with an attitude, what we’re going to end up losing is some of the objectivity that traditionally people in our business have tried, at least. We don’t always succeed. … We’re never going to be as entertaining as ‘9/11,’ we’re never going to be as entertaining as ‘JFK,’ but there is still, I think, a desperation for down-the-middle news.”
Now, Tom Brokaw, who is the first of the three iconic network anchors to step down from the job, also seemed snippy about Fahrenheit 9/11, saying he thought the film “took a lot of liberties, not just with the facts but with how you arrange the facts.”
It doesn’t help that the network news is made to look like it didn’t do its job. And while the network news is almost a knee- jerk target of those people who prefer so-called “alternative” outlets, Brokaw (who also scolded critics for not watching regularly and forming opinions themselves) believes it certainly did a comprehensive job during the walk-up to war.
These are touchy times for mainstream journalists. This is the kind of thing that unifies people like Brokaw and Tucker Carlson. They’re getting tired of being thought of as managed, absent or, in the era of Jon Stewart, irrelevant.
When someone wondered if, as the election approaches, Stephanopoulos won’t be seen as partisan based on his past, Koppel rose up in defense: “I’m a little bemused,” he said, “by the fact that you would ask a question like that in a media environment in which you’ve got your Sean Hannitys out there, you’ve got your Bill O’Reillys out there. You’ve got a ton of people out there who not only make no secret whatsoever of where their political sympathies lie, but feel it is their role as journalists to push that particular line of thinking forward. What George is saying, ‘Hey, no secret. You know, I’ve worked for a lot of Democrats over the years. You may even be right.’ And I don’t know that George will ultimately vote for Kerry and not Bush. But judge him on the basis of what he’s doing, not on the basis of what you think he might be thinking at home at night.”
OK everybody, let’s take five. Let’s get some air.
But from all of this journalistic turmoil comes something perhaps less visible, but quite hope-filled. And that’s the notion that the old guard in journalism, if you will, believes passionately about the job and has a strong sense of being the custodians of the much-maligned Fourth Estate. They are not giving up without a fight. They believe that the doubt that has crept into the minds of many Americans is misplaced, that journalism still has some nobility to it, some tangible value to the Republic.
And nowhere was that more evident than with Jennings, who went to the ABC News brass and said he wanted to report on the Democratic and Republican conventions gavel to gavel, which is not unlike saying he wanted the network to film paint drying.
With most news organizations choosing a limited number of hours for convention coverage in prime time — preferring to dish the rest off to cable sister channels — ABC doesn’t really have that option. So Jennings is doing it gavel to gavel anyway, DeMille close-ups be damned, and ABC is going to run much of that coverage on Internet broadband and what David Westin, president of ABC News, said was “the digital spectrum, you know, that D-2 signal, as it’s called.”
And a room full of TV critics — paid to know about television — blinked into the distance. No, we really don’t know much about D-2. Which means the public doesn’t, either. And even people at ABC don’t much know about it. Something about an alternative digital channel that you will never find. But, God love him, Jennings will be there. Gavel-to-gavel.
He might as well do it on a CB radio and triple his audience, but hey, he seems unstoppable in his belief that there’s a duty to cover these conventions, even when conventional wisdom says they’re useless.
Brokaw even said “these things are shake-and-bake. They put them in the microwave and hit the ‘easy minute,’ and it comes out on the stage. That’s not really news.” And Koppel, sitting next to Jennings, famously walked out of the same conventions eight years ago as a protest over their pre-packaged, no-news content. But he’ll be there, too.
And you know what? Great. Michael Moore fans and people who don’t read the daily newspaper can mock old-world icons like Jennings and Koppel all they want. But if you pay attention, you get the story. From the news. Every day. It’s not as sexy as going to the movies, but it works and it’s great that people are still interested in doing it. So Jennings is right: “What we’re trying to do every day is really important.”
Here’s hoping he and Koppel stay put.
E-mail Tim Goodman at firstname.lastname@example.org.