News Matters

THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Josh Mankiewicz
Title: News Matters
VTR: 12/07/00

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And I met today’s guest some time ago when Dateline NBC asked to interview me about a Federal Trade Commission Report on questionable movie industry ploys. These involved marketing films specifically rated R for violence to youngsters who, according to the industry’s own voluntary rating system were not to see them without their parent’s approval and accompaniment.

Clearly Dateline NBC asked me to comment only because, for my sins for 20 years, I had been Chairman of the movie rating system, commuting to LaLaLand in Hollywood, while all the time teaching at Rutgers and producing The Open Mind and living here in New York.

Well, from my Dateline NBC experience I re-learned with a vengeance what I always thought I knew without question and always preached to others. Namely, never, but never be so sanguine or perhaps so confident that your charm and expertise can carry the day, that you go on any show where most of what you’ve learned in a lifetime and want so much to convey to an audience can be left on the editing room floor.

Yet, Dateline NBC was a fascinating experience. I met its crack correspondent in the process and now I’ve turned the tables, getting Josh Mankiewicz to join me here on The Open Mind.

Josh has taken on so many television news assignments in his 20-year career, breaking news, news analysis, features local and national that now I want to pick his brains for a bit, perhaps acting as my audience’s surrogate all the while. First of all, I think everyone wants to know how really good television news people … good guys, like Josh, feel about their medium. Fair question?

MANKIEWICZ: Ah … you don’t think you came across well in the interview?

HEFFNER: [Laughter] I’m not going to argue that one out.

MANKIEWICZ: You were the star in that …

HEFFNER: Right, right, right, right, right. What do you think about your medium?
MANKIEWICZ: Well, you know, it’s obviously changing. I mean the rules are, you know, somewhat different from the way they were 25 years ago when I got into this business, in 1975. You know, that said, there’s still ample evidence that the serious issues, thoughtfully presented can attract a huge audience. I mean and I’m not going to blow Dateline’s horn here, but look at Nightline, look at 60 Minutes. There’s plenty of evidence that there’s a, there’s an audience out there that’s hungry for, you know, serious news done in a serious way. I think that’s what we try to offer a lot of the time at Dateline, and I think, you know, generally the three televisions networks still do a pretty good job of that. You know, our notable lapse notwithstanding.

HEFFNER: What do you mean “still do”. Did it … did they do a better job … 20, 25 years ago?

MANKIEWICZ: I think so. I mean I saw some study recently that the, you know, the average sound byte presented on the evening news back in 1968 was a minute to two minutes long. Now, it’s like, five to ten seconds long. And that, sort of change, in the way that television news is presented, sort of collapsing the audiences’ attention span has resulted in every candidate for political office writing every sentence with an eye towards getting that sentence, towards that sound byte on the evening news. Now there’s no question that, you know, the way that the news business has changed, has changed the business as we cover it. Certainly changed politics.

HEFFNER: Well, you know, say … you say, “change politics”, earlier today, Derek Bok, the former President of Harvard was here talking about his new book “The Trouble With Government” and one of the troubles with government, with our country he believes, has to do with this cutting back and cutting back and cutting back on the way we inform our citizens. Now, how are we going to get out of this mess if you people will have a sound byte of five seconds rather than a minute. Where are we going?

MANKIEWICZ: You know, I wish I had a, I wish I had a succinct answer to that. I don’t. You know ultimately, you know, market forces which is sort of what got television to where it is today, and which changed the news business, will probably change it back. The evidence is clear in, ;you know, local news ratings across the country that, you know, fluff … the audience is tired of it. And that that the water skiing squirrels no longer bring in the audience that it did a while ago.

HEFFNER: So why do we still have water skiing squirrels?

MANKIEWICZ: Because …

HEFFNER: … that’s too hard to say.

MANKIEWICZ: … because changing the way that things are done, you know, television is not a bold business and it’s frequently not … innovation is a, is a tough thing to sell. It’s hard to tell … it’s hard to tell one local station when they’re in competition with two or three others … “you know what you really need to do here is, is stop doing this fluff and go serious”. Now they just tried that in Chicago … the CBS stations which has done a pretty good job of driving away it’s audience over the years, tried to go serious with a commendable newscast lead by Carol Marin who’s a really well known journalist in Chicago. And, in fact, across the country. And, they gave it about eight or nine months after, you know, 20 years of the skiing squirrels, they gave it about eight or nine months of covering City Hall and city government and, you know, not loading up on ten-part series on lesbian nuns. And then they decided that that didn’t work any more. You know. I wish they’d stuck with it longer. But I think things like that are probably, you know, eventually somebody’s going to try one of those things, and it will, it will work. And they’ll try it because they think the audience wants it.
HEFFNER: Well, Josh, do you think that ”the audience wants it” is going to be the … what pulls us out of this?

MANKIEWICZ: It’s what pulled us into this. You know, I mean there was a sense that … the big problem happened … the slippery slope began, sort of in the, I’m going to say the 70s, when the News Department started to make money. And suddenly they went from being this “loss leader” that the networks sort of had to carry for prestige reasons and because it was, you know, mandated by some regulatory agency. This was like, you know, it’s opportunity to bring in ad dollars. And that, you know, that changed everything. Some of it for the better and some of it not for the better. I mean, you know, were we better served by endless documentaries that a tiny fraction of the audience watched, or are we better served by, you know, a program like 60 Minutes or like Dateline which has a much bigger audience and presents, you know, investigative stories done, clearly with the, with the attitude that we’re trying to keep you interested in the story.

HEFFNER: Question: what’s your answer to the question you just asked.

MANKIEWICZ: Can’t save souls in an empty church. But, you know, the answer is somewhere in-between. Television news, I think particularly at the local level, but I think at network level, too, has to remain relevant to the audience that’s watching. If it doesn’t we’re going to go out of business. That said, you know, look at … look at the growth of the 24 hour news channels over the last four or five years. I mean CNN’s been around for more than 20 years. But in just the last couple of years, there’s been this explosion of, of audience and of choices out there with MSNBC and with the Fox channel. You know, that’s … much of that is a sort of, you know, raw news in it’s purest form. I mean they show you the press conference from Broward County, and you kind of make up your own mind what you think about that story. That presents it’s own set of choices, and it’s own set of problems because in a lot of cases, you know, just showing people the raw tape of what happened isn’t always the best way to tell them the story. Some times the reporters job is to provide some context that isn’t there when you’re just watching, you know, the Pentagon briefing unfold live. But there’s no question people never had as many choices as they do now. There’s never been as much news on the air as there is now. And I think that’s all to the good.

HEFFNER: Now, the skiing squirrels …

MANKIEWICZ: Yes.

HEFFNER: … you don’t include that in “never has been as much news on the air as there is now”.

MANKIEWICZ: Clearly, the water skiing squirrels have, you know, that’s part of the … that’s part of what’s on the air now, but it’s obviously not the only thing. Our goal, I mean, you know, if I have one is to retire the squirrels permanently to the water skiing hall of fame.

HEFFNER: Are you suggesting that you see that over the years there is going to be an increase in serious material on the air?

MANKIEWICZ: I think there’s already … I mean … as I said before, there’s already ample evidence that serious stories done in a serious way attract an audience. An audience that advertisers like. So I think the idea that’s frequently set up by people that, you know, you have choose between serious news which doesn’t get an audience, and junk, which does get an audience, you have to sort of make your choice there and we’re all, you know, part of the great Satan because we’re putting the junk on the air. I just don’t think that’s true. I think there’s, I think there’s plenty of serious news out there that’s being done in a serious way. And I think people are watching it. There’s way too much lightweight stuff for my, for my taste. And you’re talking to a guy who did a great story about the Teflon suit, which was, by the way, unstainable.

HEFFNER: [Laughter]

MANKIEWICZ: But, you know, I think, I think there’s probably room out there for both.

HEFFNER: You think there’s room out there for both. You’re not satisfied with what we have now. What will be the pressure to move in another direction?

MANKIEWICZ: The audience fragmenting as more and more choices come along. Particularly at the local level the audience drifting away, a little bit, all the time, every year …

HEFFNER: But you’ve just quoted the Chicago experience as indicating otherwise.

MANKIEWICZ: As indicating …

HEFFNER: … that the audience will not drift to what you consider …

MANKIEWICZ: Well, what I think happened in Chicago is they probably didn’t stick with it long enough. I mean one of the … I mean more so than … you know audiences tend to generally, you know, unless it’s particularly noxious, they tend to sort of accept what they’re given. One of the things that audiences, one the things that television, you know, has taught us over the years, is that people don’t really like change even if, you know, we as the programmers think it’s somehow change for the better. So, when you, when you change your anchor, and change your program and change the name of it, and change everything else about it, you’re going to drive some people way, even if the thing that it replaced was a thing that wasn’t very good. So, if you’re going to go in a different direction, if you’re going to start doing serious news. If you’re going to stop covering the water skiing squirrels, you need to try that for more than about eight months, which was all CBS could manage in Chicago.

HEFFNER: Well, of course, Dick Salant from CBS and then NBC used to say “if you give the audience only chop meat, they’ll never learn to like sirloin steak”. And you’re suggesting you’ve got to feed them the real stuff for a long enough period of time before …

MANKIEWICZ: Yes.

HEFFNER: … they develop that taste.

MANKIEWICZ: I don’t think there’s any question about it. 60 Minutes did not catch on it’s first couple of years. It took a while for that to … for that giant of both journalism and ratings to sort of get the attention that it deserved from the audience. Dateline NBC didn’t do well the first couple of years it was one. It’s not only news programs. Hill Street Blues was nearly taken off the air after a couple of years and only left on the air because NBC’s prime time schedule was in such terrible shape that they sort of didn’t have anything to replace it with. So it stayed on and it ended up being, you know, a terrific program that delivered some up-lifting drama and some really well written scripts. But everything takes time to develop it’s own audience.

HEFFNER: Well, let’s take 60 Minutes. Another network … we can talk about it.

MANKIEWICZ: Are they still on the air?

HEFFNER: I think so. I think so.

MANKIEWICZ: [Laugher] Okay.

HEFFNER: Watered down since it began?

MANKIEWICZ: I see no evidence of that. I think … you know Mike Wallace pretty much invented modern television journalism and to some extent, you know, the rest of us are all, you know, trying to be like Mike. I don’t sense that … I don’t sense any of those guys losing a step. And the ratings numbers would certainly suggest that they haven’t.

HEFFNER: And 60 Minutes, II?

MANKIEWICZ: I don’t see it as often, but it’s doing pretty well.

HEFFNER: Well, you keep talking about doing “pretty well”; better you should say “doing pretty good”. I’m asking about whether it’s doing “pretty well”. I mean there is a difference …

MANKIEWICZ: Right.

HEFFNER: And that’s really what we’re talking about because the news departments haven’t been infected by the entertainment departments other than because they want to do “good”, rather than “well” …

MANKIEWICZ: Right.

HEFFNER: …so your concern seems to me to be that when you cut down on the news items, the news budget and you’re talking about a fifteen second, twenty second, rather than one minute, two minute, three minute story. You’re making a change, you’re meeting the audience’s … the lowest common denominator of the audience. What happens then? It’s got to get lower and lower and lower. “Dumbing down” as we say in other areas.

MANKIEWICZ: I don’t know that that’s true. I mean I don’t … I don’t the … I don’t think the three evening news broadcasts, which, you know, to some extent are dinosaurs, but on another extent are, your know, extremely vital and certainly, you know watched by millions and millions of people. I don’t think they’re getting dumber.

HEFFNER: So everything is okay?

MANKIEWICZ: Is everything okay? No. I’d like to see more coverage of foreign issues, you know, I’d love to see … I’d love to see more profiles of people who aren’t well-known, as opposed to people who are.

HEFFNER: What’s happened with foreign news coverage?

MANKIEWICZ: Well, there’s certainly a perception in this business at almost all levels that Americans don’t care as much about things that don’t happen in America. I’m not sure that’s true, but that’s a … that’s probably a growing perception.

HEFFNER: Is there a responsibility, nevertheless for the news departments?

MANKIEWICZ: Well, I think there is. I think that’s why … you know, I think that’s why … I think that’s why NBC News still maintains foreign bureaus, because they feel that responsibility. It’s certainly not because, you know, have people in, you know, Tokyo or London is, is in itself bringing in the ratings. It’s not, it’s costing them money, but they keep it there because they certainly feel a responsibility to that.

HEFFNER: As many people as ten years ago? Twenty years ago?

MANKIEWICZ: No, probably not, but I don’t think there’s … there’s fewer people at a lot of levels in the business than there were ten or twenty years ago. In part because of technological changes that have, that have made for less hiring across the board, in part because big staffs that used to be responsible for getting the evening news out and on the air, the sort of the load of that is now shifted to the magazine shows. I mean I … I’m talking off the top of my head here, but I’m sure more people work for Dateline than they do for nightly news. And that was never the case before.

HEFFNER: The “loss leader” concept. You wish we were back to those days?

MANKIEWICZ: You know, those were the days … you know, in which Walter Cronkite was competing with Huntley/Brinkley and, and Frank Reynolds on ABC. You know those are the days that guys like me thought “gee, it’d be fun to be in that business”. The business has certainly changed since then. But, you know, I think there’s a lot to be proud of. And there’s a lot that, you know, you know, I wish that we could occasionally do differently. But I wouldn’t … I wouldn’t stay in this business if I thought we weren’t doing some good.

HEFFNER: Would you go into it … today?

MANKIEWICZ: Oh, yeah, sure. Absolutely. Absolutely, I mean I never wanted to be anything except a reporter. I never wanted to do anything except, you know, write and ask questions and be the first one to know something. And that’s still true. And that’s true … that’s true of almost everybody I know in this business.

HEFFNER: Well, this question though of “dumbing down”, I said it, you didn’t. Think there’s something to it?

MANKIEWICZ: Yeah, probably. I guess the question is “how much of … how much of the high-brow stuff was connecting and how much was going over people’s heads and they never knew it. I don’t know. I mean I wasn’t … I got into this business in 1975 and I was definitely on the low rung back then. One of my first jobs was to … I was working at the ABC Bureau in Washington. One of my first assignments, which was an important job, was to pick up Sam Donaldson’s suit from the cleaners and deliver it to him in his office. And let me tell you I was good at that.

HEFFNER: [Laughter] Forget about Sam Donaldson and his suit. Let’s talk about politics and the impact of news on politics. Plus? Minus?

MANKIEWICZ: Hmmmm. Well, that’s a good question. I mean is it the impact of news on politics? I covered politics for a long time. The problem now is that every conversation you have, on or off the record, with somebody in the campaign is spin. Nobody’s telling it to you straight any more. They’re all aiming what they say with an eye towards how you’re going to present it on the news that night. Every sentence out of somebody’s mouth with a rare few exceptions, is tailored for the evening news, it is a sound byte. When you start tailoring your product, not to the people who vote, but to the people who present the news, you have unquestionably done, done harm to the … sort of people’s ability to make a, you know, free, fair and informed choice. A friend of mine who is a political consultant here in New York, refers to the disease that all candidates have … he calls it “reverse Tourette’s Syndrome”, in which everything is designed to prevent against any, any spontaneous outburst. Everything is scripted, everything is written in advance. There’s a message every day and they stick to that line throughout that day. And you just repeat a sound byte often enough … you know, “I’m a compassionate conservative,” “I’ll put Social Security in a lock-box.” You repeat it enough times … people don’t even know what that is, but they associate those words with you and I guess that’s, that’s what they want. I mean I can only guess that they are doing that because they think it works.

HEFFNER: So that’s the … that’s part of the “dumbing down” business.

MANKIEWICZ: Oh, yeah, I don’t think there’s any question. I mean we’re not, you know … we have no choice by to report what the candidates say. And if what the candidates say is, you know, meaningless pap, unfortunately that’s, that’s what going to be on the news that night. We don’t, we don’t tell them what to say, we just follow it.

HEFFNER: And the setting of it in a context? Or the analysis of it?

MANKIEWICZ: If you don’t point out that … you know, if a reporter doesn’t point out Al Gore is using the word ,,, you know, has used the word “lock-box” 317 times in the last four days because he really wants the votes of seniors, then the reporter is not doing her job. That doesn’t mean you don’t use that sound byte, but if you don’t give it any context you have failed your audience and yourself.
HEFFNER: And fairness? What’s your fix on how fair the media are … the news media.

MANKIEWICZ: The one criticism of the media that I find laughable is that the … we’re a punch of Liberals who are in bed with the Democrats. If that’s true, why were we so eager to accept the spoon fed Monica story that came straight out of the Right and we marched with it for a year, until the President got impeached and barely survived in the Senate. There are plenty of … there’s plenty of evidence that the press is not the … is not solely liberal. Neither are we solely conservative. The thing that we do wrong, I think, probably most often is maybe going back to Watergate or Vietnam, or even before that, which would have been before I started doing this, there is a perceptions that a lot of reports have, that whatever politicians you’re talking to, they’re probably lying. They’re probably out for themselves, they’re probably not telling the truth; they’re probably shading something, they have their own agenda. In many cases that’s true. Almost every political you talk to does have their own agenda. The problem is that all … the problem is a point of view from the press at large, not just on television and not just in print, that is almost contemptuous sometimes.

HEFFNER: But isn’t that true of others than, than politicians ….

MANKIEWICZ: Oh, yes.

HEFFNER: About everyone …

MANKIEWICZ: Oh right, I think that’s certainly true of, you know corporate executives. It’s certainly of, you know, the stories we do about everyone … from, you know, used car dealers to chemical companies to airlines.

HEFFNER: How do you explain that.

MANKIEWICZ: It’s … I mean, the alternative … if the alternative is, you know, blindly accepting…

HEFFNER: But it isn’t…

MANKIEWICZ: … whatever tells you, then clearly that’s to be desired?

HEFFNER: Okay …

MANKIEWICZ: Obviously it is. I mean the obviously there’s a … you know one of things that makes people so … one of the reasons that reporters are so disliked is that there’s a perception that we are only interested in controversy, we are only interested in confrontation. And we are only interested in making people out to be devious liars. Clearly, we, as, as a group and again I’m not just talking about television, I’m talking about print as well, have sent the message over the years that we don’t trust any body, we don’t think anybody had an good motive; we don’t think anybody’s up to any good; we think they’re all dishonest liars. The result of that is that people tend not to trust what we say. So we’ve clearly made some kind of mistake their in our tone. So you asked me … what’s the right answer? I don’t know. That’s the problem. I mean, you know, we are the only people, you know, besides I suppose government regulators and investigators who are sort of paid to be skeptics. And you can make the argument just as easily on the other side, that if we don’t do it, nobody else will. So I’m not sure what the answer is, but we’ve clearly done some damage to ourselves with this sort of constant drumbeat of “everybody’s a liar”.

HEFFNER: Josh, would you accept a National News Council or the counterpart of such, perhaps to help us along with our problem.

MANKIEWICZ: I don’t think that any kind of … the idea of that doesn’t bother me. I know Mike Wallace is a big supporter of that.

HEFFNER: MmmHmmm.

MANKIEWICZ: I don’t … I haven’t thought about it, you know, enough to, you know, to have formed, too many serious opinions about it. I don’t see what the, I don’t see what would be bad about that. And I also think that maybe that would keep some disputes regarding the, regarding the press and the people we cover out of court. Which I think is a good thing.

HEFFNER: And the Fairness Doctrine …

MANKIEWICZ: What … should it come back?

HEFFNER: Yeah.

MANKIEWICZ: No.

HEFFNER: What … what was the … did it ever freeze anything …

MANKIEWICZ: No, it just …

HEFFNER: … you were going to do?

MANKIEWICZ: No. I never, I never worked under the Fairness Doctrine …

HEFFNER: Well, that’s true, you’re so darn young …

MANKIEWICZ: Yeah. Sorry. Yeah.
HEFFNER: But do you really think it had a chilling effect?

MANKIEWICZ: I don’t know that it had a chilling effect, but it certainly … I mean the idea that when you, you know, the idea that Al Gore or George Bush couldn’t appear on the Tonight Show without you, you know, giving a guest spot to Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader as well … you know, that seems …

HEFFNER: Oh, come on, that was the old …

MANKIEWICZ: Well, that’s …

HEFFNER: … that was the old Section 315 …

MANKIEWICZ: Okay, well that’s …

HEFFNER: But that was done away with in Eisenhower’s time, thanks to …

MANKIEWICZ: Okay, what part of the Fairness Doctrine are you talking about bringing back?

HEFFNER: Fairness and balance. Just that if you present a public issue and you must present public issues, that you do so fairly.

MANKIEWICZ: I, I …

HEFFNER: You don’t have trouble with that, do you?

MANKIEWICZ: I feel under that obligation now. I certainly don’t need some government regulation to tell me that. That’s the job of every journalist, all the time.

HEFFNER: And yet the media managed to cheer and cheer and cheer when Ronald Reagan’s FCC abolished it.

MANKIEWICZ: Well, you know … now, now you’re getting away from journalism and into, into the corporate realm of broadcasting. I mean I don’t remember what the arguments that the, that the NAB or the network’s lobbyists were making at the time. And believe me, they wouldn’t want me to be making them for them now. I mean, but as a journalist, did I feel hamstrung by the Fairness Doctrine? No, but I didn’t really work under it, to a great extent. You know, I mean should there be a government regulation that requires that we be fair? Well, who decides what’s fair? The government. I mean now that, you know … that’s sounding more like Chile than it does the United States.

HEFFNER: Well, of course, while there was a Fairness Doctrine, we didn’t run into those problems, really. There just was …

MANKIEWICZ: Of course, of course we ran into those problems. Politicians of every stripe complained that we were not being fair. I mean where this, this criticism that the press is all a pack of Liberals … that didn’t start when the Fairness Doctrine ended, that started way before that.

HEFFNER: No, I don’t mean that. I mean broadcasters didn’t have to change a darn thing because of the Fairness Doctrine. It never took away anything from them except in the two instances, the Red Lion case and the one instance in the South. Anyway, right at this moment you’re saying you didn’t live under it …

MANKIEWICZ: Didn’t …

HEFFNER: So … but you will concede our friend Mike Wallace is talking about a National New Council …

MANKIEWICZ: Yes.

HEFFNER: … and I haven’t asked him about the Fairness Doctrine recently, but I am being told to say “good-bye”, and you’re the professional who knows what that means …

MANKIEWICZ: I know what that means.

HEFFNER: Josh Mankiewicz, thank you for joining me on The Open Mind.

MANKIEWICZ: Thank you very much.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.

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