Isn’t it interesting that some members of Congress are attempting to cut off the federal money for public television and radio stations throughout the nation? This has happened at least two other times in past years, but this attempt is serious because the current president and his friends hate public radio and TV.
Last month, President Bush put a new person in charge of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting who has brought in two ombudsmen to work for more “balance” in the news. And the Republican Party has hired two lobbyists to see to it that Congress approves any bill that would reduce the grants to public radio and TV.
It’s true that the public stations say more about the war that we should not have and the economy that should not be shrinking. But that’s because those stations deliver more news than any other networks. Conservatives just hate hearing the polls that say more than 50 percent of Americans don’t like what’s happening to their country and that 59 percent want to withdraw American troops from Iraq. For example, the fellows who write the editorials for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette take pot-shots at public radio and TV at least once a week.
But I will be sorry if public TV and radio are stopped. These days the commercial TV and radio stations that used to be owned by hometown people are now owned and run by chains. That’s true of all the TV stations in Little Rock and most of the radio stations.
The chains’ first concern is receiving money, not giving news. I still like the Sunday morning interviews on all the TV networks, and I still watch the 5:30 p.m. network news shows frequently, although they aren’t what they used to be. They have more commercials, and they tell less news and do more feature stories — health, travel, trends, interviews with movie stars, etc. Networks are moving away from news and opinion shows.
One good one was CNN’s “The Capital Gang,” where on Saturday night a prominent politician and four reporters, half liberals, half conservatives, talked about what’s going on in Washington. It’s been on for 17 years, but if you want to see it, you better do it this Saturday night because CNN is taking it off the air. Maybe it will be replaced with a Michael Jackson comeback.
Most of what you see and hear on the local, commercial TV stations’ news programs are the weather, sports, auto accidents, crimes, bites of speakers at local meetings, etc. The longest story covered last week was about a cat high in a tree that wouldn’t come down although it finally did. News magazines are changing, too. You would know this if you have read a recent Time magazine. It has lots of feature stories, photos, opinion, how-to-do-its, movies, health, music, interviews, etc. but not much “hard” news.
That’s certainly true of newspapers, too, especially those owned by national chains like Gannett, the company that bought and then annihilated the Arkansas Gazette. It owns more than 100 of some of the biggest papers in the country. Most chains are more interested in advertising than news. They know that in the last 20 years, 300 daily newspapers have gone out of business, so they think they can get more readers if they reduce news and print more sports, features and entertainment stories.
I’m glad to be able to say that Arkansas’s biggest daily paper, the Democrat-Gazette, except for Mondays and Tuesdays when news pages are few, is giving its readers plenty of news not only from Little Rock and Arkansas but from all over the world. And its circulation is going up, not down.
Last week at the annual Arkansas Press Association convention some expert journalists came in to talk about what newspapers should do to survive. Their advice: Cover thoroughly local governments and politicians; be careful to separate opinion from news; make your reporters write shorter stories; don’t print many pictures of tragedies; put indexes throughout the paper so readers can easily find stories they are interested in; tell what will be in the next day’s edition; charge for long obituaries but print five or six lines free for anyone who dies; have a daily, accurate listing of what’s on TV, etc.
There was also another panel of advisors consisting of a mayor, a college president, a high school student and workers in a chamber of commerce and an advertising agency. My favorite idea came from the student, Tyler Bone, a football player at Sheridan High School. “There’s more than sports in high school that people ought to know about,” he said. “Our student council raised $3,000 to send to the victims of the tsunami flood in Indonesia, but it was never in the newspaper.”
There were about 300 editors and publishers at the convention. But, sadly, fewer than 40 showed up to hear how to improve their newspapers.
Newspaper photographers never get much money or attention. I know because I got my first job as one in the 1940s. In 1957, a guy named Will Counts learned it when he made the best pictures of the desegregation of Little Rock's Central High School.