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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Layoffs are eroding the quality of journalism on television

    Chances are you’ve never heard of Larry Doyle. I had no idea who he was until last week, when the news division at CBS let him go after 40 years.

    Yes, CBS had another round of firings, and the loss of Doyle, the network’s top war news producer, showed how deep these cuts really were. Dan Rather told The New York Observer that Doyle was “”the soul of the place.””

    Everyone was told this purge was a response to the devastating ad market of 2009. TV news layoffs are often spun as cyclic when, in fact, they are secular, part of the retrenching of a still-powerful but no longer influential media sector. Katie Couric can still get a lot of mileage from a gotcha, but there’s no sense waiting for the next “”Harvest of Shame”” to come along. (Shame went out of style long ago at the networks.)

    So what happens when there’s a big, boring but hugely important story that affects 100 million Americans — say, airline safety? Well, we saw what happened last week, when the nightly newscasts all reported on the government’s report into the Continental 3407 crash in Buffalo, which killed 50 people one year ago.

    As CBS reporter Nancy Cordes told Couric’s viewers last week, the report blamed the tragedy on “”a series of easily avoidable mistakes”” by the airplane’s captain and first officer. Concerns also were raised about the company that put them in the cockpit, Colgan Air, a low-cost puddle jumper that partners with Continental and other major carriers.

    Cordes even mentioned that the problem might be systemic, requiring the FAA to draft new regulations for regional airlines, which have been involved in every domestic plane fatality since 2002. But a two-minute news report is not a very large or sturdy container, and frankly, after Cordes had finished blaming the pilots, everything else was blah-blah-blah.

    The Colgan Air report faded next to the relentless coverage of the Toyota recall, an important story, to be sure, but one affecting a fraction of the number of people who take commuter flights. Both stories involve federal regulators, but a product recall means a hazard could be sitting in your driveway! That’s an easy sell. This recall also came fully loaded with an us-versus-them sidebar.

    “”As Toyota sales were falling last month, Ford’s were up 24 percent,”” Couric chirped last week.

    Here’s the paradox of big, boring stories such as airline safety. If you throw enough resources at one of them, you’ll flesh out the details needed to turn it into a fairly spellbinding narrative. But if you do that, you won’t make money. If you’re smart with it, though, you might build your audience. Newspapers know this. CBS used to know this.

    As it happens, the PBS newsmagazine “”Frontline”” chose the one-year anniversary of the Buffalo crash to air its investigation . The report rewinds to the dawning of the deregulatory era 30 years ago, then walks us back to the present day, methodically showing how the commuter business grew to 52 percent of all airline travel and how two inexperienced pilots were allowed in that Colgan cockpit.

    As someone who has studied the history of government oversight of media, I found “”Frontline’s”” story all-too-familiar. It outlined a case of overburdened regulators asking the industry to keep tabs on itself. The industry responded by building what one of “”Frontline’s”” talking heads called a “”firewall”” between the major carriers and their regional partners.

    A former Colgan pilot told “”Frontline”” he got promoted to captain with 500 hours of flight time, less than a third of what the majors require. Pilots are paid only when the cabin door closes, so they work 16-hour days for perhaps $21,000 a year. There’s no pay for canceled flights, so they take chances with stormy weather.

    And when a plane goes down? Incredibly, the major airline that “”incentivizes”” (not my word) this risky behavior is shielded from liability. And the government? As Mary Schiavo, the FAA’s inspector general during the Clinton/Valujet years, puts it: “”The FAA protects airlines.””

    “”Frontline’s”” correspondent is Miles O’Brien, who was one of my favorite CNN anchors until he and the network’s entire science team were fired in 2008. Between the PBSexposure and likely tie-ins with NPR, O’Brien’s reporting will probably be seen and heard by more Americans than saw him on cable. PBS also will put the report online in perpetuity.

    Will other networks follow? During a decade when the cost of gathering news plummeted, meaning that networks could do more with less, they have instead done less with less. Ken Auletta of The New Yorker recently documented how correspondents such as NBC’s Chuck Todd have become victims of the Internet news cycle. They are on camera all day, while enterprise suffers.

    A nonprofit venture such as “”Frontline”” isn’t immune to this trend. In 2009, it produced 16 films that ate up 17 hours of PBS prime time. Ten years earlier, “”Frontline”” produced 17 films with 22 hours of in-depth reporting. Five fewer hours, and one less assignment, no doubt saved PBS stations a pile of pledge dollars.

    Everywhere you look, TV news is saving money. And as Miles O’BrienLarry Doyle and thousands of other journalists might say in response: At what cost? 

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