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Listen up (continued)

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National Public Radio

You don’t need a radio to listen to NPR. The network’s Web site includes streaming audio, archives, an RSS feed, and oodles of extra goodies.


An afterthought that is no substitute for the television program. Best feature: chance to sign up for Nightline’s daily e-mail.

Online NewsHour

Network television’s most comprehensive newscast is PBS’s stolid NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. The program also has the best Web site of any TV newscast — and you don’t have to be sitting in front of the tube at 6 p.m. to check it out.

The State of the News Media 2005

This annual report by the Project on Excellence in Journalism analyzes trends in how Americans get their news.

IT IS MORE than a little strange that, for serious news, radio would be ascending and television would be in decline. Televised images can be incredibly compelling. Think of September 11, the opening days of the war in Iraq, the tsunami, or the funeral of Pope John Paul II. Television isn’t particularly good at context, at telling you what those images mean. But we are visual creatures, and it seems a little weird that we are increasingly turning to radio, the medium by which Edward R. Murrow informed our parents and our grandparents about the bombing of London during World War II.

Which is why, more than anyone, Ted Koppel will be missed. Since the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-’80, which gave birth to Nightline (originally called America Held Hostage), Koppel has been bringing us the great stories of our time. He’ll be gone by the end of the year. He may end up at PBS; he may end up at NPR, which would be particularly fitting. From eviscerating Michael Dukakis during the 1988 presidential campaign ("You just don’t get it") to becoming an embedded journalist in Iraq, Koppel has brought a ferocious intelligence to whatever he does. Among other things, if Koppel switched to NPR, he would be united with Daniel Schorr, one of the great figures from CBS’s glory days.

We all have our most memorable Koppel moments. For me, that moment came in July 1997, when Nightline broadcast a special report on the former Cambodian dictator Pol Pot, widely regarded as the mastermind behind the genocide made famous in the movie The Killing Fields. The story of Pol Pot’s "trial" — it was never clear whether it was legitimate or a show by his followers to impress the West — was broken by a journalist named Nate Thayer. But it was Koppel who brought it to a wider audience, and made you understand its importance. To see Pol Pot — one of the worst dictators of the 20th century, on a par with Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, as Koppel observed at the time — being tried for his crimes was truly amazing.

Yet, by 1997, the fracturing of the unified media culture that had once existed was already well under way. The trial of Pol Pot, whether real or not, should have been as momentous, as riveting, as the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Instead, it barely cut through the cultural noise, and within a few days it was washed over by whatever the media became obsessed with next. Nightline’s ratings have been eroding for years, and Koppel was nearly bumped a few years ago when ABC made a run at David Letterman. ABC claims that Koppel’s time slot will remain dedicated to news after he leaves. But that promise is not likely to be kept.

How much has the network-news world changed? Michael Socolow, of Brandeis, observes that in 1972, Daniel Schorr delivered a report on Watergate for the CBS Evening News that had the Nixon administration "apoplectic." Yet the trial of Pol Pot played out not on World News Tonight, but on Nightline — a more prestigious show watched by a more elite audience. Similarly, Dan Rather and producer Mary Mapes delivered their flawed report about President Bush’s National Guard service not on the CBS Evening News but on 60 Minutes Wednesday, which, even though its audience is of roughly the same size (approximately eight million viewers), has more viewers who are demographically desirable to advertisers and which enjoys the benefit of more promotional buzz. "The people who watch TV from 8 to 11 p.m. are not the Geritol and Depends users," says Socolow.

What will the networks do? Rather himself has talked about a promising model: instead of a half-hour at 6:30 p.m., why not try a one- or two-hour mixture of news and features during prime time? Or perhaps one of the three major networks will drop news altogether on the theory that cable and the Internet have made the 6:30 ritual obsolete.

Robert Thompson, of Syracuse, likes to point out that the post-network era has actually been with us for a long time. Rather, Jennings, and Brokaw never commanded the kind of monolithic audience that Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, and David Brinkley did a generation earlier. (Huntley and Brinkley worked together at NBC; ABC was not a factor in those days.) "I keep hearing this cliché ‘the end of an era,’ but the end of an era happened a long time ago," Thompson says. CNN came along in the early ’80s; the Internet, Fox, and MSNBC splintered the news audience still further in the ’90s. Then, too, the network newscasts rose to prominence at a time when there were not only fewer choices, but there was also a broadly liberal cultural consensus. By the late 1960s, that consensus had begun to unravel. But one of the reasons the newscasts were practically a national sacrament was that the charges of ideological bias so prevalent today were almost unheard-of back then.

As an institution, the evening newscasts haven’t been around all that long — since the early 1960s, really, when the networks expanded their newscasts from 15 to 30 minutes. If they ceased to exist in their current form, well, what of it? Each era gets the news medium it wants. NPR may well be the medium of choice for an era that needs its news to be portable, multitask-friendly, and easy to integrate into a work-intensive culture.

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]phx.com. Read his Media Log at BostonPhoenix.com.

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Issue Date: April 15 - 21, 2005
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