This week, I spoke at a lunch honoring 10 young journalists who had won media scholarships given by the Overseas Press Club.
For years I wouldn't use the words "journalist" or "media" because they sounded pretentious. I loved the word "newspaperman," but by 1970, you couldn't use the word "newspaperman" anymore because it was sexist. "Newspaperperson" didn't have the same ring to it in my ears, and television news got so important that you always had to mention its practitioners, too. It got so cumbersome that I gave up and now reluctantly use both words, "journalist" and "media."
One of the things young people don't learn in journalism school is what experienced old journalists do a lot of . . . that's criticize the business we're in. Insurance salesmen don't talk about what's wrong with insurance, but journalists always talk about what's wrong with news.
The trouble with news now is money. Corporate America was late discovering how much money there was to be made with news, and now they're trying to make up for it. Most of the decisions being made in television news are not about news but about money.
No network has anywhere near the same number of correspondents in foreign countries or even in cities around the United States as they once did. If a correspondent distinguishes himself or herself on a news show, he or she is taken off that and assigned to a magazine show so the network can maximize its income from their star quality.
It's ironic that a good broadcast like "60 Minutes" is part of the problem. Originally, CBS just wanted to produce a good news magazine. It did not have making money in mind. The show's originators were not businessmen, they were newsmen. "60 Minutes" has been a gold mine and the sperm-donor in the birth of dozens of imitations. A news magazine costs a network 20 percent of what a dramatic show costs.
Something good needs to happen to television news. If we're going to have good politicians elected by voters who know what the issues are, news is critical. It needs a Bill Gates to buy a network and say to the news department: "Here's a couple of billion dollars a year. Do it right. I won't interfere. I'll get my money back from the entertainment side."
It was recently revealed that the government has been, in effect, paying networks to put anti-drug propaganda into some of their dramatic shows. They just don't get it. Propaganda is propaganda, whether it's for good or evil. If it's for a good cause one time, it can be for a bad cause once the system is established, next time.
In the back pages of the business section of the New York Times last Friday, there was a one-column story about a deal that's been made for ABC and the New York Times to share news.
NBC already has a deal like it with the Washington Post. A merger in the news business that cuts down on sources of information is more dangerous than the most dangerous merger in any other business.
Television news is so important that it ought somehow be protected. Maybe it could be bought and paid for by all the people of the United States through an impartial, quasi-governmental body. There are precedents for that sort of thing. Even in our free enterprise, capitalist economy, some things should be above the influence of profit.
No one is supposed to make money off religion. Our system of justice operates without being listed on the Stock Exchange, and neither news nor health care should be operated for profit, either. I'm offended when I hear a commercial for a hospital or see an ad for a doctor. I don't like news organizations advertising or promoting themselves. We've got to find a way to provide ourselves with good, independent television news coverage not influenced by money.
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