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From Hard News to 'You News': TV Is Softening, Says Columbia Journalism Review

Television Journalists and Politicians Are Beginning to Act Alike, Seeking Ratings and Votes by 'Feeling Our Pain'
The Columbia Journalism Review has found what it calls "You News" flourishing on network television of the '90s. The stories on our health and managing our lives are taking time from foreign and hard news, writes associate editor Andie Tucher in the May/June issue, just published. Producers have discovered that "in addition to the old categories of the news you need and the news you want, they can add a third type of news: news about you - news to use at your next doctor's visit, PTA meeting or family dinner table discussion," she says. "All three networks are paying as much attention to health problems as any scriptwriter for E.R.," she writes. "Where once the airtime was full of congressional wrangles and Middle East peace talks, now it's heavy with medical news and features from flyover country." In the first months of 1997, Tucher notes, NBC broadcast named feature segments on daydreams, the genealogy craze, oversupply rip-offs at the Pentagon, no-fault divorce, getting out of debt, managing one's time, overcoming the fear of flying, the aging process and how life has changed for women in Yankton, S.D., where anchorman Tom Brokaw grew up. Brokaw told her in an interview that they were "a rich mix of different kinds of stories." She calls them "a jumble of the informative, the you-focused and the fluffy." "What we're attempting to do," Brokaw said, "is to cover the important news of the day and the news that is relevant to our viewers, and that news now has a much different woof and warp. . . . I travel this country a lot, and wherever I go I hear what people are talking about and what interests them and what they are desperate to know about. And a whole lot of that has very little to do with what we would routinely put on the air ten-fifteen years ago." Tucher acknowledges that more people now are getting their hard news from other sources and that the golden age of television often produced its own soft features. She credits ABC, NBC and CBS with continuing to air stories "that connect viewers to a larger world than their own home or community, introducing them to issues they didn't necessarily know they didn't know about." But "the gossamer and the useful often outweigh the grit." She notes that having lost their immediacy as news providers, newspapers and magazines for years have also been substituting service stories, lifestyle features and analysis for the urgent scoop. She asks: "How long can an evening news program emphasize the fulfillment of viewers' needs, work to provide exactly what they are 'desperate' to hear - and continue to function as a national newscast at all?" Tucher finds striking parallels between politicians and television journalists: both "have focused on small, personalized promises of a better life, not for your country, but for you and your family. . . . Both talk in cadences of a manufactured populism that replaces the inspiriting tones of leadership with a comforting patois of service and infotainment. [Both] want us to know they are just folks like us, just folks who understand our concerns, just folks who feel our pain, just folks who know what we're desperate to hear. And what might get enough votes - or ratings - to win." ### -2-