If you've been watching the CBS "Evening News" over the past few weeks, you might have noticed a slight trend – fewer "freeSpeech" segments. In fact, the last time the segment aired was November 3, when representatives of both major political parties split the allotted 90 seconds to give closing-day campaign pitches. Well, Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz today reports that the "Evening News" is reducing the segment from every day to one-to-three times a week. Executive producer Rome Hartman tells the Post it is a fine-tuning of sorts and that the show has learned better how to use the segment.
Since anchor Katie Couric debuted, "freeSpeech" has been one of the most-discussed elements of the new "Evening News," drawing criticism on a number of different levels. Some were upset at the content of them, others complained that it has featured too many recognizable voices. And one would-be participant initially suggested that the network sought to stifle his "freeSpeech" idea.
Hartman has also indicated there was a level of opposition to the segment within the news division, telling Kurtz that some correspondents felt it took up valuable air time while others were opposed to the idea of commentary on the broadcast altogether. Everyone has opinions on the segment, it seems, including me. I like the idea, if not the execution to this point.
Those who complain that too many familiar faces have appeared seem to me to have a fine point. Rush Limbaugh has a three-hour radio program on which to exercise his freedom of speech, as does Sean Hannity. Arianna Huffington has a blog on which she can voice her opinions, and is no stranger to the talk-show circuit. And it's sure hard to argue that Senators John McCain and Barack Obama lack any access to a megaphone. Yet all of the above have been featured in "freeSpeech."
More interesting was the mayor of Hazelton, Pennsylvania, who described how his city is dealing with the challenges of illegal immigration or the mother talking about societal pressure mothers feel about the issue of breastfeeding. Especially compelling was the segment featuring a student at Gallaudet University, one of the nation's top colleges for the deaf, who signed her commentary about problems facing her school's leadership. You can see the full list of "freeSpeech" segments here. As you can tell at a glance, it's populated primarily by recognizable names.
Yes, 90 seconds of a 22-minute show isn't an insignificant chunk of time. But in an environment when television news can be resemble an assembly-line of cookie-cutter news – same stories, same pictures, same soundbites whever you turn – having something a little different isn't worthless just because it doesn't fit the template. It isn't necessarily valuable just because it has famous faces in it either.
This version of the "Evening News" is just over two-months old and I have no doubt we'll see plenty more tweaking in the coming months. It may be the minority position, but I hope "freeSpeech" will survive in some form -- one which includes more previously unheard voices than familiar ones.