Share this article

print logo

Media cutbacks and criticism

This is a column I would much prefer not to be writing, because once again it will report on a major loss for the American public. ABC News has announced it will sharply reduce its news gathering and editing staff, seeking to eliminate 300 to 400 newsroom employees from its total of approximately 1,500 people. It amounts to the greatest cutback during this period of newsroom attrition in most areas of the nation.

ABC News President David Westin said the staff cutback is a "fundamental transformation for the division that would result in a leaner, smaller organization." No doubt about that, but he also falsely stated that "I frankly don't think it will be particularly noticeable for viewers."

If you can eliminate some 25 percent of your staff and have no negative effect on your viewers, you haven't been doing your job to date, Mr. Westin.

The drastic ABC staff cutback, Westin said, was an effort to get ahead of economic pressures squeezing network business. He's being honest with that statement. One of ABC's competitors, CBS News, announced that it is laying off dozens of its newsroom employees.

ABC is expected to combine its weekday and its weekend staffs of "Good Morning, America" and "World News" and rely more on freelancers for news magazines like "2 0/2 0." It is also anticipated that ABC will shortly be announcing reductions in its many bureaus. Given these moves, it is difficult to believe viewers will not notice much change in the ABC report daily and Sunday.

The exact number of ABC layoffs will depend for the most part on the number of its people who will volunteer for buyouts over the next 30 days. One area of the ABC planning that really frightens me is its expectation that more staff members will produce, record and edit much of their own material. This most certainly will result in more biased reports. Eliminating the oversight of editors can certainly save money but will have a major negative impact on unbiased material being generated for viewing. I believe it will because I've worked with many reporters who feel strongly that their stories should not be edited and that even good editing hurts their material. They are rarely right.

Now, moving on to another area, I feel compelled to comment on the recent media attack by Rep. Patrick Kennedy. I thought it was so much out of line with public comments of anybody in the Kennedy clan in the past that I was shocked and could hardly believe what I heard.

Kennedy, who announced last month that he would not seek a ninth term in Congress, attacked the media for what he said was ignoring the war in Afghanistan and focusing on former Rep. Eric Massa of New York. Massa resigned from Congress amid allegations of sexual harassment while many lawmakers were debating the future of the war in Afghanistan.

Kennedy said the news media was "despicable" for ignoring the war, that there were only two members of the media in the gallery when the war was debated and that the lack of attention to that war was fueling public cynicism about government. I don't question Kennedy's allegations and I do agree that the media spends too much time on scandals and personalities and not enough on news the public needs to know. But I still find it most difficult to believe that any other Kennedy would launch such an attack on the media.

It was most unusual for a Kennedy, despite the fact that he had already announced that he was not going to seek another term. He did hold out the possibility that he might someday seek a return to Congress, but attacking the media was certainly not a smart move from any Kennedy or in fact from anybody who at some time might run for a congressional seat.

Murray B. Light is the former editor of The Buffalo News