Interview with Peter Jennings, ABC News

© 1996 Hedrick Smith Productions, Inc.

The Race for Ratings and Readers: How it Drives Mainstream News Coverage

SMITH:Where do you divide the line? Where do yo set the line dividing legitimate news from news that's too tabloid or below your standards?

JENNINGS: I don't think there's any rule. I think it comes up every day. My own most infamous example around here is the Gennifer Flowers story. On the day the Gennifer Flowers story broke in the "Star," I did all the things I'd been brought up to do, which is to say, let's check the tapes. Let's hear the tapes, ourselves. Let's try to find out more about her. Let's see if we can get some verification on this. And with any luck, if we go hell bent for leather we'll have it on the air tomorrow. People looked at me and said, "Tomorrow?" And I said, "Yeah, maybe we'll be lucky tomorrow."

They said, do you realize that every ABC affiliate all around the country will have the Gennifer Flowers story on the air today. They'll all turn around when they turn on "World News Tonight" and say, "What's the matter with Jennings?"

SMITH: Is that a case where the tabloids drove the mainstream and the mainstream dropped its standards?

JENNINGS: I think we all recognize, yourself included, that we now live in a vastly more competitive world, that the universe for information has just become greater, that we are all struggling with how to retain audiences, either listeners, viewers or readers, and that we're being pulled back and forth all the time. So if the establishment's standards slip a little on a Tuesday, it doesn't mean they stay down there on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

JENNINGS: Yes. I would say, first of all, I don't think that the networks think of CNN as competition with their evening newscast. And if you look at CNN's viewership, at those times of night, they are not serious competition to the evening newscasts.

What's competition to the evening newscast is just that there are that many more channels available at that particular time of day, and people have many more choices, most of which are non-news. And some people take those choices and therefore, the overall news audience has declined over the years.

In some respects, the toughest competition comes from our affiliates, to which we contribute, because we have daily electronic news gathering systems, which we provide for our affiliates around the country and we often give them at least the video and sometimes the reporting on a major story before we come along.

So there's an ambiguity sometimes for the viewer between the local television coverage and the network coverage. By the way, the viewer can't always tell the difference.

So we at the network level have to acknowledge the fact that the local station is going to be doing some of the national news and even some of the international news before we come along. That has changed us.

Rush to Judgment: Opinion, and Interpretation in News Coverage

JENNINGS: I think it's a struggle every day to keep the horse race nature of politics and the issues of legislation in some kind of balance, and that's very true in the course of a political year and it's very true in the course of a debate about health care reform. And I suppose there are occasions when we do err on the side of "who's ahead" coverage. I think journalism, historically, has liked the competition and likes the conflict. We don't go to airports and watch planes land safely, as you know. And so there's probably an erring on the side of the competitive nature of legislation. But to suggest that we demean or dismiss the substantive nature of it I think is just not correct, at least in our own case.

JENNINGS: What I sometimes have to remind my colleagues and myself is, that we are engrossed by the competition, whether newspapers, television, radio journalism -- we are just overwhelmed by the whole notion of competition, on occasion. And I sometimes remind people that folks don't sit at home with three televisions, that tonight, the people watching your broadcast are not watching the guy on either side of you. And so if NBC and CBS do a story, which we have in the works, there's no reason on Earth why we should stop doing the story. But sometimes in all three network news divisions people will turn off on a story because the competition has done it. I think that's taking competition to its foolish ends.
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