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CBS Evening News.

For better or worse, cable offers options

For the better part of a decade, the half-hour evening network news show has had big problems. This fact was underlined recently when "The CBS Evening News With Dan Rather" got an even longer title with the addition of three magic words, and Connie Chung."

"The CBS Evening News" used to stand for quality in broadcast journalism, but that tradition ended a couple of corporate buyouts ago. Ever since, the old hands, like anchorman Dan, have tried to do the same mediocre, dumbed-down, feelgood news everyone else does.

You can't say they're not trying. They do the conversational style, the faces behind the news" thing. They even do "what's right with the world" on occasion. But they have done it all very clumsily, as if their hearts weren't in it, and viewers have increasingly turned to those news outlets which display a genuine commitment to mediocrity - the local shows and the TV tabloids - or to the video ticker tape of CNN.

Given the problems facing CBS News, the attempt to fix the show with Chung's attractive face seems like Band-Aid therapy for terminal cancer. Chung not the problem. She's a smart competent newswoman. There are lots worse than her in the business. She also has a quick and devastating sense of humor that has been displayed in her interviews and talk-show appearances, but has never found an outlet in her news work.

But if she's not the problem, Chung is also not the solution. Literally nothing has changed on the show except the name. Not even the set. Dan and Connie sit together at the fake anchor desk from which Dan once surveyed the world alone. They look very uncomfortable cheek by jowl (guess which one has the jowls) And the forced closeness makes their handoffs and passing exchanges seem especially staged and unnatural.

This odd couple started their partnership with some cutesy stuff - including a spoofy first night Huntley-Brinkley sign-off. But for the most part Dan and Connie ignore each other and, like all good media stars, devote their single-minded attention to the camera.

They do the usual tired stuff, take turns reading stories, doing voice-overs. First Dan, then Connie, then Dan, then Connie. The coanchors don't discuss the news with one another, or with their correspondents. They do, of course, make off-mike happy talk at every commercial cutaway.

Supposedly the purpose for two anchors is to allow each the opportunity to get out and do real reporting. By the time you read this, Rather will have been to Japan to give the system its first major tryout. But the first efforts in this direction were comical. On the day of the big mid-June antiterrorist raid in New York City, the announcer introduced us to "Dan Rather at the United Nations, and Connie Chung in New York."

All this is nitpicking. The real problem, for Dan and Connie, Peter and Tom, is that they, in their little half-hour window on the world, are sitting astride a dinosaur of a format, one well on its way to the fossil farm. These days, people who really want news can go cable, and the network shows will seem like a triffing snack. And people who really want fluff can look almost anywhere. To these viewers even today's "viewer-friendly" evening news shows seem too grim and dense.

For a long time, network news was all things to all people, because there were no alternatives. Now, by shooting for the lowest common denominator, the evening shows are shooting themselves in the foot.

The format as we know it was pioneered in TV's golden age by Cronkite, Huntley-Brinkley and Howard K. Smith - great stone faces for a video Rushmore. Through the 1960s, the Big Three's half-hour digestible dinnertime dose of the world came to define what we meant when we said "the news." "The news" was an authoritative, nay godlike, anchorman (they were all men) reading stories from far and near, with occasional film accompaniment. By the time the half-hour was over, the Jovian visage of Walter Cronkite could declare, "and that's the way it is," and we beheved him.

NBC commentator John Chancellor is the only guy in the nightly news business who dates back to the glory days. Appropriately enough, days after the changes at CBS kicked in, Chancellor announced his retirement. In his preretirement comments Chancellor seemed to indicate he knew there was no longer much place for a guy like him on TV. We probably will not see another one.

Chancellor was obsolete in today's TV news world because he, like the other broadcast pioneers, came from the world of print. He was knowledgeable, nuanced and addicted to substance. But, hey, this is TV we're talking about.

Serious broadcast journalists, which most of the folks at the networks still are, today face the same dilemma that late 19th century painters faced with the advent of photography. Suddenly artists found it was no longer enough to objectively reproduce the surface of reality as it appears to the eye. A photograph could always do that better than even the most skilled and fanatical brush person. The painters' answer to this dilemma was, of course, Impressionism. Don't paint what things look like, paint what they feel like. And the visual arts were off-on a century-long joyride of exploration and risk.

In broadcast news today, if you want strict objectivity and comprehensiveness - the old journalistic standards - then you'll never beat the round-the-clock video verite of C-Span and CNN. C-Span especially represents the "objective journalism" ethos taken to its logical conclusion, and to its ultimate height. They just turn on the camera, and leave it running.

If you can't beat that on the network news, what will you do? Seek the truth and stir up the populace? Fat chance. The corporate bosses at the Big Three would rather that their news divisions just wither away. And the ideal of an informed democratic public can go with them.

And that's the way it is.
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Collum, Danny Duncan
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Television Program Review
Date:Jul 16, 1993
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