Howard Kurtz is the Washington Post's media critic and host of CNN's Reliable Sources. Kurtz is also the author of the just published Reality Show: Inside The Last Great Television News War. This is a detailed and often riveting account of the unexpectedly rapid and often dramatic transition from the network anchor era of Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather to the new "big three" of Charlie Gibson, Brian Williams and Katie Couric. From the high point of the first big three to the week just finishing, the networks lost about 30 million viewers, and now welcome a combined audience of less than 25 million each night. Reality Show is a chronicle of decline, long on the details of what happened, not so long on the why. No matter, conservatives already know a lot of the "why," and the elite Beltway-Manhattan media don't care, so the account of the bleeding out of vitality and significance of the nightly news is entertaining without it.
Kurtz was my guest for a rare two-hour interview yesterday. (The transcript is here. The audio for hour one here and hour two here.) Along the way we cover many of the most interesting aspects of his very candid book: Katie Couric's lack of news judgment; the hyper-leftism of The Daily Show; the rapid aging of the network audience to a point where "25 million" vastly overstates the significance of the viewers; the "bubble" that network news lives in and cannot seem to break out of.
There are a lot of pleasant surprises in the book. The portraits that emerge of Brian Williams and Diane Sawyer are two of them. After reading Reality Show, I will start to take in Williams' blog and --on the rare occasions I watch network news, will invite him back into my home. Williams is a smart, hard-working and --this is a compliment-- thoroughly square guy who makes an effort to listen to the sounds originating from beyond Manhattan. His network is run by the most interesting exec in the book --Jeff Zucker-- and small details, like Williams' role as a director of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation and his decency towards Bob Woodward and his family, are the sort of insights that soften the image that the nets can't seem to live without but which is killing them: The anchor on high, surveying his vast realm below.
Sawyer, of course, is the smartest of them all --a not surprising fact given her years of close association as a writer with Richard Nixon on his memoirs and her relentless energy and inquisitiveness. Close Real;ity Show and you know that the first network to put Sawyer in the anchor chair will dominate the next decade of ratings. Sawyer will not fall prey to either the cheap or the deserved shots that Katie Couric has been taking since she took over at CBS. Couric's "perky" was fundamentally miscast. Sawyer's hyper-smart attitude will return some of Jennings' aloofness to whichever network she leads.
Not that it matters all that much. There are many themes in Reality Show, but only one conclusion: The nets can't change their DNA, and that DNA isn't meant for the world of new media. They are slow when the new media is fast. They are hyper-liberal in an era where the center-right can shop for news and the radical left won't accept even the hyper-liberal as other than sell-outs.
Worst of all, they lost their collective news judgment years ago, and still haven't figured out how to get it back. They keep hiring people from inside the junior varsity bubble of the Ivies and J-schools and wonder why they can't break out of their Manhattan-Beltway bubble. They don't seem very curious about life outside of the elite world which they inhabit, and when they travel it is with the comforts of a nawab of the Raj. They have retinues that make star athletes jealous, and salaries that would suggest audiences that rival Cronkite's. In short, they are an aristocracy every bit as unaware of the revolution underway around them as that of France's in 1788.
Did I say "worst of all?" Whoops. The death of news judgment is their greatest failing, but their greatest burden for which they are only partially responsible is their loss of trust. People trusted Walter, Chet and David. They simply do not trust the current gang. Too much memory, too many National Guard fake documents, too much ax grinding. Really, how can Brian Williams expect to escape the brand that is nightly damaged by the ravings of Olbermann and the frenzies of Matthews? Explain all day and all night how past experience doesn't predict future bias, but you'll still have Cuomo aide Tim Russert and Clinton aide George Stephanopoulus making major "news" decisions which red state America is supposed to believe are not in any way influenced by their politics.
Fox News' Special Report is the newscast for serious center-right viewers now, and though it is only at 1.5 million viewers a night --a third of Couric's audience-- it is the right 1.5 million, and it will continue to grow. Wolf Blitzer has a daily three hour run which also attracts the serious news consumer (and would attract more if they dumped the peptic and predictable Cafferty.) Bennett, Laura, Rush, the two Denni, Medved, Hannity, and yours truly do the news for 15 hours a day, in the car, where you have the time to hear it.
Do you care about the news? I spent two hours talking about it with Howard Kurtz yesterday, super-serving the news junkie. Who knows what Katie Couric covered? Who cares?
Read the book. Read the interview. I suspect it is the last book of its kind as everyone will know that nobody cares in another ten years. In the meantime, watching the dinosaurs thrash about in the swamp can be interesting even if more than a little sad.