In a bizarre reflection of the state of television network news, the death last night of former President Gerald Ford merited less than two minutes of coverage on NBC - the first 30 seconds of which was marred by an audio glitch causing substitute anchor Bill Fitzgerald to be mute as he announced Ford's passing - while the Katie Couric-led CBS News decided not to interupt programming with a special report, instead running a "crawl" at the bottom of the screen. It should be noted that airing on CBS at the time was a David Letterman repeat in the east and a repeat of NCIS in the west.
ABC News, which was broadcasting Nightline in the eastern and central time zones, immediately switched their news coverage to the story. ABC's senior VP Bob Murphy said, "There really was never a question that for a former president you would do a brief interrupt."
Apparently it was an issue at CBS News, which declined to discuss its decsion-making process, instead insisting that Couric would be cutting short her vacation to return to New York to anchor coverage of Ford's state funeral. It should also be noted that despite a successful (ratings) launch for Couric's CBS News, the program has declined steeply in the ratings in the months since she took over from Bob Schieffer.
There's yet to be a post over at Public Eye, the quite excellent CBS News blog, which was established after the Dan Rather "Memogate" controversy of 2004 as a way of making the news division more transparent and which functions as a bit of an ombudsman. However, the Public Eye makes clear that CBS News' judgment calls recently have come into question, detailing the failure of the Evening News to lead with the recent hospitalization of South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson:
While the "Evening News" ran the Johnson story third and devoted a little over a minute to it, the two other nightly newscasts led with the story. ABC's "World News Tonight" spent slightly more than two minutes on Johnson, while NBC's "Nightly News" spent two minutes and fourty seconds. Rachel Sklar at "Eat The Press" watched both the CBS and NBC broadcasts, and she writes the following about the choice by CBS not to lead with Johnson:
…someone had to have adjudged holiday shopping as a better lead-in for the news than the possible surprise upset in the Senate, and as Managing Editor of the CBS Evening News [Katie] Couric ought to have seen why that was the less significant and compelling story. It's decisions like this that are causing people to criticize the broadcast, or simply to leave.
I contacted Rome Hartman, the executive producer of the "Evening News," to ask about the decision not to lead with Johnson. He declined to comment.
Meanwhile, former journalist and current media blogger Steve Gosset reminds CBS of its failures 9 1/2 years ago:
The network supposedly learned its lesson...when there was no anchor in the broadcast center on the Saturday night over Labor Day weekend when Princess Diana died in Paris. NBC and ABC, along with CNN, had blanket coverage. CBS affiliates were left to wallow in their local programming.
Belatedly, CBS scrambled to put on a perfunctory special report anchored by Vince DeMentri, a local anchor in New York who had just finished his newscast.
The TV news division had taken the weekend off, and it showed. Ironically, it was CBS Radio -- with correspondents Adam Raphael in London and Elaine Cobbe in Paris -- that was first with the confirmation that Diana was dead.
But that episode led to wholesale changes at CBS, including having a correspondent in the building at all hours in case the network had to go live. So how does the death of a president not give rise to that? The network had an obit ready to go. It could get its consultants and correspondents on the phone and cobble together some information. Bill Plante, Bob Schieffer and Mark Knoller come quickly to mind.
But it didn't. Once again, the decisionmakers at CBS News decided to go on holiday and turn their Blackeberrys off. When you work at a network, you don't wait until morning to report the news. The radio news division certainly didn't, cranking out three updates an hour all night. Their colleagues at TV couldn't muster anything close to that effort.
In an age when nearly all old school media outlets are under attack, the failure of CBS (and, in a smaller way, NBC - which left the heavy lifting to its cable channel) to live up to television journalism's most bragged about function - the ability to report important events as they happen and to analyze same - represents a further erosion of the moral highground journalists claim to hold. Television news, once a gold standard, should now question its very being, as it cedes investigations of the issues of the day to documentary filmmakers (although it will gladly lure internet predators into reality school kitchens), fails to live up to its own oversight role as the fifth estate and judges Letterman and Leno reruns to have top priority over the death of an American president.