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Outside Voices: Geneva Overholser Suggests Network News Break Some More Of The Rules

(Geneva Overholser)
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 Geneva Overholser, a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism's Washington bureau and former ombudsman at The Washington Post and a former newspaper reporter, editor, and columnist. Here, Geneva suggests that network news consider breaking even more of the barriers of tradition that currently exist in the industry. 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 Geneva:

CBS News launches a new format Sept. 5, and veteran media observers are mostly urging caution. I say throw it to the winds. Not substance, not journalistic principle -- throw caution to the winds. Let me tell you why.

We speak of network news in downright reverential terms: It's the gold standard. Iconic. The seat held by Walter Cronkite. Clearly not to be tampered with. I'm a traditional journalist with 35 years in the biz, but isn't this a little stale? The average age of people who view broadcast news today hovers just above mine, and I'm 58. The audience is half of what it was in 1980. This is not the profile of an industry that shouldn't be tampered with.

In the glory years of mainstream media, we journalists got very comfortable. We developed lots of traditions. We settled into some well-worn grooves. One cherished tradition was that we were the unquestioned experts. Like doctors, we knew our field and how to practice it, and it was too complex for you, the consumer, to understand. You should simply take it in and trust us.

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That doesn't fly today. People don't trust us. They don't want their media to be unassailable monoliths. They don't want to be lectured to. They want to see that their voices, and voices like theirs, are heard. They want to see things explained -- and to see the media hold themselves accountable.

Think how quaintly humorous today are some of the old saws of the journalism world. "Never argue with those who buy ink by the barrel." Or, "Who's watching the watchdog?" It sometimes seems everybody is arguing with the media, and assigning himself as its watchdog. Everybody, that is, who still cares. Most folks in the media are by now well into the realization that they must be very glad that so many do still care, given the rapid decline in traditional news consumption. Accordingly, we are hearing a great deal about citizen media – regular people contributing to the gathering and shaping of the news. And we are hearing about transparency and accountability on the part of media. All of these, really, are breakdowns in tradition – and welcome breakdowns they are.

This kind of tradition-busting thinking seems to have come through powerfully in Katie Couric's six-city listening tour this summer. From what we've heard, we'll be seeing some of it translated into innovations on the new newscast. We'll be seeing a regular soapbox segment, for example, in which people – some of them not famous – will be able to give their views. And (thank goodness) it will not be in cable's traditional shout-fest style.

We'll also (reportedly) be seeing some stories about things that aren't miserable, awful and failing to work. After all, the positive too is part of life, although not accorded status by traditional news judgment -- unless it is so positive as to smell fishy and therefore demand investigation. Since repetitive doses of unrelieved gloom tend to drive people away, a jettisoning of this particular tradition could be especially helpful to the future of news.

Thinking about these innovations sparks my appetite for the new newscast. They speak of an openness to change that makes me hopeful. So, for that matter, does CBS's provision of this little soapbox I'm occupying right here. The launching of Public Eye last year was a pioneering (particularly for network news) acknowledgment of the need to bust journalism's proud no-transparency, no-accountability tradition. Similarly welcome is the announcement, as I write, that CBS will be the first network to simulcast its evening news broadcast on the Net.

Of course, we have not spoken yet of the most sacred tradition of all in evening news: The Anchor. White. Male. Of a certain age. Dignified (or self-important, depending on your taste.) That this tradition has held this long in a land of opportunity so rich with every human hue – not to mention a healthy supply of womanhood – is ridiculous. Now as it falls, at last, the inevitable paroxysms of change are upon us with a vengeance: Can we have an anchor with sexy legs? What should she wear? Will she look pompous – ooops -- dignified enough?

I don't really mind this fuss (but then of course I'm not Couric.) Yes, it's silly and sexist (I am delighted to see a bit of equal-opportunity silliness creeping in with the questioning of Charlie Gibson's apparel), but it can also be useful. It can attract more viewers to a show where they will learn about war in Lebanon and melting icecaps and why gasoline costs what it does and how the federal budget comes together. Whether Couric is wearing a black suit or a pink one, goes by Katie or Katherine, or hides or reveals her stilettos -- that is a very good thing.

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