Visit to 'Good Morning America' yields amazing candor

Sunday, June 16, 2002

NEW YORK -- June's first weekend found this writer at a three-day meeting in Manhattan hosted by the Legislative Leaders Foundation and Columbia University. The subject for a meeting of my legislative peers from across the country was "The Different Worlds of Politicians and the Media."

A highlight came Friday morning when we were taken down to a session at ABC News featuring "Good Morning America" host Charlie Gibson in his second-floor studio with its huge windows overlooking Times Square. Speaking casually and informally to the 90 or so of us in attendance, Gibson held forth with a striking candor and openness that won over all his listeners. "GMA" isn't a part of this writer's regular viewing, but Gibson was so candid about TV news that his message, beginning with his background, is worth sharing.

Twenty years ago, Gibson was ABC's congressional reporter, covering the House of Representatives. This was the same time that this writer was working on Capitol Hill for a freshman congressman named Bill Emerson, and House Speaker Tip O'Neill had hired a press secretary out of the Carter White House named Chris Mathews, now of CNBC's "Hardball" fame. Gibson told us that in those days Brit Hume, now head of FOX News' Washington bureau, was the Senate correspondent for ABC, and that all three networks each had a reporter covering the House and another covering the Senate.

This has changed: Today, each of the networks, with their shrinking audience for news, has one correspondent on the Hill covering the House and Senate. Gibson laments this sad fact, but in his telling, it gets worse.

A pivotal development in recent TV history is the minute-by-minute measurement of viewer ratings. (A colleague who is a student of media trends tells me that this instant measurement dates from the purchase of NBC by GE, and was quickly adopted by the competing networks.) Instead of measuring the Nielsen ratings or whatever by 15-minute "day parts," as previously, they now do this by the minute.

Result: Next to no coverage of Congress or much other hard news, because the minute-by-minute ratings tank as bored viewers zap their remotes to other channels. Covering Congress is too "messy," too "complicated." So we get more O.J., more Chandra Levy, more kidnapping stories such as the tragic saga now in Utah. Also lots and lots on health topics, to the point that Gibson quoted someone telling Tom Brokaw that he should do his newscast wearing a white coat.

I asked Gibson whether TV news hadn't tried, for three days or so, to turn the arrest of faded actor Robert Blake into O.J. II. Again, his reply was admirable for its candor. He acknowledged the attempt to over-cover the Blake story, and that ratings had tanked, before adding that "nobody cares who Blake is," adding that the best line was David Letterman's: "Until his not-guilty plea, Robert Blake hadn't had a speaking part in 20 years!"

The Big Three networks that had 90 percent of homes watching their newscasts when I was a kid in the 1960s now don't have 45 percent between them, and it's falling every year. How much do you watch the Big Three network news programs anymore?

More candor from Gibson: ABC News, which is owned by Disney, lost $60 million last year.

From ABC we walked over to The New York Times, where the sessions paled next to Gibson, easily the most stimulating speaker in a weekend full of them.

Peter Kinder is assistant to the chairman of Rust Communications and president pro tem of the Missouri Senate.

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