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January 26, 2007

But Words Can Never Hurt Me

New weekender Ankush has an article on CBSNews.com telling the flagging network division how to right itself. The section they published him, "Outside Voices," is one of those spaces institutions seeking to display openness clear out for harsh criticism of their business practices. It's an odd concept, though not one limited to CBS (The LA Times, for awhile at least, had a similar feature). I find it unlikely much of the CBS brass is trolling that corner of their site for vicious criticism. So, in reality, what you have is a piece of CBS's site telling readers why the network sorta blows. As I said, odd. Not to be to cynical about this, but displaying an openness to such criticism is often a substitute for actually accepting it. What CBS is doing isn't necessarily listening to its critics, but publishing them. Which is sort of a shame, as all of Ankush's comments are good ones, and the network would be well-served if its executives, rather than its audience, read them.

January 26, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

Thanks for the link and kind words, Ezra.

I agree that these sorts of features aren't actually designed for the network to actually respond to the criticism. It is, however, nice of them to lend space on their own site to allow a diverse group of media-obsessives to say whatever they wish. (Public Eye didn't push back on any of what I wrote.) Moreover, a lot of the "Outside Voices" columns, mine included, say the same thing over and over again (more foreign coverage, etc.), even if the proposals are unrealistic (make the nightly news an hour long, etc.). I mostly tried to avoid that, though, sadly, there's no chance in hell there will ever be something like an assertive "Fact Check" segment. I was more concerned with arguing that, with their ratings in the can, they should be experimenting in some way.

That being said, most media criticism (particularly of television news) is completely ineffectual, so even the symbolism of criticizing CBS on its own turf is a modest improvement over what normally happens to such pieces. Public Eye is pretty good in the scheme of things, as well. I once wrote an item about some "60 Minutes" segments I had a problem with, and Public Eye went to the EP for comment. Again, not earth-shattering, but better than what would normally happen.

Posted by: Ankush | Jan 26, 2007 2:52:15 PM

Damnit. One of the posts I have always rolling in my head is "How to fix Network News", and I am fairly sure Ankush gets to everything.

I think it's worth mentioning that the Daily Show, while "anti BS", does allow itself to be a purveyor of conventional wisdom (e.g. "Democrats are in disarray"/"Kerry is boring") rather than fighting the spin. You have to be as anti-BS as the Daily Show, and then some.

Stewart's interview with Schumer, where he kept calling him out for symbolic half measures, is really how network news interviews ought to be.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Jan 26, 2007 6:22:02 PM

I think Ankush - oh goodness, and he might even read this - offers some interesting observations, but one could argue his thesis - as he rightly notes, CBS has struggled with a historical reality: their audience, traditionally, was rural and older (Dr, Quinn wasn't a throwback so much as part of a skein that stretches back to Petticoat Junction, the Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres). By reshaping prime time (and, with Letterman, late night) to suit a younger crowd, they've created all sorts of dissonances and news has paid for it almost more than anyone else (Interesting side note - sports really hasn't; CBS remains the undisputed home of golf coverage). Additionally, one could point to the serious dismantling of their operations that happened with the round of layoffs when Rather was lead anchor. Almost everyone in the news business points to that one event as the day CBS walked away from a serious news division.

My point is that the changes Ankush suggests are somewhat cosmetic. Be more "hard hitting", use the pretty reporter who does good stories - these, too, are "tinkering on the margins. I think CBS needs to understand better who their audience is and how they plan to serve them. I won't watch Couric. Indeed, I don't watch much network nightly news because the formate isn't working. But when I do, my first choice would be Charlie Gibson. Why? Because I know he's serious, and I think the news division he works for has a commitment to getting the story and getting it right. CBS is legendary, in recent times, for making news division decisions, not committing to them, and then luching in another direction when they inevitably fail to pay off (something that's true right down to local affiliate WCBS in NYC, also relentlessly third in news on the local level). If they're serious, they need to be serious: why not use the proven success story - 60 Minutes - to lead a revamp of both nightly news formatting and to restructure the news division around more serious in depth work? Why not replace Bob Schieffer at the (perfectly valid) half hour of FTN with some one who can make those thirty minutes vivid and informative rather than a snoozy one-on-one (or two-on-one)? Doing so would end the vestiges of the "rural and older" approach, and would commit, long term, to rebuilding news in a serious way.

Or they could try more window dressing. Maybe Julie Chen could take over Nightly News and make it a quiz show. I wouldn't put it past them.

Finally, Ezra, I disagree with your thesis - I think CBS execs would consult a tarot reader if they thought it would help improve their failing business; the real problem is not what that they don't look at criticism, it's that they don't listen to it.

Posted by: weboy | Jan 27, 2007 7:40:01 AM

Your tone of suprise and sadness is -- surprising and sad.

Maybe Max Sawicky was on to something, and younger left bloggers have significant theoretical deficits.

In any case, Marcuse comes quickly to mind, here. Among others.

Posted by: gezeik | Jan 27, 2007 4:09:48 PM

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Posted by: JUDY | Sep 26, 2007 4:19:21 AM

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