If I was writing this column for a cable news broadcast, I'd lead with a question. "Scare Tactics: Do cable news shows frighten viewers into thinking the nation is full of suspected terrorists, sex offenders, escaped inmates, political radicals, and airplanes with broken landing gear?"
The answer, obviously, is yes. And they're very good at it. Sometimes it's hard to find the real news in between the alerts about all the dangers, real and imagined, that viewers should stay tuned for.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not rejecting cable news. I get "Factor-ed" and enter the "Situation Room" and make "Mad Money" everyday, and I believe it has immense value, especially during periods of rolling breaking news coverage. During the hurricanes this fall, we needed cable news, because the broadcast outlets made the grave mistake of (mostly) sticking with regular programming.
But we don't need "Jamie Skeeters' controversial audio tapes" in the Natalee Holloway case, or "the Netflix of pornography," or "a college student in hot water over sex photo," or "two window washers go on a wild ride on loose scaffold." (Those were four of the segments scheduled for MSNBC's "Rita Cosby: Live & Direct" Thursday night.) So this column is a request to CBS News: As you imagine the next iteration of the evening news, don't turn to cable news for a template. You may want to make the "CBS Evening News" more entertaining or more compelling for younger viewers, but please don't do this at the expense of the news division's storied tradition.
Earlier this week, new CBS News president Sean McManus named Rome Hartman as the next executive producer to steer the "CBS Evening News." In an interview a few hours after the announcement, Hartman told me "we need to strike a balance between hard news and features."
Yes, you do. As you develop the new broadcast and discern what that balance should be, you should study cable news, international newscasts, and creative local news broadcasts. But maybe you should treat them as a newsy edition of "What Not To Wear." Please don't rush to replicate these programs in an attempt to deliver a desirable demographic.
This week, Anderson Cooper anchored his primetime CNN broadcast from New Orleans. Initially, I was elated; I wish Cooper had never returned to New York after Katrina. But for Cooper, the devastation was just a backdrop as he tossed to a variety of time-wasting tales. He teased a dog mauling, then introduced a package about the attack, then turned to Jack Hanna for advice about "what to do if you're the one facing the dogs." Ten minutes later, Cooper tossed to a package about peanut allergies. I wish I was making this up.
So, Mr. Hartman, my request to you and your colleagues is this: Please don't interview Natalee Holloway's mother about every tiny twist and turn in her daughter's case (Dozens of times since June, 10 p.m., FNC).
Please don't cover the murder of a dancer with a "secret double life" (Tuesday, 6 and 9 p.m., MSNBC).
Please don't cover teachers who have sex with their students (Monday, 10 p.m., FNC).
Please don't cover "inmates on the loose" (Monday, 8 p.m., HLN).
Please don't tease a story about a student handcuffed on a school bus (Tuesday, 9 p.m., FNC).
Please don't spend several minutes stressing out about the ACLU's "radicalism" (Monday, 8 p.m., FNC).
Please don't try to scare viewers about "broken borders" (Five nights a week, 6 p.m., CNN).
Please don't cover Nick and Jessica (Monday, 7 p.m., HLN).
Please don't give PETA free public relations for advertisements titled "Your daddy kills animals" (Tuesday, 11 p.m., MSNBC).
Please don't waste an hour chatting with Hugh Hefner and his three live-in girlfriends (Tuesday, 9 p.m., CNN).
Please don't obsess over arrests in a California liquor store robbery (Tuesday, 7 p.m., CNN).
Please don't pretend the arrests are breaking news (Tuesday, 8 p.m., CNN).
And please, please, please don't cover the "War on Christmas" (Virtually every day, FNC).
I'd be remiss if I didn't note some of the good that appears on cable news. Last month, CNN premiered an extraordinary documentary featuring video smuggled out of North Korea. Last week, Fox News correspondent Amy Kellogg filed a series of important pieces from Iran. Every evening, MSNBC anchors Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann shine a bright light on the Iraq war and the CIA leak investigation.
Of course, strong journalism appears on the broadcast side, as well. Two months after Hurricane Katrina, NBC News deployed two teams to travel along the Gulf Coast and file daily dispatches about (lack of) progress in the recovery efforts. On ABC, "World News Tonight" recently organized a month-long smoking cessation effort called "Quit to Live." On CBS, a correspondent spent two weeks traveling across the "fat belt" to explore obesity in this country.
As you develop the new "CBS Evening News," don't adopt the trends of cable news. Develop a broadcast that is comprehensive, consistent, and most importantly, distinct. All the stories I've asked you not to cover tend to blur together on FNC, CNN and MSNBC. Produce a different product – one that could be hard to imagine at this point – and don't scare us into watching.