Bombs away on television news

ORVILLE SCHELL is the dean of UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism.

I want to Bomb the whole building,” CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves reportedly told his colleagues, as if his network’s once legendary news-gathering operation had become an enemy outpost within the larger Viacom conglomerate.

According to a profile in the New York Times Magazine, Moonves believes it’s time to “break the mold in news” and reinvent the network.

“We don’t have a choice,” he said. Why is change so essential? It seems that “American audiences don’t like dark,” Moonves said. “They like strength, not weakness, a chance to work out any dilemma. This country is built on optimism.”

His solution, according to the Times profile, is to make his news programs more like his entertainment shows, with “better stories told by attractive personalities in exciting ways.”

Moonves only half-facetiously declares that he is looking for something between “The Naked News,” a British show (“It’s a woman giving the news,” he said, “as she’s getting undressed”), and “two boring people behind a desk.”


When this nation’s founding fathers set out on their experiment in democratic governance, one of their most revolutionary ideas was that political power would be moderated not only by checks and balances built into the government, but by a free and independent press that would provide knowledge to the public and warn of pending dangers.

As James Madison bluntly observed, “A popular government without popular information, or the means of securing it, is but a prelude to a farce or tragedy, perhaps both.”

It is increasingly difficult to discern the vision of Madison in broadcast news today, even though most of it comes over airwaves owned by the public and licensed to commercial outlets for a few hundred dollars a year.

And now, Moonves, one of the most powerful figures in American media, says that, because of poor ratings (7 million daily viewers) and aging demographics, his network needs to go even further and “break the mold in news.”

But if avoiding “dark” becomes the criterion for broadcast, how will Americans learn about such stories as New Orleans and Iraq, never mind Sierra Leone, Kosovo, the melting polar ice cap or the dying oceans? If only perky, upbeat stories and shows make it onto the air, who will inform the public and play the watchdog role?

Most correspondents, editors and producers at CBS (and elsewhere in the industry) want to do serious journalism. But as the media get increasingly ratings-driven and profit-hungry, fewer and fewer news division executives support them in this effort. The result is that too many excellent broadcast journalists now feel discouraged, debased and disgusted.

Moonves, a businessman rather than a journalist, lives on one side of an ever-widening contradiction between journalism as a profession and as a commercial venture.

His responsibility is not to the public interest but to maximize CBS’ bottom line for Viacom’s Wall Street investors, who expect television to earn between a 40% to 50% return on capital. (Newspaper chains are expected to make only 20% to 30%.) These rates of return impress someone on the journalistic side of the divide as excessive, especially for businesses exploiting airwaves that belong not to them but to their viewers.

So the Moonves’ vision leaves us with a dilemma: How will the public -- which still gets most of its news and information from broadcast -- learn what it needs to know?

The reality is that it is increasingly less realistic to expect commercial broadcast outlets to effectively serve two masters: the public interest and corporate bottom line.

Moonves may not like the tragedy and darkness of so much of the world because viewers change channels and CBS loses money. But the country still needs to be informed, and this can only happen -- the rapidly evolving Internet notwithstanding -- via mass communication.

Moonves has said what few others in such a position would publicly say.

And his comments remind us that a national conversation about how to protect, or even create, broadcast outlets consecrated to informing rather than merely maximizing return on investment is long overdue.

If his painful frankness could help catalyze such a discussion, Moonves might end up accomplishing far more even than returning CBS News to its glory days.