Outside Feedback: Felling Returns With A Sequel Asking, Why Not DC?

A while back we asked Matthew Felling, Media Director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs, to be one of our "Outside Voices," where he chose to weigh in on the search for the next anchor of CBS News. Having had a little time to reflect on his opinion, Felling asked to return for more on the same subject. While we often feel a little anchored-out here at PE, we felt he had some interesting thoughts and accepted the offer. As with all our "Outside Voices," the opinions expressed and facts presented are those of the author, not Public Eye. With that, here's Matthew:

With the "CBS Evening News" train steaming towards the Katie Couric station, and despite the "No, no! Not Couric!" screeds being written weekly, the CW ('conventional wisdom,' mind you, not the new TV experiment by Warner Brothers/UPN), an ominous gestalt is forming in MediaLand, along the lines of "Katie is coming. Resistance is futile."

Futile? Maybe. But must moving past Bob Schieffer simply be a continuation of the static status quo? (Particularly since we have had of late a parade of love letters in the papers.)

See, with media writers, bloggers and blabbers aligning against her, the har-har editorial cartoonists making hay with their If-Couric-Why-Not-Oprah material (come to think of it: why not, really?), my own personal point breaking point got smacked head-on recently when the antipodal forces of Entertainment Weekly and Walter Cronkite took the same side in this battle. (And yes, I'm quite sure Uncle Walter was eagerly poring over the "V for Vendetta" issue for source material.) It was amid this anti-Couric cacophony that a not-all-that-mind-blowing question occurred to me:

Why are network newscasts in New York City anyway?

What can be accomplished in New York City that couldn't be accomplished in … say, I don't know … hmmm … Washington, DC? (Or Chicago or Los Angeles or ….) I can't think of any newsy reason why all the network news studios have to be headquartered there. When's the last time you heard an anchor say "We were able to cover this story with the necessary staff because we're in New York City." If you want to cite the 9/11 story, that's fine. To a point. A once in a generation event, certainly. (But, according to that reasoning, do we headquarter newscasts from Vatican City or what once was New Orleans?) But even then, CNN is headquartered in Atlanta, and there but for the grace of Aaron Brown on a rooftop in Jersey – the one lingering image of the day in my mind, still – they probably would have had identical coverage to NYC-located Fox News or "The Pride of Secaucus" MSNBC. And the technological capabilities that make it possible to beam live from Iraq or London minimize the advantages of being in New York City. In theory, ABC News could beam out of Tulsa.

But we're dealing with 2006, and right now the network newscasts are based in New York. Gotcha. How much time do they spend covering New York-related stories, compared with Capitol Hill or White House reporting? What advantage, visible to the viewer, is served by having a suit in a seat in the Big Apple? In a network news world where everybody is trying to break the mold, stay relevant and "Lookie! Our anchor reads the news standing up!" differentiate themselves, why do they stay the two hundred plus miles away from the one city guaranteed to generate news on a near-daily basis?

Why think beyond New York City for the "CBS Evening News?" Because of the bread crumb path that a close reading of the CBS/Schieffer news clips guides you down.

Schieffer's broadcast is still losing big time to ABC's "World News Tonight" (No.2) and the "NBC Nightly News" (No.1.) But as of this month, Schieffer's broadcast has picked up more than 140,000 viewers, and the other two have lost more than 1.6 million viewers since September. -- Ed Smith's Denver Post piece on February 26.

Schieffer says he doesn't want the job permanently but hasn't ruled it out, despite the weekly commute from Washington to New York. "My wife said if this goes on for very long, we're going to have to renegotiate our contract." -- Howard Kurtz's Washington Post piece on March 28, 2005.

Everyone agrees that Schieffer's presence on the "CBS Evening News" has righted the ship. His unscripted questions – MediaLand citizens call them 'debriefings' – to reporters on the field result in unrehearsed exchanges that cut to the chase and add to the viewers understanding of the news. Almost single-handedly, he has taken it from the death spiral that Dan Rather spun like a pinwheel with the Memogate scandal from 2004. Unlike the other two networks who have foisted Anchor Status – a label that no one, really, can live up to anymore, as the Mount Rushmore of the Big Three anchors has evolved into a Last Supper-esque lineup of faces, opinion-mongers and news readers – upon some promising younger reporters with less heft, Bob Schieffer is accomplished, confident and comfortable in his own skin. Viewers can feel that appealing comfort through their TV screens. (Aside to CBS News President Sean McManus: When focus groups say "comfortable," that means "better ratings." You've increased your audience viewers while everyone else is hemorrhaging them. Are you, as Andy Dufresne accused Shawshank Warden Norton, "just being obtuse?")

Summing it up, Schieffer is working out well for the "CBS Evening News." He's liking the gig. And people as varied as Entertainment Weekly readers and Walter Cronkite agree on his superiority to the Katie Couric Experiment, which will cost easily over $5 million dollars a year.

My suggestion is: Move the "CBS Evening News" to Washington, DC, let Schieffer do it until he can't or won't, and then tap the next in line – whether it's next year or 2010 – from a revitalized news department. The Katie Couric Experiment is a huge gambit – lifting a woman with a 19 percent popularity rating (my last reference to Entertainment Weekly, I promise) to a position where she may or may not measure up to the task/status of anchorwoman. Take the money that you were willing to pony up for Couric, put it into set design for the CBS building on M Street here in Washington, and start broadcasting from there by September, grabbing the pole position for the mid-term elections. This will do two things: continue the momentum that "CBS Evening News" currently has and differentiate the program notably from its New York City-bound competition.

A secondary advantage to this move? Access.

In political journalism, access to the power brokers is everything. Wouldn't it be worth the price of admission to see Schieffer or another "Evening News" reporter have a major political figure on live and in-studio? Do you not think that would bolster the momentum of "CBS Evening News" and be an obvious competitive edge?

That sound you hear? That's about 500 shudders from the White House and Capitol Hill.

Schieffer seems to be leaving the door open for such a possibility, too. This becomes apparent if you read both the text and the tea leaves of his recent interview with The Hardest Working Woman In Media Journalism, Philadelphia Inquirer writer Gail Shister:

Schieffer believes he has accomplished Moonves' mandate: to identify young CBS correspondents to build Evening News around. He's over the moon about London-based Lara Logan, just promoted to chief foreign correspondent. He calls Logan "the next Diane Sawyer or Barbara Walters."

"She's the complete package. She's a terrific writer. She's absolutely fearless. She's very glib, and she talks well on the air without a script."

Schieffer's script says he'll retire at 70, and he insists he's sticking to it. "It seems like a good number. I suppose everything is negotiable, but I can't imagine changing my mind."

Or yesterday with Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post:
The double duty hasn't been easy for Schieffer, who commutes to New York during the week and returns home to Washington to host "Face the Nation" and to see his wife, Pat.

"Had this happened 10 years ago, I'd be fighting for this job," he says. "Doing it under these circumstances is perfect for me. I don't want to do it forever."

"Everything is negotiable?" Lara Logan is "the next Diane Sawyer or Barbara Walters?" "Doing it under these circumstances? Does he have to draw us a diagram?

If "CBS Evening News" were to move its operations to Washington, DC and Bob Schieffer were willing and able to anchor it for another year or two, it could shift the balance of power in the nightly network news marketplace mightily and increase its relevance in one grand stroke. Rather than being on the lowest rung, they could be the lead dog. And Schieffer could look back proudly as The Man Who Rescued CBS News.

From here, it looks like you've got two options. First, you can hire Katie Couric and see how the Queen Bee's buzz sounds in the evening. Or ... keep Schieffer, move the "CBS Evening News" south to DC, save the network evening news' relevancy, and see how much higher a Schieffer-led newscast can rise.

You know what choosing the DC option would require of CBS? Courage.