BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week Bryant Gumbel resigned as host of CBS's Early Show and a press release asserted that no one in TV history had anchored more network morning programs over a career. But despite Gumbel's departure, TV morning shows soldier on. Now that CNN has brightened up its mornings with Paula Zahn, TV morning news seems to have gone completely over to the light side. Well, almost completely. The public affairs network C-Span presents a morning show that is in many ways the anti-morning show. It's low tech and serious, which given the current state of morning news makes it revolutionary. On the Media's producer at large Mike Pesca paid a visit to C-Span headquarters in Washington to take in the anti-morning show.
MIKE PESCA: Northrop Frye, the literary critic, has a theory about how types of literature relate to the seasons. Harold Ramis, the Caddyshack director, has an equally profound theory about network television. He says that the broadcast day has its own life cycle. It starts in wide-eyed innocence with the morning shows; progresses to seriousness during the evening newscasts and lands in the realm of ironic detachment with late night comedians. These thoughts came to him when he was working on a spoof about a morning show. It was rejected. Perhaps a spoof was seen as redundant, given the real thing. [Song " HAPPY TALK" from south pacific PLAYs UNDER SHORT CLIPS FROM MORNING SHOW CHATTER]
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN: What is an it girl.
DIANNE SAWYER: Do you really think you should spend 600,000 dollars to study the sex lives of squirrels?
COOPER: I mean what does an "It girl" do?
MATT LAUER: Apparently rudeness is making a comeback in America.
CAMPELL BROWN, TODAY: It is! Shut up and listen to [...?...]. [LAUGHTER] According to a new survey, 79-- [LAUGHTER] [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
LAUER: I hope you're enjoying your last day-- [LAUGHTER]
IT GIRL: I think there are 'it' girls in Afghanistan; I think there are 'it' girls in Wyoming--
WEATHERMAN: Diane, let's see if I can get the forecast right -- that's the big thing.
GOOD MORNING AMERICA ANCHOR: Charlie Gibson is covering the big news in the Middle East, but Charlie there's big news here with your Orioles.
IT GIRL: This is Paula Zahn, an It girl
GOOD MORNING AMERICA ANCHOR: You describe yourself as an emotional eater--
IT GIRL: The Queen Mother was an It girl.
COOPER: Oh, come on!
MIKE PESCA: Even the names of the shows connote fun, fresh American goodness. Today -- Good Morning, America -- American Morning. Even the most staidly-named, CBS's Early Show is still a "show." [HAPPY TALK MUSIC OUT] There is an alternative. [HIGHLY SERIOUS MUSIC PLAYS] C-Span's Washington Journal is 3 hours of a host reading newspapers out loud over the television; newsmakers and newsbreakers sitting next to that host and callers from across America opining on the topics of the day.
BRIAN LAMB: Washington Times… Philadelphia Inquirer… Let's go next to Allentown, Pennsylvania. You say no. Why?… Here is the Christian Science Monitor's editorial…Let's go to Terra Haute Indiana.
MIKE PESCA: Brian Lamb is C-Span's chairman and CEO; its most recognized on-air presence and one of the rotating hosts of Washington Journal. In short, he's C-Span's It-Boy. He, like all the other hosts of Washington Journal, are not polished news readers but workaday C-Span employees who pass an in-house audition. Peter Slen, Washington Journal executive producer and frequent host explains what the network is looking for.
PETER SLEN: Somebody who will ask a C-Span-esque question. You know, somebody who, who understands the C-Span way.
MIKE PESCA: The C-Span way certainly is not morning show-bright and bubbly. But it's also not the hardnosed interviewing style of, say, the BBC. Washington Journal hosts are precluded from asking challenging questions, following up with gotcha's or holding anyone's feet to the fire. Brian Lamb says that the frequent how-could-you-let-him-get-away-with-that complaint under-estimates the audience's ability to discern the truth on their own. For example.
BRIAN LAMB: There's a whole series of comments coming through right now that George Bush and his family did the World Trade Center disaster on purpose. Well that's a real stretch. I don't want to sit there like a bump on a log letting somebody continue to say that without asking where's your information coming from? What's the basis of this comment you're making? I want the other folks in the audience to find out who told them that this was the case; why did they think this way -- and then they can make up their own mind whether that person's worth listening to.
MIKE PESCA: Even call-screening is different on C-Span. There are different phone numbers for Democrats, Republicans and Others. Sometimes there are different lines for Yes/No questions. So long as callers wait 30 days between calls and call in on the right line, everyone gets on the air. It's part of C-Span's philosophy of being more facilitator than filter.
BRIAN LAMB: We're just trying to be as open as possible and let the - let it flow without constantly worrying about whether you have a kook. There are kooks in America. Whether you have somebody that's a conspiracy theorist --they're all over the place. America is made up of people that aren't all well-educated and don't have the best English and may not even have the best argument, but there's a case that can be made that the spontaneity of it all will give you a more accurate sense of what people are like. We don't care what people say as long as we get some balance to the discussion.
MIKE PESCA: Balance is a tag line at the Fox News Network. It's almost a religion at C-Span, says Peter Slen.
PETER SLEN: Balance is our number one goal. We keep official stats on the Washington Journal, okay? Republicans, Democrats, Conservative, Liberal, Moderates -- we try to stay within the week nearly perfect as far as the balance goes. This morning we had a Yes/No question on the Middle East peace process and whether the U.S. should be involved. We went yes, no, yes, no, yes, no - back and forth - so we had an equal amount. Does that reflect public opinion? I don't know.
MIKE PESCA: It might not even reflect the overall opinion of the C-Span audience. If the question: Should the U.S. intervene? gets a thousand callers to the Yes line and 20 callers to the No line, to the home viewer it will still sound as if there is a 50/50 split during the 20 calls that get on the air. C-Span turned to the Yes/No format after calls ran 9 to 1 in favor of impeaching Bill Clinton even though polls showed that the public was leaning the other way. But a chronic evenhandedness is the best way to keep host opinion out of the discussion. Your average American will probably tell you that that's the way the media's supposed to work -- impartial and totally objective. But most professional journalists will cite their responsibilities to give the public context and to vet the truthfulness of allegations made on the air or in their pages. In a roundabout way, Ted Koppel has criticized the C-Span model as an abdication of journalistic responsibility. He said "If you point a camera at an event, that's not journalism. That's technology."
BRIAN LAMB: Think about why he said it.
MIKE PESCA: Brian Lamb.
BRIAN LAMB: He's in the business of deciding what we should think and not think, question people from his perspective, and that's a business that has been very lucrative for folks. We're, we're, we're every bit as much of a journalist here as anybody that's ever called themselves that.
MIKE PESCA: As journalists they choose topics and book guests while eschewing full time anchors, splashy graphics, ratings -- because C-Span doesn't track them -- and outside funding --because their entire budget comes from the cable industry. This bare bones, aggressively evenhanded format is why C-Span was founded and probably why 8 million people a week watch Washington Journal. And so far no one there is being replaced by Stupid Pet Tricks. [MUSIC] For On the Media, I'm Mike Pesca. [MUSIC]
by Don Byron