Editorial: Watching the News of the Day By BECKY O'MALLEY

Tuesday August 09, 2005

The death of longtime ABC evening news anchor Peter Jennings reminds us of a time when network news created reality for millions of Americans. For about four decades those who cared about what was going on in the nation and the world—and it seemed that most adults did—could get a quick and trusted summary of world events by watching television for a half-hour in the evening. In his heyday, everyone believed Walter Cronkite, of course. After Cronkite’s era, there was no single news anchor who commanded the same unquestioning respect, but for a period of time Peter Jennings came close.  

Despite ABC’s repeated assertions that he was above politics, left-leaning viewers who were suspicious of what was going on nationally in the 1980s thought of Jennings as the most simpatico of the three choices for the nightly update. He didn’t fawn over Reagan, as many commentators did. The bad news was always reported along with the good. 

And then people just stopped watching the evening news. According to a 2004 study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, in 1980 75 percent of television sets in use were tuned to one of the three nightly network newscasts each night during the dinner hour. In 2003, it was a 40 percent share. The study examined a variety of hypotheses for why this might have happened, but reached no definite conclusions. 

CNN is one answer. If interested but busy news consumers can get a quick hit on their own schedule, instead of having to sit down at a particular time of night, that’s appealing to many. (Fox News, however, is more like anti-news: entertainment in a package which only resembles news.) 

For discriminating news junkies, National Public Radio has offered news coverage with more depth than television news and more easily accessed, with loop drive-time broadcasts enabling commuters to multi-task. (It looks like the Bush administration is trying to change that.) National newspapers—U.S.A. Today, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal—provide up-to-date news in writing for those who want it that way. And finally, it’s now possible for those who care to get their news from all of the above, any time, day or night, anywhere there’s Internet access.  

The Web provides more than just a connection to all flavors of national media, however. It also gives skeptics a window on many different interpretations of what’s happening, taking the niche once dominated by Pacifica Radio and an ever-changing list of small magazines and opening it up to a vast number of new news sources. Indymedia, weblogs, the foreign press—if you’re curious, it’s all available to you on the Internet. But still, the problem is whom to believe, particularly if you only have a half-hour every day to get some quick idea of what’s going on in the world.  

For a surprising number of my well-educated friends, the answer turns out to be “The Daily Show.” They rely on host Jon Stewart’s nose for the ridiculous news to tell them what’s going on that they really shouldn’t miss. The presupposition underlying this strategy is that things are only going to get worse, so a satiric look at the low points in the events of the day is the best way of finding out quickly how much worse and why.  

And why does no one even mention local newspapers as a source of news any more? Perhaps it’s because they seem to be falling all over each other in their race to the bottom, as circulation plummets. Headlines and photos get bigger and bigger, the number of column inches of print gets smaller and smaller, and then newspapers wonder why fewer and fewer readers bother to pick them up. They don’t seem to understand that their pictures will never compete with television, and their biggest headline is no match for Internet graphics. 

Watching the daily decline of the San Francisco Chronicle, which was never a great newspaper but had moments of adequacy, is painful. Talking to friends who work there, and who are still trying to do a good job in the face of the Hearst Corporation’s relentless cost-cutting, is even more painful.  

The network newscasts and the major metropolitan papers of the last part of the twentieth century shaped a reality which was somewhat flat, two-dimensional, lacking the variety of points of view which can now be obtained by those who seek them from the Internet’s vast array, but at least many people cared enough to watch the news shows and read the newspapers every day. What Peter Jenning’s passing reminds us of most forcefully is that most Americans no longer seem to care much about what’s going on in the world, and that’s frightening.