Katie Couric boasts in her recent promos that "great reporters make a great broadcast, and we've got 'em at CBS News."
She's right, "CBS Evening News" does have great reporters. It just doesn't have enough of them, and they don't go to enough places.
The CBS reporting crew does a consistently good job of summarizing stories within the daily time crunch of a half-hour broadcast. I wish I could write as crisply and clearly as they do. But watching the broadcasts closely over the past few weeks, I've noticed a paucity of enterprise reporting that goes beyond the headlines.
There are exceptions, of course. For instance, I've enjoyed Jerry Bowen's reports from Alaska, particularly his story this Tuesday on the impact of global warming on a coastal town. And Anthony Mason's story last Thursday about people investing in water was intriguing.
But these enterprise stories arrive at best once per broadcast. This lack of emphasis on, and resources for, enterprise reporting is especially true for stories beyond U.S. borders. The network newscasts have been giving us the impression lately that the world has only two-and-a-half continents. They tell us plenty about North America, of course, and a bit about Europe, and a lot lately about the Middle East.
But Africa? I wouldn't have known it existed after watching the "Evening News" the last two weeks. South America? Nada. (We do get to hear occasionally about the Caribbean, however, courtesy of Fidel Castro.) And Asia, besides the Middle East, only got mentioned in connection with the terrorist plane bombing plot in Britain. I didn't see anything about Afghanistan despite the fact that U.S. troops are stuck there fighting a growing insurgency, and nothing about China or India even though they are the world's most populous countries and preparing to eat our economic lunch.
I'm picking unfairly on CBS here because my Public Eye assignment made me pay special attention to the former home of Murrow and Cronkite. But from what I've seen, ABC and NBC aren't doing any better at recognizing that there's a big world out there that we need to understand if we're going to survive. Lara Logan of CBS did go to Sudan in June for some excellent reporting on the Darfur crisis. NBC's Brian Williams deserves applause for going to Africa in May, but I doubt he would have traveled there if the rock star Bono hadn't accompanied him.
But these instances of enterprise reporting on foreign soil are too few and far between. No wonder viewers, particularly the young, are migrating away from network newscasts. Most of the stories appearing on the news are covered incessantly during the day on the Internet and then rehashed more thoroughly in the morning newspapers (yes, I'm one of the dozen or so traditionalists who still likes to read the news on paper.)
So I need a good reason if I'm going to watch the "Evening News" while cooking dinner and trying to dampen my kids' late-afternoon meltdowns. I need some stories that are going to surprise and delight me and show me places I know nothing about.
I'm hoping the "Evening News" can take me to India so I can understand how their economy is challenging ours. Or take me to Bolivia or Brazil so I can learn why South America is turning so sharply to the left. Or take me to Africa so I can see how more countries are struggling to create democracy and end brutal wars. How about a little less JonBenet and a little more Darfur?
After a summer full of shark-bite stories in 2001, we all learned during Sept. 11 the perils of ignoring the rest of the world. I heard many vows after the terrorist attacks that the news industry would pay renewed attention to other continents.
Nearly five years later, I don't see the networks doing a better job helping us understand what's going on in the lives of people who aren't Americans. And don't tell me viewers don't care about news outside our borders. The Poynter Institute reports that an ongoing study shows that, in these serious times, viewers are much more interested in world news than news directors might imagine. The research conducted by Ball State's Robert Papper found that international and national news rank nearly as high as the top choice – the weather – among people's interests and well ahead of entertainment news.
Stories from around the world will attract viewers if they are excellent. And the coverage will only be excellent if the networks start sinking some resources into enterprise reporting that pushes beyond the day's events.
I'd love to see more stories like Steve Hartman's "Assignment America" that show us interesting people doing fascinating things. How exciting it would be if Hartman and other reporters got to do similarly delightful stories outside of the United States?
My family and I have been huge fans of Couric ever since she guest starred on our favorite "Sesame Street" video. She's got the smarts and personality to do a bang-up job when she climbs into the anchor chair on Sept. 5. But I sure hope the CBS corporate bosses give her newscast the reporting resources that she and her viewers deserve.
"I believe people really want perspective," Couric observes in one of her promos. "They want us to go a little deeper." I agree. If the "CBS Evening News" and the other network newscasts can indeed go deeper with more enterprise reporting from around the world, then they just might win back some viewers.