Checkbook journalism

CBS is planning to inflict a new “Evening News” anchor on the
American public sometime during the year and the betting is that Katie
Couric, the cutesy half anchor of NBC’s “Today Show,” will get the
high-profile job once occupied by such icons as Walter Cronkite and the
controversial Dan Rather, who had to be shoved out the door after a
cub-like performance during the presidential campaign.

One might
ask why this would be worth commenting on. The justification lies in
the details that once again shed some light on what is happening to
journalism and its responsibilities to its community of readers,
viewers and listeners in the vital area of public affairs. The most
startling thing about this prospect is not Couric’s ability to measure
up to her predecessors, having had some minor beat training as a
national correspondent before entering the world of show business. It
is how much the network is willing to pay her _ or whomever it might
name if the rumors about her job change prove false _ for reading off a

That figure is put at a cool $20 million annually,
perhaps the most stupefying amount paid any “news person” in the
history of the First Amendment. Even in this age of excess that kind of
money is reserved for the most celebrated Hollywood stars, Wall Street
tycoons and overstuffed CEOs, certainly not journalists who are
supposed to be able to understand and connect with the commoners about
whom and to whom they report. This many clams are particularly
poisonous when every news organization in the nation is making severe
cuts under the constant pressure from parent companies and Wall Street
to increase margins.

The new president of CBS News, Sean
McManus, pledges that the anchor salary will leave enough in the
network’s budget to pay for correspondents who actually collect what
goes in the reports the anchors introduce for 20 minutes of the
30-minute newscasts _ 10 minutes are out for commercials _ five nights
a week. The percentage of Americans who get this daily briefing from
the three major networks is declining steadily and the networks have
become increasingly less willing to spend as they once did to develop
the news. In truth, the quality of these shows has declined markedly
since the networks decided that the news operations should no longer be
public service loss leaders but profit centers instead. That required
substantial economies.

So whenever there are proclamations about
preserving and protecting the viability and quality of the journalistic
enterprise, one should regard them in the same light as Rather’s swan
song about President Bush’s National Guard records. The impact of such
high priced anchors for such little contribution _the anchor spends
only a relatively few minutes a night on camera _ also trickles down to
the affiliates who must curtail their own local operations to pay for
the network’s extravagance.

In the excellent film “Broadcast
News,” it is suggested to a legendary star anchor that he might give up
$1 million of his considerable salary to offset planned cutbacks in the
Washington operation. The anchor, played by Jack Nicholson, instantly
becomes completely unsympathetic to the plight of his colleagues. His
longtime friend and subordinate realizes instantly that he may have put
his own job in jeopardy by daring to make the suggestion.

anyone in this business worth that much money? The answer quite clearly
is: Of course not. Cronkite, who came to broadcast journalism already
established as one of the better print reporters of his day and whose
presence on camera and vast experience made him one of the most
reassuring figures in the world of journalism, would be the first to
say so. Newspaper reporters have been notoriously underpaid forever. It
was not unusual for a veteran print journalist with years of experience
to be sitting at a press conference next to an electronic newsperson
with half the background but making 10 times the salary. But since
television news still retains its primary mission of entertainment,
such disparity in pay is understandable.

The Securities and
Exchange Commission is now considering altering the public reporting
requirements for executive salary and bonuses to include non-management
performers like Couric whose enormous pay packages impact the stock.
The shareholders certainly have a right to know and so do those who
tune in every night believing these superstars are just like them.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)