The Evolution of Television News

by Mike Skrobin

In today’s world of crisis and scandal it is as important as ever to have a reliable news media to inform the American public about current events and what is going on in this world we all live in. Television news profits have become a higher priority than informing the public, which has created an American population obsessed with celebrity gossip and social networking and naive to worldly events and corrupt politicians.  As quoted by Mark Twain, “There are laws to protect the freedom of the press’s speech, but none that are worth anything to protect the people from the press” (Twain 1).  Ever since the success of 60 Minutes news networks have been trying to turn a profit any way possible, such as product placement on morning news programs and big budget productions.  This speaks volumes today where the cable news channels are dominated with celebrity soap operas instead of reporting on the multiple wars America is waging overseas (Chozick). The American people are severely ill informed on a variety of basic government positions and situations, yet overly conscious of the personal lives of talentless celebrities.  It is apparent that we as an American public is systematically being dumbed down by our media (Shenkman).

60 Minutes, The Beginning Of A New Era

In 1968 a show called 60 Minutes hit the airwaves (Bettag).  Inspired by  the Canadian news program The Hour Has Seven Days, former executive producer of The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, Don Hewett, came up with an original way to report important news stories (Bettag) and began using original techniques such as re-editing interviews, hidden cameras and “gotcha” visits to investigative subjects at their homes or offices.  After a slow start 60 Minutes found its footing with hosts Mike Wallace and Morley Safer.  In Safer’s first year on the show he delved into the hard nosed reporting style that would define 60 Minutes while covering such events as cluster bombs, the South Vietnamese Army, Nigeria, draft dodgers, the Middle East, and even Northern Ireland (“About Us, 60 Minutes”).   This kind of reporting and direction by creator Don Hewett resulted in several achievements including an astounding 95 Emmy awards, the record for the longest continuously running program of any genre during American primetime television and multiple Peabody awards (Bettag).

Despite these many great achievements 60 Minutes also opened a pretty awful can of worms.  By 1976, 60 Minutes was the highest rated show on Sunday nights and by 1979 it was the highest rated show on all of television beating out Happy Days, The Jeffersons and Monday Night Football (Bettag).  This success in ratings resulted in a huge lift in profits.  A thirty-second commercial spot went from a mere 17,000 dollars in 1975, to 175,000 dollars in 1982 (Bettag).  With profits like that, it did not take very long before the networks began to realize that the news is actually profitable. In the last four decades television news has gone from a net loser, to one of the largest profit contributors to networks.  According to a 2011 article by Amy Chozick titled “Cable TV and Movies Buoy News Corp. Profits”, Rupert Murdock’s mega cooperation, News Corp, boasted a quarterly income of 1.39 Billion dollars in September, 2011 (Chozick).  Amid the infamous phone tapping scandal, News Corp only felt a slight dip in net income last year making 738 million dollars, or 28 cents a share, down from 775 million dollars or thirty cents per share the previous year.   According to Chozick cable television ventures such as the FX network and Fox News provided a whopping 56 percent of that annual income (Chozick).   Making money off the news?

Over-Informed And Under Educated

In a 2008 article titled “American Stupidity”,  Rick Shenkman lays out some disturbing statistics of just how uneducated the American populous is on many key issues. For instance two out of five voters cannot name the three branches of government (Judicial, Legislative and Executive, for those 40% reading this).  49 percent of Americans think the President can suspend the constitution and about 1 in 4 Americans can name more than one of the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment (freedom of speech, religion, press, assembly and petition for redress of grievances.) But, more than half of Americans can name at least two members of The Simpsons.  The study also found that 22 percent of Americans could name all five Simpson family members, compared with just 1 in 1,000 people who could name all five First Amendment freedoms” (Shenkman).  This is startling in the country that is supposed to the beacon of freedom to the rest of the world. This obvious disconnect between voters and fundamental information, like The 27 Amendments that shape our Constitution, could be blamed on a variety of places such as local school systems, newspapers and the American public. But to put blame where blame is due, is it not the television news which has hundreds hours of airtime per week to inform the public on an information they see fit?

Media Dumbing Us Down

Take the Anna Nicole Smith death in 2007.  Although a tragedy for her family and friends, this is not news worthy, at least not to the extent it was covered.  According to a ThinkProgress article from 2007, NBC’s Nightly News devoted just 14 seconds to the war in Iraq compared to a whopping 3 minutes and 13 seconds to Anna Nicole’s death. In a clip from a Fox News Broadcast, there is a “Breaking News” graphic lighting up the screen with a live helicopter feed of the hospital Smith’s body was apparently being held, along with slides of photos of Anna Nicole and her family.  At the same time Fox News anchor, Shepard Smith, was sincerely reporting on the specifics of the celebrities death the news crawler at the bottom of the screen was showing that General Casey (former Commander of the war in Iraq) had just been replaced by General David Petraeus (Anna Nicole Smith Death video).  Shouldn’t the replacement of the commanding general in the War in Iraq be a bigger news story than the overdose of a Playboy model?  But Fox isn’t the only guilty party.

CNN referenced Anna Nicole over 500 percent more frequently than it did Iraq. MSNBC was even worse at more than 700 percent more references to Anna Nicole than Iraq Think Progress. This is disgusting.  To think that a porn star and a gold digger’s death receives anywhere near the same amount of coverage as a costly scandalous war, such as the war in Iraq, is mind boggling, but the fact that the amount of coverage Nicole’s death received dwarfed the coverage the war in Iraq received is disheartening as well as aggravating.

This is a complete contradiction to the Fairness Doctrine for U.S. Broadcasting Policy. The Museum Of Broadcasting Communications describes it best,  “The policy of the United States Federal Communications Commission that became known as the “Fairness Doctrine” is an attempt to ensure that all coverage of controversial issues by a broadcast station be balanced and fair (Aufderheide).  The FCC took the view, in 1949, that station licensees were “public trustees,” and as such had an obligation to afford reasonable opportunity for discussion of contrasting points of view on controversial issues of public importance (Limburg). The Commission later held that stations were also obligated to actively seek out issues of importance to their community and air programming that addressed those issues. With the deregulation sweep of the Reagan Administration during the 1980s, the Commission dissolved the Fairness Doctrine” (Limburg).  By 1985 the FCC issued a Fairness Report, which concluded that the Fairness Doctrine was no longer having its intended effect and may actually be violating the first amendment. Later in 1987, the court case, Meredith Corp. v. FCC, concluded the doctrine was not mandated by congress and the FCC did not have to enforce it any longer.  The following August the FCC dissolved the Fairness Doctrine.  Both Houses of Congress later passed the Fairness Doctrine back into law, only to be vetoed by deregulatory guru President Reagan.  With not enough votes to override the veto, the doctrine sat idle until legislation surfaced again during President H. W. Bush rein, which was then vetoed by him.  Currently the doctrine is still waiting in the wings amongst certain congressmen who still threaten to pass it into legislation, but until then we as American’s have to depend on the word of our news media to deliver us quality non-bias, fair news (Limburg).

Now looking back on the classic news broadcasts like The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, we see that just the way the show is set up is completely different.  For instance, according to the live broadcast of November 22, 1963 we see a conservatively dressed Walter Cronkite sitting at a desk cluttered with papers, telephones and books.  Behind him a few reporters seem to be scrambling to prepare the next bit of news for Mr. Cronkite to read.  The set is as simple as it gets, plain walls with a clock is all we see.  It is clear that there was not very much time, money or effort allocated for silly dressings or anything besides the most accurate and up to date news (“Walter Cronkite Death of JFK.”).  Looking at typical news broadcast of today we see quite the contrary.   Looking at Morning Joe, a politically based morning talk show on MSNBC, we see instead of one person reading the news, a variety of people, ranging from politicians to columnists, reporters and the hosts discussing and voicing their opinions about the days news.  To compare the sets it’s a night and day difference (Morning Joe, 2012.  In just four decades we have seen a transformation from a simple looking reporter’s office to this elaborately decorated high tech looking set.  Full of lights, cameras, flat screen televisions, light up boards and interactive maps.  There are multiscreen capabilities for when multiple people are discussing a topic and all the talent are very well dressed and made up (Morning Joe, 2012).  From a single stagnant shot of Walter Cronkite as he read the news to multiple shots with blazing fast cuts, news bulletin crawlers along the bottom of the screen, fly ins from the top of the screen, check point graphics off to the side of the screen, its amazing any information is even absorbed by the viewer (Morning Joe, 2012).

It seems that there are quite a bit more resources available for bells and whistles we are all used to seeing in todays news compared to four decades prior.   As related to production theory, this midrange request for a bigger budget for more lights, cameras and expensive talent results in a macro level return of big ratings, which result in big profits.  Could it be that the goal for more viewers and ratings has taken the top spot on the priority list away from delivering quality and accurate news?  As quoted from a February 27th 2007 interview, former executive of the CBS Evening news stated, This really comes back to [60 Minutes creator] Don Hewitt’s part of this, and the turning point was when 60 Minutes started making money.  There’s an old Fred Friendly line that I think is the critical one: “Television can make so much money doing its worst that it can’t afford to do its best” (Bettag).

Back in the nineteen sixties television news shows such as The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite actually lost money.  It was a common view of the television networks like NBC and CBS that it didn’t matter that the news lost money. The networks had a consensus that the nightly news broadcast was a write off, they figured they owed it to the American public read the nightly news reports, as a service to the public (Bettag).  Now how about that kind of thinking?  A corporation feeling that they actually OWE their customers something!  Well in 1968 a simple news program called 60 Minutes would change that forever.

According to a Newsweek Article from March of 2011, 29 percent of Americans do not know who the current Vice President is.  44 percent of Americans do not know what the Bill of Rights is.  And 75 percent of Americans do not know why we fought the Cold War (Mannie). As an American, I find  this depressing.

In an interview on Fox Business, former Minnesota Governor and Navy Seal, Jesse Ventura, sarcastically thanked mainstream media for not doing their jobs, so he could work on his television show Conspiracy Theory.  Ventura’s hit show is entering its’ third season, uncovering hidden truths and stories about modern day government conspiracy’s and top secret projects.  Ventura is quoted in humorously saying, “I would like to thank main stream media, because while they are worrying about the death of Anna Nicole Smith, and while they’re worried about pro athletes cheating on their wives, they leave it wide open for my employment” Ventura, Jesse. Anna Nicole Smith Death Video.  So there is actually a hit television program approaching its third season, devoted to reporting and investigating stories the main stream media wont touch.

In a segment from The Daily Show, Jon Stewart talks about how big corporations such as General Electric, despite making over 14 billion dollars in profit last year, not only did they not pay any federal taxes but actually received a 3 billion dollar tax benefit.  This is wrong on so many levels, and Stewart makes his emotions known (Stewart).   Besides the fact that General Electric did not pay any taxes in a year where they made so much money, President Obama actually appointed G.E. CEO Jeff Immelt to chair the President’s committee on jobs.  The most revolting part of the story was the fact that the NBC Nightly News did not even mention a blurb about this story. In fact, instead of reporting on this story or perhaps other relevant news stories such as the Japanese Nuclear disaster or the economic crisis, as Stewart points out, they decide to report on new words being included in Webster’s Dictionary such as “OMG”, “LOL” and “Muffin Top” (Stewart)  This is a perfect example of how the main stream media keeps the American public in the dark on important current events.  And to bring this point home to production theory, this is a great example of how macro level production theory can have an effect on midrange and micro level production theory, because General Electric owns NBC  (Stewart).  And it wouldn’t look very good if NBC reported that it’s parent company, G.E. did not pay any taxes while boasting such a massive profit.  You can trace the pecking order all the way to the top on this one.

With our profit driven media operating as it does, its amazing how accurate our third President Thomas Jefferson was when he was quoted, “The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers” (Jefferson). Ever since that first great rating report came in for 60 Minutes out media has never been the same.  Now we have an ill-informed, uneducated population that gets nothing but celebrity gossip and entertainment when they turn on the news.  Do things need to change? I think this great country is being failed on such a massive level by our profit hungry media that there is no choice but to change the system that has corrupted the unwritten forth branch of Government, the intended watch dogs of the other three, which today is owned by the other three. As Jefferson’s words continue to remind us: “Information is the currency of Democracy” (Jefferson).

Works Cited

“About Us, 60 Minutes.” CBSNews. N.p., 2011. Web. 12 Dec 2011. <http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/1998/07/08/60minutes/main13503.shtml>.

“Anna Nicole Smith Death”. 2007. Video. youtube.comWeb. 12 Dec 2011. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wAEZFtIAvo8>.

Aufderheide, Patricia. “After the Fairness Doctrine: Controversial Broadcast Programming and the Public Interest.” Journal of Communication (New York), Summer, 1990.

Benjamin, Louise M. “Broadcast Campaign Precedents From the 1924 Presidential Election.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media (Washington, D.C.), Fall, 1987.

Chozick, Amy. “Cable TV and Movies Buoy News Corp Profits.” New York Times. B.3 (2011): n. page. Print.

Bettag, Tom. Interview with Tom Bettag Interview by Ted Kopal. 8-15-2006. Print. < http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/newswar/interviews/bettag.html>

Hazlett, Thomas W. “The Fairness Doctrine and the First Amendment.” Public Interest (New York), Summer, 1989.

Jefferson, Thomas. The Autobiography of Thomas Jefferson. 2010. 124. Print.

Limburg, Val. “Fairness Doctrine.” The Museum of Broadcast Communications. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Dec 2011. <http://www.museum.tv/eotvsection.php?entrycode=fairnessdoct>.

Mannie, Garcia. “How Dumb are Americans, Exactly?.” Newsweek . 21 03 2011: n. page. Web. 12 Dec. 2011.

Shenkman, Rick. “American Stupidity.” Tom Dispatch. (2008): n. page. Web. 12 Dec. 2011. <http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/174951>.

Stewart, Jon, dir. “I Give Up.” The Daily Show. Comedy Central: 3-28-2011. Television. <http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/mon-march-28-2011/i-give-up—pay-anything—>.

ThinkProgress.com. “Anna Nicole Smith and Our Media Embarrassment .” Think Progress, 2-9-2007. Web. 12 Dec 2011.

Twain, Mark. “Mark Twain Quotations.” TwainQuotes.com. N.p., 2004. Web. 12 Dec 2011. <http://www.twainquotes.com/Family.html>.

“Walter Cronkite Death of JFK.” CBS Evening News Repot. CBS: 11-22-1963. Television. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2K8Q3cqGs7I

“Morning Joe” Web log post. Morning Joe. NBC. Web. <http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3036789/ns/msnbc_tv-morning_joe/>.

The Museum of Broadcasting Communications. Museum dedicating to broadcast history.