Thursday, January 26, 2006

Broadcaster says serious news at risk

By JAN SJOSTROM , Daily News Arts Editor

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Former CNN 'NewsNight' anchor Aaron Brown said important issues, such as the war in Iraq, are being clouded over by 'mud-wrestling' that skirts substance. Brown spoke Tuesday at The Society of the Four Arts.


The anchorman whose boss once characterized him as ice compared with his successor's fire was anything but chilly in the impassioned speech he delivered Tuesday at The Society of the Four Arts.

"Truth no longer matters in the context of politics and, sadly, in the context of cable news," said Aaron Brown, whose four-year period as anchor of CNN's NewsNight ended in November, when network executives gave his job to Anderson Cooper in a bid to push the show's ratings closer to front-runner Fox News.

Brown said he tried to give viewers a balanced diet of light and serious news with NewsNight. "But I always knew when I got to the Brussels sprouts, I was on thin ice," he said.

When NewsNight spent four hours covering the arrest of actor Robert Blake for the murder of his wife, Brown received thousands of e-mails criticizing the amount of time the show spent on the story. Nevertheless, that show, which aired in April 2002, received the highest ratings of any program since NewsNight's coverage of the November 2001 crash of American Airlines flight 587.

"Television is the most perfect democracy," Brown said. "You sit there with your remote control and vote." The remotes click to another channel when serious news airs, but when the media covers the scandals surrounding Laci Peterson, the Runaway Bride or Michael Jackson, "there are no clicks then," the journalist said.

With the departure from the screen of the "titans" — Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather — who "resisted the temptations of their bosses to go for the ratings grab, it will be years before an anchorman or anchorwoman will have the clout to fight these battles," he said.

Brown has spent most of his 30-year career in television news. He's covered everything from the Columbine High School murders to the aftermath of the space shuttle Columbia disaster. But viewers may remember best his on-the-spot coverage of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.

He's shocked "by how unkind our world has become," he said. E-mail and talk radio appear to have given people the license to say anything, regardless of how cruel or false it may be, he said.

He cited the example of an e-mail faulting what the sender considered to be NewsNight's inadequate coverage of an anti-war protest in Washington, D.C. The note ended with, "I hope the violence visited on the people of Iraq will someday be visited on your children."

Those on the opposite side of the political spectrum are no more tolerant, Brown said. "Any criticism of the administration is regarded as hatred of the president and hatred of the country itself," he said.

Important issues, such as the prosecution of the war in Iraq at home and abroad, are being clouded over by "mud-wrestling" that skirts substance, he said. Consider what he called "the swift-boating of John Murtha," the Democratic congressman whose war record was smeared when he called for an exit strategy in Iraq. "Cable didn't search for the truth, but engaged in mock debates pitting those making the charges against Murtha's defenders," he said.

Many Americans on the left and the right aren't interested in the truth, but simply want news that confirms their viewpoints, he said. "You'd think that it's no more complex than good vs. evil," he said.

Journalists have fallen short in presenting important news in ways that allow viewers to see how it matters in their lives. But viewers must take up the battle as well, he said. "It's not enough to say you want serious news. You have to watch it. It isn't enough to say you want serious debate. You have to engage in it."


***This certainly hits the nail on the head.