Here’s the big prediction for the year 2005:
CNN’s paleo-yuppie pundit guy, Tucker Carlson, will jump to MSNBC.
Granted, that’s not a prediction at all! It’s probably already true. On Monday, Dec. 20, the Web was jacked up with the rumor that the right-leaning Crossfire-breather was set to teach MSNBC how to tie one of those bow ties and replace Deborah Norville at 9 p.m.
Reached for comment, Mr. Carlson was already deferring to his future bosses for protocol on dealing with press calls. “For the record,” he said, “I left a message and e-mail for them to tell me what to say, and they did not call back. So I did my due diligence.”
Sounds like Pedro Martinez time for Tucker.
Beyond that, he was keeping what those in the TV business like to call a “low profile,” which means telegraphing sensitive, self-serving gossip to blogs like TV Newser through third-party operatives and anonymous friends in hopes of drumming up interest. That said, those operatives and anonymous friends said the deal would be signed in January, unless CNN’s new president, Jonathan Klein, could find an 11 o’clock time slot for Mr. Carlson-his dream job, head to head with his sparring partner, Jon Stewart of The Daily Show, on Comedy Central.
As it happens, Mr. Carlson will be filling in for NewsNight’s Aaron Brown next week, the current occupant of that cable time slot.
What a year! Last spring, Ms. Norville was just getting her legs at MSNBC, gushing about how excited she was to return to Rockefeller Center after her ill-fated gig as a Today Show hostess in the late 1980’s. “My bathroom key from 1987 still works!” she said.
So, we’re going on to some other very fearless guesses about 2005. The prediction business can be very dicey. Earlier this year, a psychic detective used by Court TV told this newspaper that John Kerry was going to win. He may have, but not on our cable system. By the way, Mr. Carlson made that same prediction. On cable, the future is always an opinion.
And so it was in 2004: Bill Moyers, the last righteous man standing on American television, signed off at PBS, while right-wing cyber-gossip Matt Drudge remained America’s No. 1 news editor, with Fox News his reliable TV outlet.
In October, NYTV sat in the Fox News control room during the second Presidential debate and watched modern cable news-making in action. “Can we talk about it on the air?” asked managing editor Brit Hume over the intercom, referring to a report he’d just seen. “It’s on Drudge. It’s all over Drudge.”
From Mr. Drudge’s keyboard to the Fox control room to the United States to the world ….
But not so fast.
Here’s our actual prediction for the year 2005: the return of non-ideological news.
It may not be a prediction, actually. It may be a kind of wish: not just the return of network news, or the decline of Fox News, but a market demand for a newscast the entire viewing public can trust. That’s right: facts to feed a fucked nation. People left and right, from 1 to 114, will not only finally tire of partisan scrap-and-yap, the beef jerky of newsoid, but go looking for starchy, well-scrubbed, buttoned-down broadcasts. As a result, the decade-long decline in network news viewership will begin to ebb.
We’re not saying any of this will happen for noble reasons, but the market wins all, and it’s our belief that the right wing/left wing news battle has run its course. Right-wing media was invented as a foil to a supposed left-wing bias in New York newsrooms. Fine. Now the mainstream media has been emasculated by the Web and cable TV, Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw are gone, Brian Williams is hanging out down at the NASCAR track, and the networks have had to position themselves as good ol’ boys in pinstripe suits. The networks have positioned themselves culturally as far right as they know how to go.
The sheer success of the Drudge-Fox nexus will reach a tipping point in 2005, one in which straight news-the kind delivered by professionally stodgy newscasters who continue anchoring as though Bill O’Reilly doesn’t really exist-will start to look novel again, even necessary. It won’t happen with a catastrophic event, or a series of them-in Iraq or Syria or Chicago-spurring an ancient pre-cable memory to whisper to the guy on the couch, ‘You know, as much as we love O’Reilly, let’s get serious for just a second and turn to NBC.” Fox can report on that as well as anybody.
But we predict it will happen for just the opposite reason. As people find themselves strung out on their own Pavlovian addictions to strident, pre-heated data, they’ll simply begin to feel … guilty, nutty, disoriented. After all, the 24/7 Web-and-cable-news cycle feeds off the forward momentum of events. And now we have all the ingredients for a slog ahead. President George W. Bush is in office-check. There’s a very long, unending, repetitive war in Iraq-check. The yellow “Support Our Troops” magnet has been stuck on the back of the S.U.V. for three whole years and the paint job is actually brighter underneath it now-check (go ahead, check). That flag has been flapping away in the upper left-hand corner of the screen for four years-check. And now let’s see what Mr. Drudge has for us: BUSH URGES PATIENCE IN IRAQ …. STUDY: CELL PHONE RADIATION HARMS DNA …. U.S. RETURNS SMUGGLED PARROTS TO MEXICO ….
What’s really going on out there? Click.
The establishment media deserved a lot of what it got in the Fox News surge. This time last year, 60 Minutes correspondent Ed Bradley was on our TV screens talking to Michael Jackson about the tough time he had in an L.A. jail. Meanwhile, helicopters were crashing and burning in Iraq. A few days later, The New York Times was whipping CBS for allegedly paying $1 million for the access. It seems like such a long time ago. Back then, The Times’ culture editor, Steve Erlanger, said that CBS had called to complain about the story. “They call a lot,” he said. “CBS is a serial caller on stories about CBS.” As long as they were on the phone, why didn’t they go ahead and form a news partnership and send a couple of investigative reporters to Falluja?
Here’s why: Because they were falling in lockstep with cable television. The Times put those Michael Jackson stories on the front page.
A year later, CBS News is still in trouble, only now it’s trying to figure out what to do with it, and its phone calls are no longer to The New York Times but to Les Moonves in Television City. A year from now, if it’s not fixed, CBS News will have been junked and sold off to Bruce Wasserstein-not an implausible theory in a deregulated world.
But we get ahead of ourselves.
For the mainstream media, the lure of tabloid punditry made even the strongest weak-kneed in the last few years. When NYTV hopped the John Kerry campaign bus in New Hampshire last February to cover the press, Ceci Connolly of The Washington Post objected to the attention: “I write stories,” she said. “I’m not the subject of them.” Now she’s a regular contributor on Fox News Sunday.
Hello, Ceci! We’d like to profile you. Don’t talk to her, Brit! She hates it when you ask for her opinion.
But there were signs of resistance. Best-selling author and ABC News host John Stossel told us that he wanted to turn 20/20 into The O’Stossel Factor once Barbara Walters exited. The lovely ABC News anchor Elizabeth Vargas was installed and, who knows, maybe one day she’ll be Peter Jennings. Talk about a good move.
The next such decision will be made by CBS president Leslie Moonves, currently vacationing in Mexico. Let’s hope he’s down there eating peyote and coming up with a brilliant vision of how to re-establish the credibility of CBS News. Tip: Katie Couric is not the answer, but Anderson Cooper just might be. Kate is still pretty delightful, but Anderson is fascinating. If Mr. Moonves hires a new anchor with star power, street smarts and reporting chops, the ennui-addled cable surfers will have no choice but to check out the new face on the dial. That’s how it starts. Click.
Meanwhile, there’s a cautionary tale in the works regarding the “democratization” of the media and the impulse to counter right with left. In 2004, former Vice President Al Gore, the man who got iced by Fox News in the 2000 Presidential race, acquired his own cable channel for $70 million, hoping to turn INdTV into a power-toppling youth brigade wielding digital video cameras at current affairs. He told us he was overwhelmed by young people “who have some unbelievably fantastic ideas that they are presenting to us.”
For a while, Mr. Gore’s company had Deepak Chopra’s son, onetime Channel One video journalist Gotham Chopra, writing a blog to drum up enthusiasm for a channel that wanted to “truly democratize” TV. The company received applications from some 2,000 candidates looking to be “digital correspondents,” but it couldn’t handle the volume. “The company missed two deadlines by which they were supposed to inform the correspondents they wanted to hire,” said Greg Robinson, a 22-year-old potential hire, by e-mail, “and they subsequently shut down the blog.”
The youngsters had their unbelievably fantastic dreams go dark when INdTV went silent. In October, Mr. Gore and his business partner, Joel Hyatt, hired a new programming chief, David Neuman, formerly of NBC, CNN and Channel One, who quickly realized that the Gen-Y brigade concept was more trouble than it was worth. Subsequently, Mr. Hyatt had to put down an insurrection on the blog: “Given the unexpected volume of responses, we probably in hindsight began this recruiting effort a little too early and it is taking us longer than we thought to process the applications,” he wrote. “I apologize for this. But we’re thinking hard about ways to leverage this incredible pool of creative talent.”
Like maybe turning them all into unpaid interns and hiring experienced professionals? Bob Shrum might be free.
But even if it works out, here’s the point: It’s a long process developing voices that people can trust. As Tom Brokaw told NYTV on Election Day 2004, considering the evolution of blogs: “The danger is always that you have newspapers without editors, and there will be a shakeout process, people will learn who they can trust, who’s reliable, who’s got real insights and who’s just self-indulgent-it’s very much like the traditional business.”
Network TV has to redevelop that trust-and not by handing the news business over to partisans, youth brigades and bloggers, but by not doing that. Remember, it’s innovators like Matt Drudge who aren’t concerned with the loss of objectivity in the news. “Nixon said history belongs to those who write it,” he told this column last summer. “That’s what it is. You see things through your own prism. I feel what I do on the Internet is just one guy’s outlook in the world.”
Dear Mr. Moonves: Don’t look to Richard M. Nixon for a news philosophy.
Also: Hire an ombudsman to blog for CBS News, funneling all the online criticism of your newscast to one location. That way, Buckhead, the Web logger who set Memogate into motion, can link to CBS and vice versa. Bring the fight to your own turf and keep the enemy close at hand. Then let John Roberts or Scott Pelley or Anderson Cooper respond once a week on the air.
By the way, Tucker Carlson actually offered a good idea, too: fewer headlines, more long-form investigative reporting. “Instead of having 45 seconds from Falluja, they ought to have a four-minute dispatch,” he said. In other words, 60 Minutes seven nights a week is just 420 Minutes.
Remember the Republican National Convention’s nominating documentary? It was called The Pitch, and it showed Mr. Bush comforting 9/11 victims and throwing out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium after the attacks. “You keep pitching, no matter what,” intoned actor and former Senator Fred Thompson, reading a script by Wall Street Journal op-ed queen and former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan. “You throw, and you become who you are.”
Not a bad line. And a final tip to Mr. Moonves and Co.: Starch your collar and keep reporting, no matter what. It’s what you’ve got, it’s how you got there, and it’s the gold standard in TV news. Revert and they will come.