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The Evening News Report: Coyotes And Bunnies And Pandas, Oh My

(AP/Smithsonian, Ann Batdorf)
Here's a rundown of some of the stories that ran on the "Evening News" this week. See if you can tell what they have in common:

Monday: Love At First Flight For Swan And Boat

Tuesday: Coyote Visits Chicago Sandwich Shop (This was not a package.)

Wednesday: Bunny Boom Bothers California Town (And a coyote update.)

Thursday: The Mating Game, Panda Style

Friday: The National Dog Agility Championships (This one will air tonight.)

Figure it out? I'm guessing you did, but just in case: Every day, the "Evening News" gave us not-terribly-pressing news about (mostly) cute animals. (Sorry, coyote.) These stories all came at or near the end of the show, in the period of time reserved for the soft features that have come to dominate the back end of the nightly newscasts.

As I've said before, I don't think the "Evening News" has a responsibility to stuff its newscast with as much hard news as possible. We can get the news in a lot of places these days, and today's "Evening News" has every reason to experiment.

A willingness to shake free from the traditional nightly newscast formula can be a good thing, in fact – witness last week's cavalcade of cancer stories. The preponderance of animal stories this week, however, seems to fit with Neil Steinberg's argument that we are now seeing "the YouTube-ization of news."

That would be a movement towards news that favors arresting images over traditional stories; Steinberg warns that "we [could] wake up one day and Katie Couric is leading the 'CBS Evening News' with a video of a cat being set on fire."

We're not there yet, of course; the animals this week didn't come until the end of the show, and, thankfully, none were on fire. But the animal stories showcased do seem to have gotten on air at large part because they came with cute, arresting pictures.

Is that such a tragedy? Not necessarily. As CBS News correspondent Thalia Assuras points out, "[p]eople love giant pandas," and the "Evening News" is simply giving them what they want – while also spending the majority of the broadcast on more serious news. Besides, it's not like the notion of showing cute animals on the news is new – a water skiing squirrel, for heaven's sake, made the news more than once back in the '80s and '90s.

I think I'll just leave the last word this week to "South Park," which in 2004 gave us an episode called "Quest for Ratings." Here's a section of the Wikipedia plot summary, slightly edited:

Eric "Rick" Cartman, Jimmy, Butters, Kyle, Token and Stan are taping "Super School News," a newscast airing on South Park Elementary's closed-circuit television system. After their news program premieres, their teacher tells them that they did horribly in the ratings, trailing far behind Craig's home-video show, "Animals Close-Up With a Wide-Angle Lens," which they consider pointless and banal.

The news team then pledges to make a program that will be a ratings booster and gain the attention of all students. They rename the show "Sexy Action School News" and add flashy elements, including random "Panda Madness Minutes" in which the newscasters spontaneously dance with pandas.

Eat your heart out, Howard Beale.