What's the News About the Nightly News?

This month, Anne exchanges email with Tom Brokaw, anchor and managing editor, NBC Nightly News With Tom Brokaw.

Anne Americans have never been all that interested in foreign news. But in light of September 11, the current confrontations in Israel, Iraq, and North Korea, and Americans' intellectual unpreparedness to cope, do you regret that over the past 20 years, big media reduced foreign coverage because editors, executives, and producers had decided that their audiences just weren't interested?

Tom Actually, the two subjects that were not ignored were the Middle East and terrorism. All of the networks did a substantial amount of reporting on the Taliban in Afghanistan, the rise of Osama bin Laden, and the failure of peace efforts between the Palestinians and the Israelis. What we no longer do is use the incidental or episodic foreign development as a filler in a broadcast. Having said that, I agree that given a choice between a routine domestic story and a foreign story, we're much more likely to go domestic. Foreign-news coverage tends to be crisis driven. Moreover, foreign policy has been only a faint image on the campaign radar screens in the last three election cycles, and that has added to the public malaise on global developments. One of the many changes in the American culture following September 11 was an increased appetite for foreign news. I suspect that will remain for as long as the terror threat seems viable — which could be a long time.

Anne On the one hand, with 24-7 news channels and Internet news sites, consumers can completely customize their personal input of news. On the other hand, while we've all read about the imminent demise of the nightly network news as a format, you're coming off an all-time ratings high, and during crises, Americans do seem to crave a trusted source — someone like you. Is this a contradiction?

Tom A well-organized summary of the day's most important developments still has a place in this crowded news and information universe. My guess is that most viewers are also dedicated consumers of other sources of news. The evening broadcasts simply complement their other news resources. For the foreseeable future, I believe that there will be a place for the nightly network broadcast, but its chances of survival would be greatly enhanced if it were expanded to one hour. That said, I'm not confident that will happen in my professional life.

Anne When it comes to the civic discourse, isn't it a bad thing that TV news lost the semiexemption from conventional profit margins that it had in the 1960s and 1970s?

Tom During the 1960s and 1970s, the network news was essentially a duopoly: NBC and CBS, with ABC still being a relatively minor player. The broadcast networks were so rich that they were willing to indulge their news divisions with fat budgets to shore up their "public service" image with Washington overseers. In fact, a staggering amount of money was spent, not on the essence of editorial coverage but rather on the trappings of it: chartered planes, layers of unnecessary personnel, redundancies in the assignment organization. The greater financial test, I believe, is whether the networks will continue to find room for news broadcasts that are in the public interest, if not high on the popular-issues list. For example, the future of energy consumption is not a subject that's likely to generate huge audiences, but it is an indisputably important subject. Even a low-rated network-news broadcast attracts several million people, especially when it is recycled across cable platforms. Will networks be willing to underwrite those broadcasts? It is increasingly a difficult proposition.

Anne Do you think that the "right here, right now" urgency in our culture is more bad than good? Worse than it was 10 or 20 years ago? And do you think that anti-American sentiment around the world is just a price of empire?

Tom I'm not sure that the American culture has ever been anything but right here, right now. It's part of our national character, but it is accelerated by the tools of modern technology, which are designed for speed and dispersal. The second part of your question, about anti-American sentiment, is much more complex. I do think that it is partly the price of empire, partly envy, and partly the result of a kind of American myopia in which we're determined to see the rest of the world only through our prism.

Anne Kreamer (akreamer@fastcompany.com) is a media entrepreneur and consultant based in New York. Each month, she'll meet with a different guest.

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