Thursday, April 30, 2009

Media: Not Even CBS Now...

PLACERVILLE, CALIFORNIA - During my undergraduate years in California, I had a number of peculiar radio listening habits. One was that at the top of the hour, I would almost invariably tune in KCBS All News 740 (which then wasn't also at 106.9 FM) to listen to the top of the hour news from the CBS radio network. While CBS did feel like my "home" network because of my many years of favoring CBS affiliate KIRO in Seattle, that wasn't why I tended to hit that button for the top of the hour.

The station I was most likely to be listening to was KGO, the Bay Area's perennial ratings leader as a talk station. KGO was (and remains) an ABC radio network affiliate. In that era (the early 1990's), ABC had started the practice of including "person on the street" comments, usually toward the end of their newscasts. Supposedly, this practice was to make the newscasts more engaging to the listener, but I have always found this practice repugnant. First, it takes away time from actual reporting during what is already a short (three and a half minutes in the case of ABC, four minutes in the case of CBS) top-of-the-hour newscast. More importantly, it was fundamentally an injection of opinion into what I wanted to be an objective newscast. ABC was doing this often enough that I decided I didn't want to hear ABC news anymore, so I got in the habit of switching over to CBS at the top of hour, and it became such a habit that even if I was listening to a station other than KGO I would often punch the KCBS button at the top of the hour.

The "infection" of the common person's opinion may have started in my listening experience with ABC, but it hardly stopped there. Earlier this decade, no less than the British Broadcasting Company, the venerable BBC, started to read e-mail and text messages that came into their news shows during those very shows. I found this practice to be even more disturbing than the edited "person on the street" comments, as clearly these comments had undergone even lesser editorial evaluation because of the obvious time constraints, and thus they became especially vulnerable to corporate public relations departments and special interest groups sending in comments to get their viewpoint on the air during a news program. To this day, I wince whenever I hear any sort of "instant feedback" on a program that purports to be a hard news program, which means that the BBC can bother me just as much as the US commercial networks.

I was reminded of all this deterioration when listening to the CBS network news on KCBS All-News 740 as I drove around California's central valley today. While it had been many years since I had been able to hold up CBS as a model network, it was dramatic just how far its standards had declined. In a newscast earlier today, one report sounded like it was a press release from a certain well-known motorcycle company that doesn't deserve any additional publicity, talking about how sales to female customers had risen from 4% to 12% over the past decade and describing how they wanted to further target women. Exactly how was this news, and exactly how was this not free publicity for the company was beyond me. I just couldn't imagine how the greats of CBS past and present, from Murrow to Schieffer, must have been cringing, wherever they might be at.

So far, the one network that I can say I have not heard stray from providing editorially uncompromised hard news on their news program is one that my tax dollars go to support, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. (National Public Radio's transgressions in this regard have been few and far between as well.) Here's hoping that the CBC will not change its practices, and there will be at least one place to turn for untainted news.

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