Network Lions and Cable Jackals Find Essence of TV News Is News

Early on the evening of Monday, Sept. 17, during a taping of The Late Show with David Letterman in the frigid Ed Sullivan Theater, an overcome Dan Rather gripped Mr. Letterman’s hand at his desk and wept openly as he recalled the events in New York City since the morning of Sept. 11.

The moment was startling, unsettling: Mr. Rather, the cocky, broad-shouldered, temperamental Texan–the Cronkite heir who locked horns with Nixon in Houston, infuriated George H.W. Bush and marched into Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq–reduced to emotional rubble after one of the most tragic news days in American history.

But in his very public breakdown, the swaggering CBS News anchor didn’t simply show he was a “human being,” as Mr. Letterman put it. Mr. Rather also made clear what had been increasingly apparent in the days after hijacked jetliners had torn into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon: The television news business–so recently a fading, marginal sideshow of personalities, cheese and manufactured hype–had been suddenly, gravely transformed. Mr. Rather–as well as his counterparts on the other broadcast and cable networks–had renewed weight, gravitas. At least for now.

“What we have observed over the last [week] has totally changed the way we think about the role of news and, in many ways, the future of how news is going to operate,” said Robert J. Thompson, the director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.

Just think about it. Doesn’t it feel like a million years ago that the networks–struggling for relevancy and market share in a multi-channel, news-ambivalent world–were hounding after delicious bit players like Gary Condit, Lizzie Grubman and rogue shark fins off the coast of Florida? Remember how Fox News freaked out about Paula Zahn’s maneuver to CNN to start a morning show ? Perfectly sane news executives were talking about the need for “personalities” and “edginess” (make no mistake, that’s code for “shows where people yell a lot”), to save beleaguered news operations. There were loud whispers about cutbacks, mergers and consolidations. What broadcast network, people asked openly, would be the first to sack its evening news?

And that was a week and a half ago.

But because of Sept. 11, TV news’ once self-absorbed universe has been dramatically altered. Ms. Zahn isn’t frying omelettes and pitching softballs to Jennifer Love Hewitt; she’s standing on a rooftop near Penn Station in front of an ominous, still-billowing cloud of smoke. Mr. Rather, thought to be a stubborn relic of newsmen long gone, finds himself a vital player in the story of everyone’s lives. Recent superstars like Bill O’Reilly–once considered the ultimate 21st-century newsman–look like role players, sixth men. Mr. O’Reilly may again get his day, but in many newsrooms, the story that began at 8:48 a.m. on Sept. 11 triggered a 180-degree shift in planning and priorities.

“What we have been struggling with up until this point is how to remain as vital as we can be when there aren’t giant events that cause the audience to come look for us,” said David Doss, the executive producer of ABC’s PrimeTime Thursday and the former producer of the NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw.

With this story, Mr. Doss notes, that is not a problem. The current terrorism crisis in the United States is serious and wide-ranging issue–important to all. And to news staffers and viewers numbed by Chandra and O.J. and Princess Diana, it was a grave reminder of the broader obligations of network news outfits.

“I certainly think that news executives and people in the United States and around the world have a new appreciation for the world, and they will be following it much more closely than they have in recent times,” said Eason Jordan, the chief news executive and news-gathering president at CNN News Group.

Of course, prior to Sept. 11, CNN, too, was trying to aerobicize itself into a sexier, personality-driven ship, importing players like Ms. Zahn and flirting with ideas like celebrity documentaries and late-night comedy. CNN’s turnabout was so conspicuous that it rankled Fox News, which had found enormous success with its “one-stop shopping” blend of news, analysis and identity politics. Fox News jefe Roger Ailes, in fact, was seen as a prescient genius for assembling a scrappy, sharp-edged (and relatively inexpensive) lineup of reporters and pundits that could deliver ratings even during the flattest news cycles.

Amid the current clamor, however, it’s tempting to think of Fox News as Bridget Jones at the canceled Tarts & Vicars party, dressed in a Playboy Bunny costume while everyone’s looking serious in suits and spring dresses. But Fox News officials insist they are well-positioned. Not only do they think they have the people to cover the story on the ground both here and abroad, they also feel that the complexities created by the threat of terrorism call for the type of interpretation and discussion offered by its prime-time showcase, headlined by Mr. O’Reilly.

“I think at first our audience and all the television news were like moths to the flame–we were addicted to the video of the horrific event,” said John Stack, Fox News’ vice president for news gathering. By Sunday, Sept. 16, however, Mr. Stack felt that the pendulum had begun to swing away from on-site reportage to analysis, evidenced by the interest in Sunday-morning news programs. “I think we had reached a point which I think happens in every story: O.K., let’s speak and cross-examine the experts,” he said. “Let’s get opinions, let’s get interpretation. There is a time and a place for everything, but I think more and more people are able to get that from cable and the 24-hour component.”

CNN’s Eason Jordan also believes that there is room for analytic, chat-driven shows, especially if the breaking news begins to curtail. “We think personalities are important,” Mr. Jordan said. “And we also think that being where the action is is important.”

Still, almost everyone agrees that the news landscape was significantly altered in one terrifying day. “Last Tuesday changed everything everywhere,” said MSNBC spokesman Mark O’Connor. “Looking back, we lived in a very peaceful time back then.”

What everyone agrees upon is that this unfolding story will be an extraordinary test. For Fox, it will be a test of its capacity as a news-delivery operation, especially abroad. (MSNBC will be relying on NBC News for the vast majority of its international coverage, said a spokesperson for the cable network.) Conversely, CNN will be looking to reassert its past dominance in international news in the wake of numerous programming and personnel changes and cutbacks after the AOL-Time Warner merger.

For the broadcast networks, the upheaval wrought by terrorism is not only a great story, but also a significant, badly needed opportunity to attract eyeballs. As a whole, network news viewership has declined precipitously over the past decade; faced with smaller audiences and shrinking revenues, network news divisions have increasingly turned to titillating or flat, service-oriented stories to cling to their remaining viewers. It’s an open secret that most network news-magazine programs are junk, aiming low, programmed as if run by focus groups in Las Vegas. As for the evening network news itself, it had begun to feel about as relevant as Blind Date and reruns of Seinfeld .

Now, of course, those same operations will be the primary vessel for the public’s seeing and understanding of this unprecedented story. And network news players–who have felt a little kicked around in the past few years–are feeling confident once more.

“I was never in doubt about the future of news or needed to be convinced it had an important role in society,” said CBS News president Andrew Heyward, who acknowledged: “I guess that might sound self-serving because I’m a network news president.”

But, said Mr. Heyward, “this story, with all of its tragic dimensions, does illustrate the important role that network journalism still plays in the lives of Americans in times of crisis, and there is nothing like the networks for knitting the country together.”

In this heightened, uncertain climate, Mr. Heyward and his competitors feel confident that they will have ample backing from their corporate chieftains. Mr. Heyward said that in the wake of the Sept. 11 crisis, he has received “nothing but support” from bosses like CBS president Leslie Moonves, as well as parent Viacom. Mr. Doss noted that on Sept. 18, Disney president and chief operating officer Robert Iger and ABC Television Networks president Alex Wallau, among others, had visited the ABC News crew to offer congratulations on the previous week’s work.

Will that translate into added corporate expenditure on network news? Short term, probably, as networks will have to beef up for the wartime haul, if there is one. Long term? Uncertain. No matter what the circumstances, it’s unlikely that network news outfits will return to the good old days, when they could proudly burn through cash in the spirit of civic duty. And most people who watched big-media stock plunge on Monday, Sept. 17, will attest that corporate parents are unlikely to start splurging on their news properties.

But pressed to cover this remarkable story, networks will try to do more with less. The good news is that they are already experienced at this, said Mr. Doss.

“All the network news divisions have spent the past couple of years trying to redefine their mission and how they achieve their mission in the world of rapidly decreasing budgets–that has been a giant, giant part of our thinking,” Mr. Doss said. “How do you do good journalism and how do you do it on a smaller budget? That has been a preoccupation among managers at all the networks for a couple of years, and now, all of a sudden, we are looking at, do we have what we need to respond to this?”

In terms of immediate plans, every network will dispatch correspondents overseas to supplement those already in hot spots like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. Most plan to do scattered hiring, particularly of local crews and guides, since the logistical issues are immense in such treacherous and uncharted territories. “In Pakistan, the whole world is attempting visa applications [to get] into Afghanistan,” said Mr. Stack of Fox News.

Under these circumstances, safety of personnel is also a major concern. Many network reps declined to discuss exact locations for correspondents, citing security precautions.

Once correspondents arrive in their overseas locations, however, it is unclear how central or peripheral they will be to the story. While the Gulf War provided something of a template for network preparation, Mr. Heyward said there is unlikely to be such a lengthy and targeted buildup before this kind of conflict. “Here, we don’t know exactly what is going to happen,” he acknowledged. No one thinks it will be quick and dirty, either. “We are fully preparing our staff for a long, protracted exercise,” said Mr. Stack.

As with the Gulf War, however, it is probable that this conflict will prove to be more of an a boon to the cable networks, which can offer round-the-clock coverage. And yet, it is likely to be an unforgettable time for all television news personnel, who woke up Sept. 11 as members of a dying, troubled business, but went to bed on the front lines of a brewing war.

“This will rivet the nation’s attention and the attention of the networks for the foreseeable future, and that’s a good thing for both,” said Mr. Heyward. “Nobody would wish a tragedy like this on anybody, but it’s good in that it’s a benefit to the nation to be seeing important stories of vital national interest on the networks. And it’s good that the networks will be focusing on what they should be doing.”

Sreenath Sreenivasan, an associate professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, said that Sept. 11 was also a fateful day for a number of the school’s young reporters. And while some students left the downtown chaos energized and inspired, he said, it also provoked a surprising number of career doubts.

“School has just started,” Mr. Sreenivasan said. “Our kids haven’t covered a cat up a tree, let alone a fire, and they have been thrown right into the biggest story in the world. So we are offering counseling. We also have students who are saying, ‘Well, I don’t want to be a journalist anymore.'”

Mr. Sreenivasan continued: “We have a lot of people questioning their careers, saying, ‘Is this what I want to do?’ … We had this town-hall kind of meeting and the students are saying, ‘Everybody else is up there picking bodies up and saving lives, and I am there asking, “What is your age? What do you feel?”‘

“Some of them, all they did was sit on their asses and watch TV for two straight days. They couldn’t deal with it. I had adult journalists–professionals–doing the same thing. They just couldn’t react. Didn’t know what to do, in the biggest story ever.”

NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell was attending a Rosh Hashanah service at Beth-El Synagogue Center in New Rochelle on Sept. 18 when Rabbi Melvin Sirner asked her to say a few words. The network’s chief foreign-affairs correspondent, who worships in the same Conservative synagogue in which her father was once an active leader, had been given an aliyah , the honor of opening the ark. Rabbi Sirner stopped her before she returned to her seat and asked her to comment on the terrorist attacks.

Ms. Mitchell used the opportunity to celebrate the “outpouring of humanity” since the attacks–and to make clear to the congregation that Osama bin Laden, the chief suspect, did not represent either Muslims or the Muslim faith. According to one worshipper, Ms. Mitchell pointed out that it is “inconceivable” the amount of evil Mr. bin Laden represents–and told the congregation it shouldn’t be misunderstood that this is Islam.

Citing her visits to Afghanistan years ago, she pointed out the use and abuse of women by the Taliban forces. And she urged Americans to have hope.

Her talk was brief but “eloquent,” according to a fellow worshipper. Ms. Mitchell’s husband, Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, was not with her.

-Mary Ann Giordano