News isn't satisfied just being news anymore. It has to be hard.
With that in mind, broadcast news divisions are currently embroiled in a my-news-is-harder-than-yours war of words. It's a quarrel that's hard (to use their favorite term) to take very seriously.
ABC's "World News Tonight" is trumpeting a return to hard news through an ad campaign that does everything but show the hard-bitten Peter Jennings in a green eye shade. ABC has even assigned Sam Donaldson, the ultimate hard-hearted journalist, back to the White House to gnaw on the leg of another president.
CNN says it's re-emphasizing hard news, too, beefing up a special reports team and adding newscasts on weekends where there were once feature programs.
"CBS Evening News" anchor Dan Rather is so intent on cultivating an image as king of hard news that he used the phrase at least 21 times during a Q&A last week with television writers.
Hard, harder, hardest!
But finding a consensus among journalists on what "hard" actually means may be the hardest task of all; most say they know hard news when they see it. For broadcasters, it is a reassuring, familiar tag for what can be a confusing news world.
"There are fewer pressing issues out of Washington, there are fewer major stories overseas," says Jeffrey Zucker, executive producer of NBC's "Today" show. "Everyone has had to redefine how they fill all their front pages."
Is a story about people angry about their health maintenance organizations hard? How about one on the increased use of fertility drugs? Or the use of the Internet to replace real social interaction? Marv Albert? The questions are raised in newsrooms every day.
There's no correct answer, of course. What's ironic is that, after groping for a place in a changing television environment, each of the three evening news programs generally presents sober, complete reviews of each day's events. And, pushed by competition, each often has startlingly good enterprise reporting, and isn't afraid to experiment with the broadcast format to make good use of it.
Which one is "harder" is strictly in the eye of the beholder.
"I think we and CBS are trying very hard to be hard news broadcasts," says Paul Friedman, executive producer of "World News Tonight" on ABC. "NBC's doing something slightly different."
Such talk drives NBC absolutely bonkers. Its "Nightly News" has tried to do fewer stories in greater depth, sacrificing volume and incremental government news in favor of longer stories, often on health news and social trends.
While Friedman didn't say the word "soft," NBC always hears it whispered. Soft, while great for baby's bottoms and freshly laundered towels, is an epithet in the news business.
So worried is NBC about this perception that last week it took the extraordinary step of showing TV writers a highlight newsreel detailing exclusive, hard-hitting stories done by Tom Brokaw and his team over the past year. Why extraordinary? Because the broadcast that's No. 1 in the ratings is so defensive.
"Frankly, we worry that we can be defined by others and not by what you see on the air," Brokaw says.
All three of the keenly competitive networks are remarkably close in evening news ratings, and they love to gibe each other.
NBC's Zucker is bemused by it all, even though he plays into it just like everyone else. He bragged to television critics, only half-jokingly, about how hard the first half hour of the "Today" show is.
"The fact is, everyone is pretty much covering the same stories, and the differences are in the margins," he says. "This is a game that's going on within the journalistic community to try and goad one another."