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
    TelePrompTer.

    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.

    Is
    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.)