Changes at CBS News mean more of the same

I don’t know Sean McManus, but I suspect he’ll do well at the helm of CBS News. The problem is that his pedigree in sports suggests there’s no way he’ll step outside the box of sameness. Consider what I wrote in an April 2004 essay called News as a Sporting Event. In this essay, I made the argument that during my lifetime, news leads had become obsessed with blame, much in the way color commentators quickly find blame during live sporting events. This, I wrote, was a part of perpetrating the Modernist dream that everything in life is cause and effect and to position ourselves as knowledgeable and important. What’s the difference, I asked, between “The Lakers lost, because Kobe didn’t perform up to par” or “Howard Dean lost, because the Internet didn’t perform the way he hoped it would?”

Nowhere is this type of news more prevalent than in the coverage of our political world. An election is a natural sporting event, albeit one that lasts for months or even years. A Presidential election is like the NCAA basketball tournament on steroids. We have an elimination tournament in the form of primaries that culminates in the championship game in November. The sidebar political stories contribute to the overall story. For example, a New York Times piece on the recent 9/11 hearings carried this headline, “Evaluating the 9/11 Hearings’ Winners and Losers.”

Most that we classify as news begins with an event. I was taught long ago that the event was the first day lead and that reaction was the second. Attempts at understanding were reserved for later, but today, the “perspective” stories often shove aside the others as news organizations compete for “king of the know-it-all-mountain” status and the coveted marketing niche of “they help me make sense of the news.” Who, what, why, where and when have become the servants of how and how come. Blame is now the first day lead. Technology and speed have enabled this occurrence, but it is our marketing that has provided the mandate to turn curiosity into conclusion in the name of cause and effect.

This is why I predict CBS will do well at producing a better version of the same.

Andrew Heyward may have totally screwed up the Rathergate business, but he appears to be the only one who actually learned from the event. Rather is busy trying to rescue his mountaintop reputation, while Mary Mapes is about to come out with a book that trashes Heyward in the name of making herself look the victim. Heyward, meanwhile, has used what he must have known were his last days at the helm of CBS News to talk about the inherent problems of traditional, mainstream news. It was remarkable to hear him talk of objectivity and multiple truths a few weeks ago in New York. Frankly, if Les Moonves had any balls, he’d let Heyward explore the new world he envisions instead of bringing in a sports-bred gunslinger to further the misdirection of Modernist news.

Heyward says he’s going to stay involved in the business of media. I think he’ll find more people interested in following him than he might expect.

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