The death of David Brinkley last month got me to thinking about the lamentable state of television news. Broadcast journalism has lost several of its best and brightest over the last few years: Charles Kuralt, John Chancellor and Brinkley, perhaps the single-most influential figure in its history, on June 11 at the age of 82.
More Americans relied on Brinkley, at his peak, than on Walter Cronkite. He knew instinctively what was important and how to impart the essence of a story so anyone listening could see why it was important, too. He had a killer wit and style to spare.
The late journalist's contribution extended to the development of some of the medium's most durable staples. In 1981, with ABC's "This Week With David Brinkley," he helped pioneer the Sunday-morning roundtable. With the nightly NBC show he did for 14 years with Chet Huntley, he helped give shape to the format that's still pretty much standard to this day. Asked years ago to reflect on the impact of "The Huntley-Brinkley Report," he said, "Every news program on the air looks essentially as we started it. No one has been able to think of a better way to do it."
Not that programmers haven't monkeyed around with the model. It's just that their modifications, by and large, have futzed with content rather than form. When you turn on Rather, Jennings or Brokaw in the evening, what you see still looks like a newscast. The sets and suits are there. What's getting harder to find is the news.
Consider the kinds of stories viewers have come to accept as suitable for a serious newscast: The day's White House spin is recycled with little or no analysis. Disasters, natural or otherwise, are milked for every ounce of curiosity value. Earthquake victims reach out of the rubble. Third World ferries flounder on their side. Homes lie flattened by tornadoes. Wildfires devour forests. Hey, didn't Robert Hager interview that very same shop owner as he boarded up his store last hurricane season?
Americans may not have the healthiest lifestyles in the world, but we lead the world in worrying about our health. Somewhere along the line, programmers realized that fear of death and disease sells at least as well as disaster. Sports and weather segments today are routinely accompanied by health "updates." Viewers can count on a scare du jour, whether it be anthrax, mad cow disease or SARS. News editors used to look to the major dailies for story ideas. Now they turn to The New England Journal of Medicine.
As the number of electronic news outlets has increased, ironically, the quality of programming has nosedived, taking a turn decidedly toward the tabloid. The country is never without an official national criminal case. At the moment it's the Laci Peterson investigation. Prior to that, all cathode eyes were on Elizabeth Smart. The Robert Blake matter was knocked off the radar by the young girl's return to her family. Before Blake, the country followed the trial of David Westerfield, convicted of killing poor little Danielle van Dam. And so on all the way back to poor little JonBenet, and beyond that to the day we all watched police tailgate that white Bronco.
Certainly every one of these situations represents a terrible human tragedy. What programmers have lost sight of is the fact that they don't begin to meet the definition of national news. Not in the traditional sense. Not in the sense that they directly impact the lives of Americans or the country's course. Cynical and desperate broadcasters simply have learned that cases like these provide an irresistibly cheap and easy source of ratings.
As, of course, do stories about celebrities. I can't believe the amount of time reputable outlets now devote to reporting on the rich and famous. CNN looks more and more like "Entertainment Tonight."
Believe it or not, however, there's good news. Though television's journalistic establishment has become a national disgrace, there's still hope for those in search of good old-fashioned commentary, analysis and debate on matters that actually matter. The funny thing is, as electronic reportage becomes an ever-greater joke, an ever-greater number of jokers have begun providing great, issue-oriented TV.
Bill Maher, for example. The former host of the innovative late-night roundtable "Politically Incorrect" is a veteran of the stand-up circuit and has been responsible for some of the most provocative commentary to hit network airwaves in decades. His comments concerning the men who flew airliners into the World Trade Center ("Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly.") certainly provoked a reaction from ABC. It canned him. So much for free speech. "I was the first one to be Dixie Chicked," he's since reflected. Today he's taken his act to HBO, where the second season of "Real Time with Bill Maher" kicks off this month, Fridays at 11:30. The panel show continues the Maher tradition and has had no trouble attracting a sizable and appreciative audience.
Michael Moore has been combining datelines with punch lines on television for years. The Bowling for Columbine director first brought his patented brand of guerrilla reporting to NBC in 1994 with the Emmy-winning series "TV Nation." From 1999 through 2001 he hung his baseball cap at Bravo, which carried the groundbreaking follow-up "The Awful Truth." An unstoppable crossbreeding of Mike Wallace and John Belushi, Moore has proven himself a master of the merry ambush and has made an art of making the powerful accountable for their misdeeds.
Funny people reporting on serious issues is nothing new, of course. The tradition dates back more than a quarter of a century to 1975 and the first edition of "Weekend Update" with Chevy Chase on "Saturday Night Live." It's probably a safe bet that no one at the time expected this sort of thing to give traditional TV news a run for its money -- much less replace it as the primary conduit for thoughtful national discourse. But then nobody predicted the rise of boy bands, either.
Talk about life imitating art: Comedian and rant savant Dennis Miller, who himself did a stint behind SNL's "Weekend Update" desk, has carved a unique niche for himself by combining a nose for hypocrisy and injustice with a vocabulary that would be the envy of an unabridged thesaurus. The best-selling author and Emmy-winning former host of HBO's "Dennis Miller Live" has just started a new gig with, of all people, the folks at the Fox News Channel. The acerbic comedian has been signed to provide a weekly commentary segment that will air as part of the network's popular talk show, "Hannity and Colmes."
Dennis Miller employed by an honest-to-God network news service? Isn't that a little like Lenny Bruce having a regular slot on "Huntley-Brinkley?" Well, maybe not quite, but you get the idea. This definitely isn't your father's TV news.
And, speaking of "SNL" vets, let's not forget Al Franken. The Harvard-educated humorist has gone on to become a virtual pundit in the national-affairs arena. Not only has he authored such highly regarded tomes as Rush Limbaugh Is A Big Fat Idiot and Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, Franken actually presaged the comedy-news symbiosis a few years back when he produced and starred in an NBC sitcom about a fictional news program. "Late- Line" was topical, inventive, ahead of its time and, regrettably, short-lived. You know, like Lenny Bruce.
A sitcom about a fictional news program? Hmmm. The logical next step, of course, was an actual fake newscast. That's exactly what comic Jon Stewart has been presiding over for the past three years. I defy you to find a better 30 minutes on the box right now than "The Daily Show." Airing Monday through Thursday at 11 on Comedy Central, the program filters headlines through its host's one-of-a-kind sensibility and offers the medium's most 21st-century news and comment. Or, as Stewart likes to say, "an anchor and correspondents whose manner and gestures approximate those of real newspeople."
How envelope-pushing is the show? Typical of its cheekiness was a recent feature in which Governor Bush "debated" President Bush. Footage taken from speeches given prior to the 2000 presidential election was juxtaposed with video of more recent proclamations, with Stewart approximating as moderator. The 180-degree flip on matters of domestic and international policy was as hilarious as it was scary.
Ask Stewart what's missing from television journalism these days, however, and he won't tell you clever conceptual gags. "There should be skepticism," he told a Rolling Stone interviewer recently. "That's what's disappearing. I'm gonna start a show and, rather than 'Crossfire,' I'm just gonna call it 'Do You Fucking Believe This?'" The "Daily Show" host is in a unique position to assess the legitimacy of both policy makers and the press. Members of the media, he observes, "are spectators at a sales pitch. That person standing behind the pack, shooting the pack, that's gotta be the new journalism."
Jon Stewart is the leader of the pack of shooters at the moment, and his contract runs through the 2004 election. One can only hope more of his kind will follow in his footsteps. David Brinkley didn't get a whole lot wrong in his long career -- except for when he claimed no one's been able to think of a better way to do the news.