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Outside Voices: Susan Tifft's Wish List For The 'Evening News'

(Susan Tifft)
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 Susan Tifft, a professor at Duke University's Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy, a veteran journalist and author of several books. In advance of Katie Couric's first day on the broadcast next Tuesday, Susan lays out a few of her suggestions for the "Evening News." 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 Susan:

The run-up to Labor Day is typically a slow period in the news business and this week proved to be no exception. CBS News, along with the other networks, focused heavily on the weather (Tropical Storm Ernesto and the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina), accidents (Comair flight 5191), and crime (the collapse of murder charges against John Mark Karr and the arrest of fugitive polygamist Warren Steed Jeffs).

So instead of looking back over the week's coverage, which would inevitably mean adding one more voice to the chorus decrying the media circus surrounding the JonBenet Ramsey case (an exercise in excess in which CBS News was largely complicit), let's shoot forward to the fall, that traditional back-to-school moment of new shoes, sharpened pencils, and fresh starts.

And what a fresh start CBS has: a boffo new anchor in Katie Couric (who's snagged an interview with President Bush for her first broadcast), a revamped format for the "Evening News," a simulcast on the Web site, and high expectations for a ratings spike. I'm looking forward to watching it unfold. But not before stuffing a few last-minute thoughts into the suggestion box. Here's my personal wish-list for changes in the CBS "Evening News":

  • Tell it like a woman. Tina Brown, the former editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, once told an assembly of newspaper publishers that they could boost readership if they designed news not for men but for women. After the (mostly male) audience rolled their eyes, she went on. "Men want to know what happened," she said. "Women want to know what really happened." Not gossip, not dishing dirt, just the "who did what to whom" and––most important--why that makes for illuminating story-telling.

    Too often, television news has the look and feel of a headline service with pictures. There is a lot of talk about providing greater depth and context, but to anyone who has read a decent newspaper earlier in the day, that's often not apparent. When Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld this week compared critics of the Iraq war to those who favored appeasing Hitler, the CBS "Evening News" let his incendiary statement stand without explaining––as did many newspapers––that the speech was the first volley in an aggressive White House mid-term election strategy. It wasn't until Thursday, on "The Early Show," nearly two days after Rumsfeld's remarks, that correspondent Bill Plante offered analysis and perspective.

    A recent Pew Center for the People & the Press survey found that a significant percentage of Americans (38%) don't keep up with the news simply because they lack the background with which to interpret it. Help them out. Viewers need the "why" as well as the "what."

  • Look away from the ball. My former Time magazine colleague Roger Rosenblatt includes this on his list of rules for journalism students––and I shamelessly crib it for my own classes at Duke.

    It's easy to tell what's hot on any given news day. Just flip from network to network and you'll frequently see the same lineup of stories––sometimes for journalistically sound reasons. But too often it's just because that's where the noise is. What about big-picture stories that happen gradually, outside the 24-hour news cycle? Stories such as the widening gap between rich and poor, the roots of modern American fundamentalism, or the profound social, economic, political and institutional implications of the longevity revolution? Scotty Reston, the legendary New York Times editor and Washington bureau chief, once said that the most important story of all is change itself. And he was right.

  • Throw away the conventional playbook for the mid-terms. If the media can catapult a nobody like John Mark Karr from well-deserved obscurity to a man so notorious that his name generates 14.2 million references on Google, surely they can find a way to drum up interest for what promises to be the most important mid-term election since 1994.

    Mid-terms pose a special challenge for national television. Many of the candidates and causes aren't household names, so the natural instinct will be to showcase a few high-profile races, like Lieberman-Lamont, revert to tried-and-true horse race coverage, and perhaps throw in some trend stories on the impact of Iraq and Bush's popularity.

    This year, consider breaking with the formula. The elections will be a Rorschach test on far more than the war in Iraq. Economic indicators are rosy but workers are blue; Bush's stem cell veto cracked open the usually solid social values crowd; and voters -- for the first time in large numbers -- are looking at energy and the environment through both a practical and a moral lens. There's deep pessimism in the country. Barely a third of adults in a recent survey said they expect the future to be better for their kids.

    Take us behind these strains early on. Don't wait until the last few weeks before Election Day, when the temptation will be to do who's up and who's down stories. And while you're at it, give viewers a peek at how the sausage is made. Who dreamed up terms like "Islamic fascism," for instance, which wasn't in our vocabulary six months ago? Can citizens be confident their votes will be counted this year––or that they'll be able to vote at all––after the irregularities of 2000 and 2004? Who's giving money to whom, and with the expectation of what favors? And where is most of that campaign stash going? Oh ... yes ... it's buying television advertising.

    Well, you said you wanted transparency!

    Enjoy your Labor Day weekend. I'll be tuning in on Tuesday.

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