Editorial by John Ziegler

TV Networks Show Their True Colors

11/9/2001

For the past two months NBC, CBS, and Fox have been covering themselves in as much red, white and blue as possible. However, Thursday night they showed, once and for all, that their favorite color is the same as it was before September 11th and probably always will be. That color is undeniably green.

For just the second time since the aftermath of the attacks, President Bush decided to address the nation on the state of the war on terrorism. One month ago every single radio and TV network with an ounce of news credibility carried the stirring speech live. The third period of an NHL hockey in Philadelphia was even delayed and then canceled after the address was aired on the scoreboard video screen. But this time around was remarkably and disturbingly different.

This time the prime time speech was given on the biggest television day of the week (that same day as the last time he spoke) in the middle of the most important ratings month of the year. Ordinarily, the White House would never think to schedule such an event at such an inopportune time for the networks, but surely they figured that after 9/11 that the rules had changed at least a little bit. After all, haven't we all been told over and over by the news media that the world will never again be the same after that tragic day? Well, apparently, some aspects of human nature will never be altered, and greed is certainly one of those that appears to be intractable. But even as cynical as I am, I never figured that such behavior would return so quickly and in such a blatant fashion.

While I was curious to see if the networks would be tempted to ditch the President in favor of the heavy hitters of their regular lineup, I was still somewhat shocked when I saw that most of them showed all the will power of a hungry six-year old alone with an open cookie jar. NBC decided to show "Friends" and jettisoned the President (in a CYOA maneuver) to MSNBC. CBS decided that showing "Survivor" was more important than an update on the survival of the nation. Meanwhile, Fox (which has a more legitimate "excuse" to rely on its "News Channel" because it does not have a national newscast on its "regular" network) didn't dare disrupt the premiere of "The Tick." As a result, ABC was the only over-the-air television network to universally broadcast Bush's "Address to the Nation," which was likely seen by much less than a third of all of its households. When well over 200 million people in this country DON'T see something, it can hardly qualify as an "Address to the Nation."

Some may defend those networks by saying that they are businesses like any other and that no one (except those in remote places, which do exist, that don't get cable or have an ABC affiliate) was denied access to the President's speech. In fact, some may even praise their decision because, in the spirit of fighting terrorism, it allowed those Americans who chose to the option of going along with their "normal" lives. However, these arguments deny several relevant realities.

It is important to not forget that these networks in question broadcast over airways that are owned by the citizens of the United States and that in exchange for the use of these airwaves that they are expected/required to act in the public interest. This should not mean that they are required to carry a particular news event simply because the President asks them to do so, but, in a case of war, the implication would seem to be clear. In this situation these television networks have clearly acted in their own greedy self-interest and contrary to the interest of the government and, by extension, the nation.

By deciding not to carry the speech they were sending a message loud and clear to all of America: What the President has to say is not that important and the situation that we are in is not that critical. They also were sending a not so subtle signal that Bush himself is not such a powerful figure and they may have even diminished the office of the Presidency itself at a time when it certainly needs to be fortified.

If you don't believe me, think back to Impeachment for a moment. Was not one of the major reasons that the public (and, ultimately, the Senate itself) did not take the impeachment hearings and the trial of Bill Clinton seriously that, for the most part, neither proceeding was shown on network television? Even the most ignorant of viewers can figure out that if an event is only on the 24-hour news channels (which a considerable portion of the populace still does not have the ability to watch) that it is not that significant. Consequently these all-news channels have provided "cover" for the networks to not broadcast something that doesn't fit with their political or economic agenda.

The real outrage of all of this is that the only people who can do anything about it (the viewers) don't seem to care nearly enough to hold these networks accountable through the only statement they really understand: changing the channel. To a large extent we must rely on the networks to police themselves. I was sure that, human nature being what it is, the TV networks would eventually break this "take one for the team" contract they seemed to be abiding by since the attacks. I just never figured it would take just less than two months. With their memories so frighteningly short, I shudder to think what we have to look forward to during the February sweeps.

source: <a href="http://inq.philly.com/content/inquirer/2001/11/11/opinion/ZIEGLER11.htm">The way that this column appeared in the Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer</a>

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