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More News Means Better News

With hundreds of sources, quality still can be found.

August 29, 2004|Steven Rattner

More than two decades ago, during my service as a New York Times correspondent in London, a friend wrote to complain that I had gone soft by writing a piece about Wedgewood china. Upon investigation, I found that the same Sunday edition also contained articles I had done on Margaret Thatcher's economic policies and on an arcane European trade dispute. The problem, I replied, was perhaps "not what I write but what you read."

That's pretty much my reaction to the uproar over the lack of network coverage of the political conventions -- indeed to the whole debate over the demise of "quality journalism."

Michael Getler, the Washington Post ombudsman, complains that "the three main cable news channels reach only 5 [million] to 6 million viewers combined." In fact, these cable news channels "reach" hundreds of millions of Americans -- more than 83% subscribe to cable or satellite TV -- but only 5 million to 6 million viewers choose to watch the cable news channels.

Put simply, the conventions are more available to viewers today than they ever have been in history. You can watch them with the Fox News edge or MSNBC's blandness or CNN's middling approach. You can tune to public television (full disclosure: I chair New York's public television stations), where they are presented as they were when Huntley and Brinkley were around. You can wallow in them, commentator-free, on C-SPAN.

In fact, we have entered a golden age of media. Today, all a would-be publisher needs is a computer, a speedy Internet connection and programming skills. Similarly, because of cheaper, better technology, news that used to be covered only by three networks is now interpreted by hundreds of video-based media. The result: Important events of our time are conveyed to more people from more varied viewpoints and in more forms than ever before.

If you want another take on Iraq (the BBC's, maybe), just cruise your cable lineup (coming soon: Al Gore's current-affairs channel for younger Americans) or even better, use a video recorder to watch programs on your own schedule. Dip into the blogosphere, or catch any of a hundred streaming reports from around the world.

The problem therefore isn't the supply of thoughtful content but the demand for it.

Surely a large part of the reason for the decline in viewership of the conventions (apart from their growing irrelevance) is that people are no longer, in effect, compelled to watch them. When there were just three networks, if they chose to air the conventions, what alternative did a viewer have? Today, even if we required the networks to provide gavel-to-gavel coverage, chances are that viewers would switch channels in droves or pop in a DVD or play a video game.

The advent of choice has driven the media to shift from supplying what they think their viewers should watch to supplying what their audience wants to watch. Increasing competition has forced news organizations to churn out what sells, just as Ford and General Motors do. That's not ideal, but free markets are the American way.

What about the civic responsibility of broadcasters that use the public airwaves free? It's worth discussing whether or not we should make them pay for "spectrum," or maybe with cable and satellite reaching such a large audience, they won't really need free airwaves any longer.

And what about the 17% of Americans without multichannel television? A fund supported by all broadcasters could provide low-income Americans with access to news and public affairs programming. Those with higher incomes but no cable or satellite have presumably made the decision that they're not all that interested in television.

From our market-based approach to information, some encouraging signs have emerged. Circulation at thoughtful magazines such as the Economist and the New Yorker is climbing smartly. Viewership of the Democratic convention on public television in New York beat the commercial networks handily. And the national edition of the New York Times -- not yet born in my days there -- today boasts daily sales of more than 500,000, half of the paper's total.

So the major networks may have descended into an abyss of reality shows, but there's lots of great current-affairs programming and writing out there. Those who feel that not enough attention is being paid to important issues should be working to convince their fellow Americans to take these matters more seriously, rather than taking aim at the messengers.

Steven Rattner, managing principal of an investment firm, has been advising and investing in media companies since the 1980s. He covered economics for the New York Times.

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