Tag-team news

At a Santa Barbara media conference last week, Don Hewitt, the éminence grise of television magazine shows and executive producer of 60 Minutes, suggested it would be a good idea for the big news networks to fold their three evening newscasts into one (presumably) greater big news show.

It's a bad idea, and I don't think it's something that Hewitt actually believes. "You happen to be wrong," Hewitt told me in a phone conversation. "I was talking to a top news executive who told me, 'You are on to something. It's going to happen.'The reason I say all this is because I love the evening news. It's an institution. I want to save it."

Hewitt idea is that you don't need correspondents from every network waiting for the same hurricane. "One person could do the job for all three. Instead of Associated Press, we should have the A.T.: Associated Television," he said in Santa Barbara, according to an account in the New York Post.

I like the insinuation, at least. Television news operations, even on the network level, still spend baffling amounts of money reporting semi-ordinary events. And while some standup reporters look better blowing around in gale-force winds than others (Dan Rather, I recall, is very good at this), most don't actually say anything special, and few of them actually blow over. But why are they there, if not for the sad fact that television news has for decades put them there?

I've often wondered, during various Storm Watches, if some cost-cutting news executive ever considered running old footage of worried winter shoppers buying snowblowers in Buffalo and telling viewers it was really footage of worried winter shoppers buying snowblowers in Denver. This kind of recycling would also work fine for spring-break riots, Fourth of July fireworks, California brush fires and, it seems to me, multicar pile-ups on almost any interstate.

But the fact is, the Associated Press already has the kind of television service Hewitt suggests, and so do the networks that send out pooled reporting from its affiliates. CNN's NewsSource also is there to provide reporting for stations, provided by its member stations nationwide.

Hewitt's suggestion is to let Dan, Tom and Peter alternate weeks at the dinnertime anchor desk and let their networks spend money and time in other dayparts doing news programming that-like 60 Minutes-gives each network a distinctive voice and feel.

Actually, that idea is so modern (and, in parts, so bad) I'm amazed Hewitt would speak it. But when I asked Hewitt about it, he suggested that the combined newscast would be its own discreet unit, much the way the International Herald-Tribune is a unique combination of the New York Times and the Washington Post. "It could be a force in America; it could become the voice of broadcasting."

In case you haven't noticed, as media have consolidated, the idea has arisen that what's being put out is "product," measured in minutes or pounds or niche appeal, not "ideas" that are created by, well, competition, truth and importance-those old stand-bys of the news business that, in Hewitt's younger days, were protected by guys who were really broadcasters.

Competition is still a good thing. It's still true that if, in one story, NBC Nightly News has one fact more than the other guys, the effort has moved forward, a little, what the ostensible purpose of a newscast is. The next day, it becomes ABC's turn, or CBS', to beat that, and, while viewers may not notice any of that immediately, the end result is that everybody does better. I think that it is more than happenstance that cities with a history of good newspapers also have quality radio and television news outlets.

Hewitt disagrees. In our conversation, he said that the reason 60 Minutes has thrived all these years is that it hasn't always had head-to-head competition. "Competition doesn't make news better," he said. "If we had competition, we'd just have to make compromises."

Don Hewitt has room to gripe, and he has the right combination of outrage, chutzpah and showbiz to get away with saying just about anything. He also has the goods. His magazine started in 1968, and several dozen have started since. Not one-not even one-touches 60 Minutes. So maybe the old man does know something about the importance of standing out in a crowd.