(I should note that all of these events are open to the public, in case any of you are interested and near Stanford. They’re also all recorded, although I’m not sure by who. If you are nearby and interested in such things, send me a note and I’ll start sending out notices.)
The presidents of ABC News (David Westin), CBS News (Andrew Heyward), NBC News (Neil Shapiro, fmr. Dateline guy) on the stage, along with a moderator, Dick Wald of the Columbia School of Journalism, former president of NBC, Senior Vice President of ABC, also of the Washington Post and Herald Tribune. The building is not even full.
- CBS: CNN is the Democrat’s “home team” network.
- CBS: For better or worse, exit polls are automatically “out in the blogosphere” these days.
- CBS: We need to decide whether to adjust to be more like FOX.
- NBC: FOX has redefined the game. They raise issues for us to cover and techniques for us to use.
- ABC: We have racial diversity in the newsroom, but we need political diversity [i.e. more Republicans] so we can have a robust discussion. I thank FOX for pointing this problem out.
- NBC: We always ask, “How would FOX report that?” to challenge [our biases].
- ABC: In my previous capacity, I tried to broker a deal where the candidates would get free airtime in exchange for running fewer ads. We ran into First Amendment problems so I gave up.
- CBS: It’s not our fault elections are crazy — the public should demand a better system.
All three men were quite amicable and agreed on most things. Hardly seemed a hotbed of competition.
Introducer: The Knight Fellowships bring journalists to study at Stanford. Cable and Internet have “challenged [the] dominance” of the nightly newscast.
Q: Why so little coverage of the convention?
CBS: Not news-worthy, just “glitzy infomercials” with political favors at night. Even cable wasn’t focused on the podium.
NBC: Political junkies go to cable to get their “fix”.
ABC: Print media didn’t do all the coverage either — they summarized like us. Cable was mostly spin.
Q: How did FOX beat the networks? Why even cover the conventions?
ABC: FOX won because it was opinion, which they do better and we don’t even aspire to.
CBS: Note that CNN won the Democratic convention. People like watching the show on the network of the “home team”.
NBC: In the future maybe everybody will have cable and we won’t have to cover it, but until then we owe some coverage to the people who can’t get it that way.
Q: How’d the exit polls get it so wrong?
NBC: The first wave of polls were inconsistent.
ABC: The exit polls were misinterpreted by Drudge.
CBS: For better or worse, those polls are automatically “out in the blogosphere” these days.
NBC: We don’t know when all the new voters will vote, so we can’t take that into account with the early polls. Gonna have to move back release time so even we don’t get the results until late to keep blogs from leaking it and influencing the eleciton.
Q: Are you happy with the pace of calling states after the 2000 affair?
CBS: It’s fine — it gives us “new humility” so journalists “get off their high horse”.
NBC: All of our networks call things differently — there’s no conspiracy.
Q: Election night wasn’t in the top 10 of the ratings. Still going to do them?
ABC: It’s four years away. We don’t cover elections for the money — we lose money on them. We do them because we have a responsibility.
NBC: Tuesday over Tuesday we had better ratings.
Q: Do you think about FOX?
CBS: FOX has added a new mix of news and opinion — it’s “talk radio on TV”. We have little opinion. We need to decide whether to adjust.
NBC: Audience wants different things on cable, where we have “edgy, opinionated shows”. I give FOX credit for redefining the game. They do things we can’t but they raise issues for us to cover and techniques for us to use.
ABC: Nothing wrong with identified opinion, but a ramp-up pushes out the facts and creates a sense it’s all relative and opinion — even we get cynical and we talk about hidden agendas, not veracity of a statement. We will not succeed on that turf and the country needs someone to tell the tryth, not just FOX. Also an explosion of quasi-news on the net. We go to you now.
NBC: It’s not going to kill the evening news. DVDs didn’t kill movie theaters. The evening news lets someone else do the compilation and research for the day.
CBS: There’s a smorgasbord of choices these days.
Q: The White House hates you.
NBC: The Clinton White House leaked all the time, but not Bush. Nobody in power likes the press. The stakes are high for both of us in a time of war. We question ourselves.
ABC: We need to try to keep it down the middle and not go to the other side to balance it out. They want to marginalize us, but we might marginalize ourselves [by going to the left]. We need to be “right down the middle”, [Several more uses of “right down the middle” omitted.] Even if talk radio goes to the side of the administration, we can’t go to the other extreme.
CBS: People criticize us a lot but you need to take the partisanship out of that criticism to get any real content out of it.
Q: Advertisers want youth but news is skewed towards old people.
CBS: True. We’ll eventually shift to get them via the Net.
[The audience begins asking questions.]
AQ: What about the Iraq war coverage?
CBS: Turns out — who knew? — we weren’t tough enough in asking why we went in. But it’s impossible now to do real coverage of Iraq [because it’s too dangerous?].
NBC: We didn’t pieces about the war but they didn’t resonate and I think that may have just been the mood of the country. But we had a guy on every day asking for more soldiers.
ABC: We let folks down on WMDs, but we were tough on the al Qaeda-Saddam link and yet people still believe it. We don’t know what to do.
AQ: What about the Plame journalists threatened with jail time?
ABC: We’ve reported the facts of the case and we’ll file an amicus brief but we won’t editorialize on the air. Larger point: regrettably the laws protecting the press are not that strong, not even as strong as most people think they are.
NBC: We need a federal shield law for reporters. There was a reporter sued recently for getting a tape of officials taking bribes.
AQ: Why haven’t you covered voting fraud?
NBC: We’ve looked into the stories. They’re small and wouldn’t swing a state. I’d love a juicy story about voting fraud — Florida awas a great story. But there’s nothing there. This is the problem with the Web.
ABC: We had a whole team on the topic, they couldn’t find anything.
AQ: The press failed to ask tough questions about 9/11. For example, Porter Goss and Bob Graham had breakfast that morning with the man who funded Atta, the lead hijacker. Why wasn’t this covered?
ABC: You obviously know more about the details than I, but we have a ynit on terrorism that won a lot of awards. We have no incentive to cover this stuff up. I’ve never heard of a cover-up.
AQ: Wargames, [notes unreadable], 50% of NYC think the governor allowed the attacks to happen.
CBS: I have to say, I still believe that the democratization of the news is a good thing even though it sometimes leads to “quirky results” [apparently referring to the questioner].
CBS: [We don’t cover stuff up.] Viewers are way more powerful than sponsors and owners.
CBS: FOX accidentally called states before they closed on their website but they corrected their error quickly.
AQ: Do candidates’ political ads affect TV coverage?
ABC: We got $0 from those ads; it all goes to local stations.
NBC: We even analyzed those ads.
AQ: Do you have a liberal bias? [The question was more obliquely worded than this, but that was the message.]
CBS: We have no litmus tests or quotas, we just have editors make sure coverage is unbiased. The Texas Air National Guard documents were just a mistake.
ABC: We have a standard of professionalism [whoring], just like a lawyer. A lawyer doesn’t have to agree with the case he argues, but he does his best to argue it just the same. We need diversity in the newsroom — not just racial diversity but political diversity, so we can have a robust discussion. I thank FOX for pointing this problem out.
NBC: I don’t know Tom Brokaw’s views on anything and I don’t want to. We always ask, “How would FOX report that?” to challenge ourselves.
AQ: What do you think about Jon Stewart?
CBS: He’s great but niche. I watch him, but otherwise its mostly young men. He’s a 2nd-level player — he needs something to make fun of.
NBC: Stewart led my brother to research the Middle East because of a joke.
AQ: Would you support campaign finance reform giving candidates free airtime?
ABC: That’s not a question for news division presidents. In my previous capacity, I tried to broker a deal where the candidates would get free airtime in exchange for running fewer ads. We ran into First Amendment problems so I gave up.
CBS: I’m more jaded. They’ll just be soundbite commercials.
NBC: We experimented with it on Dateline and they were all soundbites and our ratings tanked.
AQ: Why not report electoral regularities that don’t swing the election?
NBC: If we had reports of something we’d be all over it. We spent months on research, opened up an 800 number to a special center, and so on. Nothing.
ABC: With all the new lawyers added after 2000 they probably cleaned up the system. Honestly, we expected more problems.
CBS: We have a crazy quilt of voting rules. It’s not our fault — the public should demand a better system. Push your elected officials.
Moderator: (Closing thought.) These people compete for the high ground, not the lowest common denominator.