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Regarding Media

Talk Is Cheap, or at Least Cheaper Than Newscasts

June 07, 2002|TIM RUTTEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just as bad money drives good money out of circulation, faux journalism tends to push the genuine article from the airwaves.

That's the most obvious conclusion to be drawn from this week's decision by the MSNBC cable network to abandon regular newscasts for an all-talk format. Beginning July 15, the network will replace its prime-time news report with a sequence of programs built around television personalities Chris Matthews, Phil Donahue, Ashleigh Banfield and Alan Keyes.

Unless breaking--read exciting--events intervene, viewers interested in facts and reportage will have to content themselves with a few minutes of "news briefs" hourly from a network that most recently styled itself "America's News Channel."

"What the executives at MSNBC are doing is giving their viewers celebrity boxing in disguise," said Orville Schell, dean of UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism.

The reason for the shift is as clear as the numbers from the last audience survey. Fox News, with its wispy news report and ubiquitous ranting heads, now leads all three cable news networks with an average daily audience of 594,000 viewers. CNN, which seems to grow softer and surlier by the week, follows with 380,000, while MSNBC averages just 232,000.

But what attracts broadcasting executives to the Fox model is not just the size of its audience, but also its relatively low cost. Simply put, Roger Ailes, who runs the network for Rupert Murdoch, found a way to do cable news on the cheap: Build a sound stage, install a performing pundit with more predictable opinions than ideas and encourage as much snarling as possible. Even if one of your personalities becomes successful enough to command a salary in the millions, it's still cheaper by far than maintaining bureaus and paying field reporters and experienced producers to gather and broadcast news.

But given the relatively small size of the cable networks' audience--none of the three comes close to attracting the average daily readership of a major American newspaper--why worry about their antics?

"They're like a virus implanted on the American media's hard drive," said Schell. "The actual number of people they've infected so far is small, but they're steadily contaminating the rest of the media. They've created a template on how to get more viewers and readers. They've succeeded in contriving a common wisdom, that if you don't imitate them in some way, you're falling behind in the race for market share."

Four days after MSNBC officially capitulates to that idea, the deans of America's leading journalism schools and representatives of Harvard's Shorenstein Center will gather for the second time this year to consider what they regard as a crisis in the quality of broadcast journalism. In the first week of April, Schell hosted the journalism deans of USC, the University of Missouri, Northwestern, Columbia, the University of Maryland, New York University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Texas to consider the question. Their discussions attracted the attention of the Carnegie Endowment, which will convene a second meeting in New York next month.

"A lot more deans want to get in on the discussion this time," Schell said. "I'm not sure where we're headed, but if I could wave a wand, we'd convene an emergency town meeting in Washington, D.C. We'd invite investors, suits, news directors, anchors, producers, reporters, scholars, critics and regulators to talk about some other model for broadcast news."

Fame Without Fortune

This generation's American immigrant authors often seem to live not so much between worlds as in several parallel worlds simultaneously. Creatively, it's a stimulating experience, but it also can be a vexing one.

Take the case of Gina Nahai, an Iranian immigrant of Jewish descent, whose three critically praised novels--all written in English--have earned her a substantial following in Iran. What they have not earned are royalties, because Iran is a country where literary piracy flourishes.

"Iran is not a signator of the International Copyright Convention," said Nahai, who nonetheless finds it "interesting and kind of nice" that her first two novels, "Cry of the Peacock" and "Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith" have found an audience there. "In Iran," she explained, "the person who first translates a foreign book in Farsi owns the rights to it in perpetuity. So when a book comes out and there is interest, they rush to translate. The first version is always very bad, but since the translator has the rights forever, they can take the time to produce a better one.

"In my case," said Nahai, "I'm not really as concerned about the royalties that have been stolen from me as I am about the fact that the translation is so bad. Farsi is such a lyrical language with so many layers that it would have been a treasure to read it in a good translation."

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