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Outside Voices: Bill McLaughlin On America And Listening

(Quinnipiac University)
Each week we invite someone from outside PE to weigh in with their thoughts about CBS News and the media at large. This week, we asked Bill McLaughlin, an associate professor of communications at Quinnipiac University and a former CBS News foreign, war and diplomatic correspondent from 1966-1993. Below, Bill offers some thoughts on incoming anchor Katie Couric's recent "Eye on America" tour. As always, the opinions expressed and factual assertions made in "Outside Voices" are those of the author, not ours, and we seek a wide variety of voices. Here's Bill:

Katie Couric's six-city tour of America—an overture of sorts to her Sept. 5 debut as the first sole female anchor on network news -- ended earlier this week with a news conference extravaganza in Pasadena, Calif., where all good tours end.

The television press was there in force despite the fact that it had been shut out of the cross-country Couric caravan. Katie says the news blackout was her idea. That doesn't say much for her grasp of the 1st Amendment, but the fact that the TV newsies chose to forgive and forget says far too much about their notion of professional pride. Oh well.

Ms. Couric says she learned a few things from the "ordinary people" CBS carefully selected to tell her what's what: they want longer news stories, they want the relevance of the news explained in greater detail and, here's a good one, they find the news "too depressing."

In other words, "ordinary people" want an hour-long "Evening News," with fewer commercials, more in-depth reporting and stories that have happy endings.

Good luck. CBS News has a lot of great producers, but not a single miracle-worker.

This reminds me of something that happened years ago in the CBS Saigon (Vietnam) bureau. A few of us were finishing up stories about the latest depressing news when the bureau chief waltzed in with a telex. It was the nightly tirade from the fishbowl, the place in Manhattan where the "Evening News'" senior producers sit in comfortable isolation during the day and which, unfortunately, is never filled with water.

"Gentlemen," announced the bureau chief, "the fishbowl is unhappy. It wants to know why they are not getting any good news about Vietnam."

My memory is that I told him the good news was at Saigon Airport's departure lounge.

But, of course, the fishbowl folk were just kidding. A couple of days later, when President Nixon ordered the invasion of Cambodia, they couldn't get enough bad and depressing news, and we had plenty to give them.

The TV ratings, by the way, went through the roof. Like the fishbowl, "ordinary people" couldn't get enough depressing news.

It has been ever thus. Back in the early 17th century the favorite stories in the news books, the precursors of newspapers, were reports of horrible deaths, mysterious monsters, royal scandals, unspeakable crimes and the bizarre and supernatural. Newspapers really began to come into their own during the English civil war, when half the country tried to kill the other half. Our own Civil War created several media fortunes and the first Desert Storm put CNN on the map.

The problem is not whether the news is happy or sad. The problem is: who watches?

I'd love to know the demographics of those "ordinary people" who participated in Katie's tour. Just how many were between 18 and 30?

Thirteen years of teaching in a university have taught me, semester after semester, that our young people would just as soon ignore what's going on in the world. And don't be fooled into imaging that this is a phase, something they grow out of, because year after year, the network news audience shrinks. And so do geopolitical smarts.

That wonderfully cynical observer, Ambrose Bierce, once wrote that "God gave Americans wars so they would learn geography." Well, we've certainly gotten our fill in the war department, but try asking the average college student where Islamabad is.

That, of course, is where network news comes in. It is not the only answer to ensuring that our young people are well-informed, but it is certainly a big part of the answer.

Personally, I have tried a new approach, in which I also happen to believe. I tell my young people that America is developing a new caste system—the informed and the uninformed, i.e., the savvy and the dumb. I suggest that our brave new world requires that they have very good grasp of what's going at home and abroad if they ever expect to manage their own portfolios, raise their children intelligently, and vote as if their vote were important.

I go on to tell them that they need a daily diet of a network news broadcast and a first rate newspaper. I also remind them that living in the Internet age robs them of any excuse to remain ignorant. And, anyway, they don't have a choice. Not having a good grasp of what's going on in this world is simply not an option.

So, "ordinary people" of America, let me put it this way: the last thing Katie Couric should do is listen to you. But you, on the other hand, should listen to her (or Brian or Charlie).