The U.S. News Blues

It looks like Scott Pelley will, as expected, replace Katie Couric on the CBS Evening News when she steps down soon. I don’t know enough about him to predict what this means, but again, it really shows the declining prestige of the news anchor position.

Couric’s performance was uneven (except for the low-hanging fruit of the Palin interview), and she didn’t perform up to the network’s ratings expectations, and the new chairman of the network’s news division reportedly wanted her out. The new guy is already making a lot of changes, including forcing out “senior correspondent” Jeff Greenfield.

But with all that, she probably could have stayed on if she’d really wanted to — maybe the new guy would have forced her out eventually, but it’s hard to do something like that immediately, especially when it involves well-deserved negative publicity for forcing out a female anchor in favour of yet another middle-aged man. But the job just didn’t have that much in it for her. She wasn’t setting the news agenda; cable news, with fewer viewers, does that now because it’s what the “insiders” watch. At least on Today she got to jump on news stories before they had been beaten to death during the 24-hour news cycle; evening news is almost like late night talk, a chance to get some quick soundbites about news items that are already familiar. If she does the rumoured syndicated show, whether it’s good or bad, she’ll be more of a star than she currently is as the news anchor.

Speaking of news anchors, keep a close eye out for the way Paul Ryan’s budget proposal is covered in U.S. news. This is going to be the kind of story that calls forth the he said/she said instincts of TV news folk. Someone compared the coverage of the deficit in the U.S. to the coverage of Iraq in 2002-3: essentially, it involves fusing different problems together as if they are the same problem. And coverage is driven by a tendency to see bipartisanship as an ideal: because the Obama administration has signed onto the idea that spending is more important than unemployment (or that the current deficit was driven by spending, rather than the economic collapse), just as many leading Democrats signed onto the idea of the Iraq invasion, it’s being portrayed as the default mainstream view.

Here’s an already-iconic example of how this works: one of those ubiquitous “strategists” (where do political parties get so many strategists?) goes on cable news and agrees with the necessity of taking money out of the economy during a downturn, and praises Ryan’s plan as “courageous.” This is a fairly mainstream view within the modern Democratic party, which does tend to be very concerned with deficits: this is why, for example, Obama made cuts to Medicare (a major reason for the Democrats’ shellacking in 2010) in order to finance “Obamacare.” Republicans are less concerned with deficits in the abstract (as Dick Cheney said, Reagan proved deficits don’t matter politically), but are interested in cutting spending. So when both parties agree on something, that conventional wisdom pervades all of news coverage, even if it doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s a structural problem that may never be solved.

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