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Once-respected NBC News is suffering from a losing streak

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NBC News was for years the network juggernaut that raked in the ratings and the cash. It was also widely respected for its journalism standards. Now, the once-respected news organization is wobbling after months of self-inflicted blunders. The missteps include personnel disasters and questionable news judgments. These preventable gaffes suggest a news hierarchy at NBC that has lost its compass, operating as a misguided corporate bureaucracy and not as a journalistic service to the nation.

NBC pioneered broadcast news in the late 1920s with radio news updates from the legendary Floyd Gibbons. The network was the first to venture into television news, with nightly updates from John Cameron Swayze beginning in 1949. The “Huntley-Brinkley Report” later followed and dominated ratings. After news surges by CBC and ABC, NBC reemerged in the mid-’90s to again command the broadcast news landscape.

{mosads}That leadership is now fading as ABC’s “World News Tonight” with David Muir has overtaken NBC’s Lester Holt for five consecutive quarters. NBC’s “Today” show now also trails ABC, and has lost sixteen percent of its younger demographic viewers in just the last year.

Lester Holt at first seemed to thrive in the NBC anchor chair he inherited three years ago from Brian Williams, who got launched for telling tall tales. Holt seemed overmatched, however, in his moderating of a 2016 campaign debate between Trump and Clinton. His puffy report from North Korea earlier this year in advance of the Olympics was poorly developed and came off as North Korean propaganda. NBC acknowledged that North Korean censors organized the itinerary and controlled the visuals. Recently, when the Justice Department’s inspector general testified before Congress about the FBI’s conduct during the Hillary Clinton email probe, Holt’s newscast failed to mention the story.

NBC is blowing over $20 million a year on the fizzling former Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly. She has failed to gather momentum with her morning broadcast, and her highly promoted prime-time news magazine has gone missing in action. Kelly’s dismal ratings are now believed to be a drag on the mid-morning chat show of Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb. NBC brass failed to deduce that an FNC prime-time firebrand could not segue to a morning, less politicized audience.

Former “Today” show host Matt Lauer got the gate over allegations of sexual misconduct. Instead of handing the workplace-climate probe over to external investigators, NBC conducted an internal review which, to be expected, found that NBC’s top brass was oblivious to the misbehaviors over the many years.

And there is more on the list of NBC’s questionable practices. NBC News sat on Ronan Farrow’s scoop about the sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein, so Farrow put the story in The New Yorker. And Brian Williams, after a suspension, has been rewarded with his own evening show on MSNBC.

Fox Business Network has now surpassed CNBC in business day-ratings for seven straight quarters, and has shown double-digit audience growth in the last year. There was a time when CNBC’s dominance in business news was assumed insurmountable.

In the good news-bad news category, MSNBC’s ratings fortunes have jumped in the last two years, the channel relishing its role as a leading Trump antagonist. The downside is that this left-leaning image might well be deflecting over to the network big brother, NBC, where viewers are less likely to want such politically charged news content. High-profile news personalities such as Chuck Todd and Andrea Mitchell are seen frequently on both venues, and their commentary perspectives follow them to the big network, where viewers expect more objectivity.

The journalism industry as a whole struggles with declining credibility and public confidence, but NBC is doing more than its share in the downfall. When prominent news organizations such as NBC stumble like this, public skepticism is enhanced. The narrative grows that the media industry is in disarray.

NBC’s corporate parent, Comcast, has plenty of resources available to assure the legendary network can, indeed, meet the news needs of the nation. Along with the resources, however, it will take determination, leadership and strong news judgment to get there. The nation could really benefit from an NBC that is more like the legendary years, when news served the information needs of a democracy.

Jeffrey McCall (@Prof_McCall) is a professor of communication at DePauw University.

Tags CNBC Hillary Clinton Jeff McCall Matt Lauer media MSNBC NBC News

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