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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."