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Don't adjust your set

National | George Stephanopoulos's rise at ABC is one more example of the decline of broadcast journalism

Issue: "Turkey: A terrible toll," Sept. 4, 1999

I must have been wrong as a young reporter to cover school board meetings and hospitals, spending hours at boring city council sessions, while acquiring the skills to write and put the news on local television. What a waste of time learning accuracy, fairness, and journalistic ethics. I should have gone to work at the White House and then applied for a network correspondent's job, bypassing the bottom and intermediate rungs of the ladder and starting at the top. Such is the deplorable state of today's broadcast journalism that Clinton co-defender, redeemer, and friend, George Stephanopoulos, can go directly to ABC News as a commentator/analyst and then be morphed into a broadcast journalist while his old boss is still in office. Most former members of the revolving-door club between government and journalism at least put a little space between partisan political activity and the profession. There's a law keeping former government officials from lobbying their old associates for one year. No such law exists in journalism, but maybe there should be one. Mr. Stephanopoulos is a nice fellow. It's not his fault. ABC News President David Westin violates whatever remnant of real journalism remains by announcing that he's grooming Mr. Stephanopoulos for a reporter position. "We're all conscious of the sensitivity with him having been a part of the news in Washington," explains Mr. Westin. If he is that conscious, why doesn't he hire a former member of the Bush or Reagan administrations to balance things out? This would be just as bad, but at least the public might credit him for fairness. Mr. Westin says he wouldn't want Mr. Stephanopoulos to be the beat reporter for the Gore campaign. Does this mean he'd consider him as a beat reporter for the campaign of George W. Bush or one of the other Republican candidates? Does Mr. Westin think there might be a public perception of bias if Mr. Stephanopoulos covered a Democratic contender but not a Republican? Mr. Westin lauds Mr. Stephanopoulos's "increasing strength and maturity." Funny, I never felt the need to put "increasing strength and maturity" on my resumé when applying for a job. And then Mr. Westin adds, "There has been a history of people not growing up in journalism becoming journalists," as if this is something to be encouraged. In his book, How the News Makes Us Dumb, University of Florida history professor C. John Sommerville writes that the way broadcast news is misproduced today is actually good because it is driving people away and allowing them to develop alternative means of receiving information that will be far more beneficial to them. Mr. Sommerville contends that the idea of daily news creates an information industry that must constantly be satisfied with "news," no matter how irrelevant or unimportant: "We are now seeing what happens when one depends entirely on daily reports, with their decontextualizing and deconstructing tendencies.... For news has no sense of scale. It concentrates the mind when we thought [its purpose] was to broaden the mind." It's not all the news business' fault. As with so many other things, it is our fault, argues Mr. Sommerville. "We have acquired an addiction," he says, "and newspeople are just supplying the market." If journalism plucks people out of the White House, or anywhere else, without testing their reporting skills in local stations or newspapers before giving them a national platform, then journalism itself is further diminished in the minds of an already skeptical public that regards the profession with proper distrust and disgust. The transformation of George Stephanopoulos from Clinton campaign operative, to Clinton White House operative and apologist, to network commentator, to reporter, along with the industry's failure to fulfill its obligation to fully investigate and expose the illegal and immoral activities of this president and his co-conspirators, is more evidence of dysfunctional broadcast news that is beyond repair. There is a difference between being informed and being wise, argues Mr. Sommerville. George Stephanopoulos will be another informer. What he says will not make us any wiser. It's a dumb move from a crumbling profession that has contributed to the dumbing down of the American people.

-© 1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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Cal Thomas
Cal Thomas

Cal, whose syndicated column appears on WORLD's website and in more than 500 newspapers, is a frequent contributor to WORLD's radio news magazine The World and Everything in It. Follow Cal on Twitter @CalThomas.

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