There was a time when television news operations lost money and were still considered the jewel in the crown.
That was the era that Av Westin lived for 55 years. The veteran journalist who produced shows like “CBS Reports,” “ABC Evening News” and “20/20” spent Wednesday telling college and high school students about the days when network news was revered for its information. Those days are gone, and not likely to come back, he said. In fact, the public seems to believe that broadcast news can’t always be trusted and should be reeled back, he said.
“We’re no longer the pure white knights,” Westin said during a presentation at Gonzaga University.
Westin was brought by a Gonzaga-based group called the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media, which seeks to raise awareness of media’s impact on society.
During his talk, “The Decline and Fall of Broadcast Journalism: From Murrow to MSNBC,” Westin described an era before the Internet, 24-hour news broadcasts and nightly broadcasts filled with sex, gossip and entertainment news.
“Money was allocated for news coverage because top management believed it was the right thing to do,” Westin said. “News was a ‘loss leader,’ bringing prestige but little or no monetary gain.”
In the 1970s, managers discovered that stations with quality news shows developed viewer loyalty, Westin said.
The management support of television news changed in the ‘80s when President Ronald Reagan’s administration deregulated station-ownership laws and freed up corporations to buy up more stations, he said.
As corporations replaced community-based owners, the emphasis on local coverage decreased, he said. At the same time, companies put more of a focus on profits and ratings.
“That’s when ratings became the be-all and end-all of broadcasting and that is when TV news became the business of TV news,” Westin said.
What followed were concentrations on sex, crime, gossipy news and car chases, Westin said. Twenty-four hour news channels only solidified the lack of quality programming on television news, he said. Westin said what came next is possibly the most dangerous development – politicization of the news.
“Some critics have called it the ‘Foxification’ of the news,” Westin said. Anchors and reporters are now freely expressing open contempt for views they don’t agree with, he said. And that too is driven by ratings because studies show people watch programs they agree with.
“They tune into cable channels or news programs that seem to support their attitudes,” he said.
The people in charge now learned their trade in an era when ratings and profits are all that mattered, so there’s little hope the trend will reverse unless young people turn the tide, he said. Viewers can no longer distinguish between quality journalism and confusing reports that contain inappropriately biased statements, Westin said.
The college students applauded Westin, who’s been touring to attract high school students to an educational organization called the National Television Academy, which uses scholarships and contests to train upcoming broadcasters.
A free copy of Westin’s book about the current problems of broadcast journalism can be downloaded at www.nationalstudent.tv, a Web site devoted to his organization. After his talk, Westin conceded he’s been part of the decline himself. While heading CBS’ newscast, he made the decision to lead with the death of Elvis when other networks led with political stories. The next week, rival networks led with the death of Bing Crosby.
Some television journalists have made it clear to Westin they don’t like his talk, but they have been unable to refute his allegations, he said.
“In their heart of hearts, they know I’m right,” Westin said, as he left Gonzaga to meet with 50 area high school students at KXLY’s station. There he planned to tell the future leaders that they can make all the difference in the world.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.