Too Much Barnum in Broadcast News

Bill Wheatley, executive VP of NBC news before retiring nine months ago, accepted a First Amendment Service award at a Washington banquet Thursday night, but with a caveat.

Wheatley, who Meet the Press host Tim Russert described as the heart, soul and compass of NBC News, said that celebrating the First Amendment is not only about protecting journalist's rights, but also about "encouraging the kind of journalism that shows that we understand that with those rights come responsibilities."

Wheatley criticized the increasing government crackdown on the free flow of information, a theme sounded throughout a night of salutes to journalists at the Radio-Television News Director's Foundation First Amendment Awards.

Wheatley said that in the nine months since he left NBC he had had some time to think about broadcast journalism and the challenges it faced, both from without and within.

"One of those challenges, of course, is protecting First Amendment rights," he said. "You all know about the government's increasing interference with those rights. Prosecutors hounding reporters, government agencies refusing to provide information to which the press and public are entitled. The practice of taking information that was once classified and is no longer relevant from the shelves of public libraries and reclassifying it. And most worrisome, justices sending reporters to jail for just doing their jobs."

He said the news media are fighting back, with the help of organizations like RTNDF. "We are winning some important battles," said, "but unfortunately, we are losing others."

Wheatley said it was "regrettable that we do not have the full support of the public," in that battle, citing a number of reasons including a reputation damaged by charges of political bias and by assaults from within.

"We have been used as a punching bag by lawmakers and commentators who find it convenient to accuse us, generally unfairly, of political bias," he said, while "the entire talk radio business has grown up around attacking us, and in recent years the venom has has spread to cable television."

Then, he opined, there is "the age-old responsibility of being the bearer of bad news," of which there has been a lot lately, he added.

But Wheatley says he as met the biggest enemy, and it is us, arguing that most of the credibilty wound is self-inflicted.

"With the exception of public broadcasters," he said, "we have always been a business as well as a public service. But lately in news organizations, there seems to be more emphasis on the business than on the service."

"Important subjects aren't covered because they aren't considered to be audience-friendly. Poverty and race are good examples," he said.

And in the choosing the subjects that are covered, he said, "there is an undue concentration on heat rather than light. Stories are promoted in breathless tones more appropriate to Barnum than to broadcasting."

But the audience aren't suckers, he suggested.

"Our listeners and viewers, of course, aren't stupid. Quite the opposite. They observe all this and judge us accordingly."

If the industry does not want to be found wanting, suggested Wheatley, it must change its ways.

"If we are to win back their support and, by the way, maintain the long-term viability of their business," he argued, "we are going to have to do more of the kind of work that indicates clearly that we have their best interests at heart, not just ours.

"We are more than capable of doing this as we have demonstrated time and again," he said, before sounding his closing note about responsible journalism that earns the rights it is accorded.

But it was a night not just for burying the big business of broadcasting, but for praising it.

In a moving tribute to the sacrifices of broadcasters who covered Katrina even as the storm tore apart their own lives, veteran ABC/NPR journalist Cokie Roberts, herself from New Orleans, pointed out that it was the big news business, so often the target at such dinners, that supplied the no-questions-asked resources and turned from competitors to colleagues to get the news out against all odds to people who often had nowhere else to turn for information.

Companies like Belo, Clear Channel, Entercom, Raycom, Emmis, Hearst-Argyle, and Tribune were praised for footing the bills for hotels, food, equipment, transportation, and anything else that was needed for their stations as they worked from double-wide trailers, from sister stations, or teamed with competitors to "tell the stories that had to be told."

They continue to tell the stories of a region that is still hurting, with thousands still missing, said Roberts.

"The parent companies, the big businesspeople that we often rail against, particularly at events like this, brought in resources and people to help them tell the story,"said Roberts."They went to extraordinary lengths and really spared no expense..." ["for once," she added quickly, so that the praise was not unalloyed] "to make sure that those stations could really do their jobs."

"People came through," said Roberts of the broadcasters of the Gulf Coast, echoing Wheatley's reference to the importance of responsibility. "They all came together, they didn't worry about ratings, the stuff we spend way to much time worrying about. They became a community."

Citing Clear Channel and Entercom stations that joined forces to become the United Radio Broadcasters of New Orleans, She said that for many people radio was the only source of communications

In fact, Roberts said she would go online during the storm, listen to Entercom's WWL(AM), then relay news to her cousins in the Gulf Coast via Blackberry--cell phones weren't working, she said.

Emcee Brian Williams had buried his sister less than a week ago and turned down an invitation/request from his boss Jeff Zucker to emcee an event in New york Thursday to be in Washington to help salute both Wheatley and the journalists covering Katrina.

He was clearly moved by the stations stories, and said he would always have a special place in his heart for WWL, which he, too, said was a lifeline to many through its 71 hours of continuous coverage.

Williams and NBC were also praised numerous times during the event--Roberts called it a "remarkable job"--for their coverage of Katrina and commitment to keep telling the story.

The story had clearly changed Williams. "I had been taught that my children were of exactly equal value to their counterparts in other places in this country, their counterparts of color, their counterparts of other income brackets. And what broke my heart as we watched it unfold in New Orleans is that I realized that wasn't true.

"I have stood in a desert in Iraq and watched a colonel make a phone call ,and I've watched an airlift arrive with enough food and shelter to, as the saying goes, take care of an army.

"And I couldn't believe it. The citizen in me and, yes the journalist in me, because this made us witnesses. We beat the first responders to this story."

And what they saw, he said, was "people dying in the streets of that city."

"And, yes, we'll stay on the story," Williams said, "because two million Americans aren't able to be where they define as home tonight, and a whole lot of people are hurting."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.