In defense of the gatekeepers: Network news is still important

In defense of the gatekeepers: Network news is still important
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The past week battered the already bruised American body politic: three mass shootings, one right after another, followed by stock market drops and banking data breaches.

Watching it all stream by via cable news and endless iPhone glances was an invitation to information overload — headlines and commentary advancing like a flash flood, threatening to overwhelm and ultimately numb the brain. This is a time that cries out for someone or something to at least try to draw people together and make some sense of what’s going on.

The only escape amid the clutter of a media-soaked culture, one that often seems to divide in order to conquer, was that dependable dinosaur, the half-hour network evening newscast.

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ABC’s David Muir and NBC’s Lester Holt were in El Paso the night after the massacre; CBS’ Norah O’Donnell anchored from New York with a team of reporters on scene. I watched all three shows, to see what role these once-dominant programs could still play during a compressed time of national tragedy, given all the media changes surrounding them.

From the first frame, the ground they staked out was clear: The shows displayed no screaming graphics, no overheated on-set exchanges, and no panelists speculating on what all of this means for everyone in Washington.

The three network newscasts, with the gift of a little time to gather news and develop perspective, simply reported what happened. In a way that seemed comforting, one show was nearly identical to the other. Each led with a “tick-tock” segment that laid out the timelines for El Paso and Dayton, they each interviewed the same mother who survived and a Parkland victim’s father who happened to be passing through town. There were stories about 8chan, the notorious web home of white supremacist postings, and a look at the patchwork of state gun-control laws.

No show dealt with the “political implications” of that horrible 24 hours until deep into the program, and then moved on. Politics was not yet the main focus, not on a day like that.

This similarity among the evening newscasts has long been disparaged, proof that an elite cadre of like-minded journalism gatekeepers filter out the news for consumers, denying them the full “truth,” hiding from the body politic “what’s really going on.”

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From the earliest moments of cable and internet news, the national half-hour newscast has been declared irrelevant. We were assured that these fresh news sources would allow consumers to decide what was important to them. They would act as their own editors, and the notion of “consumer-generated journalism” meant anyone could be a reporter. It was to be a golden era for the First Amendment, liberated from “the gatekeepers.”

As with so many affirmations offered in the utopian early phases of technological advances, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. Reporting the news is expensive, and has been quickly replaced by a furious stream of low-cost commentary. The belief that everyone could be an editor or journalist gave life to websites that promoted conspiracy theories and manifestos, all supported by “facts” that would never withstand professional scrutiny. At the same time, studies show consumers, with so much content packed in around them, now have difficulty separating fact from opinion. Turns out they don’t have the time — or the desire — to be their own reporter and editor.

The evening newscasts, even now, remain an important counter to all of this, a way to escape the deluge and to begin sorting out what really matters among the day’s events. That mission is never more valuable than in days like these, when so much alleged information seems unmoored from context and substance.

Last Sunday night, all three anchors ended their programs the same way, too. They each reached back into the rich history of the national evening news program and offered “final thoughts” to the viewer, just as legendary newscasters before them did during moments of uncertainty. Muir saw a nation coming together in “solidarity” with El Paso and Dayton, Holt vowed “we’re all tired” but won’t give up hope, and O’Donnell spoke of FDR’s “freedom from fear,” encouraging Americans to fight for change and live their lives.

A bit mawkish? A little too on-the-nose? Sure, especially in the midst of a contemporary media landscape that seemingly strives to heighten tension and define differences. Instead, these three held on to the quaint ideal that, in a tragic or troubled moment, their best purpose was to report the facts, tell the story, try as best they could to make sense of a brutal day — bring people together.

NOTE: This post has been updated from the original to correct the spelling of Norah O'Donnell's first name.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.