Dan Rather’s long farewell from the anchor chair hit high gear last week as the CBS Evening News aired a series of reports on “the biggest stories of his career.” One of them, of course, was the Kennedy assassination, which broke “at the very time television news was coming of age, technology that for the first time took viewers live to where news happened,” Rather said. “Suddenly, news could be immediate.”
Nowadays, immediacy isn’t the province of network news, at least not the 6:30 p.m. ET broadcasts. Cable and the Web have claimed that territory. So Rather’s March 9 retirement has been treated as a crossroads for the Big Three newscasts. CBS languishes in third place behind NBC and ABC, but all three evening news shows have lost viewers over the past year.
Media columns have been full of advice for Les Moonves, the CBS president, who has to decide what to do to make the post-Rather CBS News relevant again. A bevy of potential star anchors have been nominated, from Katie Couric to Anderson Cooper. Changes in the show’s structure—for instance, using a magazine format—have also been suggested. As far back as 2001, 60 Minutes pioneer Don Hewitt suggested getting rid of two of the three competing evening news shows, seeing them as an anachronism far out of sync with viewing habits.
These prescriptions are all enticing: Who hasn’t wished for the demolition of the evening news after watching a puff piece or waiting for the foreign news that (prior to the recent U.S. wars) rarely came? But perhaps the element of the evening news that’s out of sync isn’t its format, but its timing. The 6:30 p.m. time slot might have worked in the ’60s, when more families tended to gather around the set at that time. But the average American commuting time is now 26 minutes (in some big media markets it’s even longer), and Mrs. Cleaver isn’t at home with dinner waiting anymore—she’s also racing home from the office. Even some media reporters (wink, wink) can’t manage to turn on the tube until, say, 7:30.
Sure, the time slot is just one part of the evening news’ decline. Less stagecraft, fewer doofy graphics, and more hard news would also improve the shows. But the format is not necessarily doomed. A major part of the case against the network newscasts—that Americans can get news from a multitude of sources these days—is actually an argument in their favor. In a wide and disconnected media marketplace, viewers need some common ground, a few news shows that most people watch and can then talk or argue about. The network news could provide that, if it’s willing to stay late at the office. (Full disclosure: As regular readers know, I once worked for CBS News.)
The conversion of Paul
“It’s the dishonesty, stupid,” read a September 10 column in The New York Times. What Dubya did or didn’t do in the National Guard 30 years ago wasn’t the point. “It’s the recent pattern of lies.” Not an unusual sentiment these days, yet not the typical thing heard from an economics professor at Princeton whose works include page-turners like “Increasing Returns, Monopolistic Competition, and Inter- national Trade.” But then Paul Krugman isn’t your typical econ professor.
“It may come as a surprise,” he said in a recent lecture at Fordham. “I’m not fond of the policies of the current administration.” Everybody got the joke: Krugman has become one of the best-known and most prolific critics of Dubya’s doings, from the tax cuts, to Iraq, to Social Security. An audience member asked what Krugman would have done if John Kerry had driven his nemesis from office in November. He replied: “I would have been able to write what I thought I was going to write for the Times, which is serious policy discussions, instead of what I have to do now, which is basically, ‘Liar, liar, pants on fire.’ ”
Indeed, when Krugman’s column first appeared in early 2000 he breezed from dissing anti-globalization protesters to dissecting Ecuador’s monetary policy. Somehow Krugman got from there to concluding in 2002 that “the Bush administration lies a lot.”
What was the turning point? “Really it was the Bush Social Security plan in its initial incarnation during the 2000 campaign,” Krugman tells the Voice. “It had never occurred to me that the candidate of one of the two major political parties could go out there saying that two plus one equals four and no one would call him on it.”
Since 1990, Krugman has carved a niche as America’s living-room economist, penning a series of books translating economic thinking into something that average Joes can digest. The difference now, he says, is that “there is no center in American politics anymore.” The left and right disagree not just on policies but on facts as well. “I had envisioned myself as an educator and now I end up being in large part a fact checker or a truth squad on what’s really outrageous,” Krugman laments.
There is some question as to how his new, politicized role sits with Krugman’s fellow economists—especially those who will decide if he wins a Nobel Prize for his work on trade theory. Krugman says he has no idea if the column hurts his chances. “I hope not,” he says, “because the academic work stands on its own.”
And besides, someone has to keep the press honest. In recent weeks Krugman’s column has focused heavily on the flaws in the president’s Social Security proposal—flaws the media have downplayed, he says, because the press seems “extremely hostile to Social Security as it is” and “really buys into the notion of a crisis.”
This might be because Social Security is an issue that is clearly important but that few in the media really understand. To the press, “it became a badge,” Krugman says. “You needed to learn about two paragraphs of stuff and then you could go on a panel and sound like a grave, serious person concerned about the problems of the United States.”