In 1978, ABC started a program called “20/20,” as a kind of a standard newsmagazine program. They were trying to see what they could do in the “60 Minutes” business. The first show was an absolute disaster. The hosts were the former editor of Esquire magazine and the art critic of Time magazine who both turned out to be absolute disasters on camera.
They had made plans to fold the show, but they went to a vice president of ABC News named Av Weston and said, “Can you do anything with this?” Weston then went to the research department at ABC and said…“I would like you to do a great deal of research for me on what people want in prime time.” They said, “We don’t have to do any studies. We know what people want in prime time.” Weston said, “What?” They gave him a one-word answer: “Entertainment.”
Weston then went back and decided that they would continue exactly what they were doing, which was trying to do person-oriented stories of the tragedy and triumph of the human condition. What they did change, however, was [now] the only humans they were interested in were rock stars and movie stars. So they did what they had been doing, but now the people suffering, as it were, on the air, were…the “rock star of the week” as they called it.
That probably was inevitable. Television is an entertainment medium, and it’s always been shaky and unsure about how to present news; and newspapers are the news medium, and…they have always been extremely clunky about entertaining….
Last year Lewis Lapham, the Editor of Harper’s, wrote the introduction for a new MIT edition of Marshall McLuhan’s “Understanding Media.” This is part of what he said: “The world that McLuhan describes has taken shape during my lifetime and within the span of my own experience. I can remember that as recently as 1960 it was possible to make distinctions between the several forums of what were then known as the lively arts. The audiences recognized differences among journalism, literature, politics and the movies. But then the lines between fact and fiction blurred…. The lively arts fused into the amalgam of forms known as ‘the media.’ News was entertainment, and entertainment was news.”
In an effort to combine the new and the old, Av Weston [hired] Jim Bellows, who had been the Editor of The New York Herald Tribune and later The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, as a consultant to “Entertainment Tonight,” which did not do well early on. What Jim taught them was if you make it look like news, people will think it’s news, even if it is only publicity. So expanding on stories of celebrities, now you had interviews with celebrities that looked like news. Disney even went so far as to put a program like that on the air which only dealt with their own movies and didn’t have a hell of a lot of bad things to say about them.
With that knowledge, the new generation packaged news as a mix of entertainment and old journalism elements. It’s blood, fire, sports, sex, feel good about yourself, and bad about your government…. When [British newspaper editor] Harry Evans came to America he said, “The challenge of the American newspaper is not to stay in business, it’s to stay in journalism.”
I agree that that is the challenge. [But] I think we still have many resources. I think that we work much better as outsiders than we do as insiders. Being liked is not part of the job description of a journalist. After all, our job at its most [significant] is being the first one to yell that “The Emperor has no clothes.”[Journalism] must still have a bit of cachet left with the public, because [the networks] haven’t had the guts yet to rename [their newscasts] “The Westinghouse Evening News,” “The GE Nightly News,” or “Disneyworld News.” Not yet.
These remarks are edited from a public forum sponsored by the Committee of Concerned Journalists and the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication on March 4, 1998. Richard Reeves is a journalist and a professor at Annenberg.