By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Ratings and real life

ABC News reporter Martha Raddatz last night complained about an article in the New York Times that suggested “World News Tonight” co-anchor Bob Woodruff was in Iraq for the purpose of bolstering the newscast’s ratings. In an interview with NECN’s Chet Curtis, Raddatz said her network would never do any such thing.

Woodruff and cameraman Doug Vogt were badly injured on Sunday. They are said to be in serious condition, but recovering.

Raddatz’s comments are not yet available on NECN’s Web site, so I won’t attempt to quote her directly. But she raises an important issue: How much risk is acceptable for journalists covering the war in Iraq? And where is the line between legitimate newsgathering and ratings-mongering?

For starters, Raddatz would seem to be referring to this article in yesterday’s Times, by Richard Oppel and Jacques Steinberg. Here are the sections to which Raddatz apparently was objecting:

For years now, “World News Tonight” has been lagging in the ratings, and ABC has much money and prestige riding on its new co-anchor format, which was intended to stand out from its competitors by having Mr. Woodruff and his partner, Elizabeth Vargas, take turns reporting from the field while the other stays in New York….

Since his first night as co-anchor, on Jan. 3, Mr. Woodruff has crisscrossed the globe, from Tehran to Jerusalem to northern California, and back again to Jerusalem, in an effort to imbue the program with an on-the-scene immediacy and vitality that ABC executives hoped could improve the program’s ratings against its main competitors, NBC and CBS.

For the moment, the standings remain much as they had in recent years, when the broadcasts had been presided over by the so-called Big 3 anchors. NBC, led since Tom Brokaw’s retirement in December 2004 by Brian Williams, is comfortably in first place; ABC remains a solid second; and CBS, with Bob Schieffer serving as anchor until a permanent successor to Dan Rather is appointed, is trailing in third.

At least in the short run, Mr. Woodruff’s recovery figures to focus even more attention on the three broadcasts, particularly if he makes a quick return, but an extended leave could also upend ABC News, at a moment when Katie Couric of NBC’s dominant “Today” show is mulling whether to further shake up the evening news race by jumping to the “CBS Evening News.”

All three evening news broadcasts have been losing viewers for years, as people’s workdays push past 6:30 p.m. — when the evening news typically begins — and the Internet is increasingly sought out as a news source.

This is pretty mild stuff, all of it obviously true — but inappropriate under the circumstances. I’m quoting from the article at length to show how much analysis of the troubled television news business Oppel and Steinberg offered in an article that was supposed to be about two journalists who’d been injured in the line of duty.

In one sense, Raddatz is wrong. It is transparently obvious that ABC News executives have decided to fly Woodruff and Vargas around the country and the world, reporting and anchoring at the scene of major stories, in an effort to stand out from NBC and CBS — and thus to bolster the network’s ratings.

But in perhaps a deeper sense, Raddatz is right. The tone of the Times article is respectful, but its focus on the game of TV news suggests that there was something not quite serious about Woodruff’s presence in Iraq.

Let’s look at this logically. As a major news organization, ABC News has an obligation to cover the war in Iraq. If it hadn’t sent Woodruff — a gifted reporter as well as someone whom the network is trying to transform into a household name — then it would have sent someone else. If sending someone who’s not an anchor isn’t a ratings stunt, then it’s not a ratings stunt to send Woodruff, either. (Is the presence of John Burns in Iraq a Times circulation stunt?)

As for risk, Woodruff and Vogt do not appear to have been foolhardy. But covering Iraq is incredibly dangerous. According to Reporters Without Borders, 73 journalists have died since the war began — a number that includes local journalists such as the Boston Globe’s Elizabeth Neuffer and the Atlantic Monthly’s Michael Kelly. The horrifying ordeal of Christian Science Monitor freelancer Jill Carroll represents another kind of risk.

That doesn’t mean ABC’s ratings don’t enter into the calculation of whether to send a co-anchor into such a dangerous environment. Of course they do. They always do. It does mean that Woodruff and Vogt were in Iraq on a legitimate journalistic assignment.

Not that the Times article said otherwise. But devoting so much space to ratings and competition at a moment when Woodruff’s and Vogt’s lives were hanging in the balance suggests a certain tone-deafness on the part of the Times.

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4 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    Anyone would be tone-deaf if he sat astride Mt. Olympus, surveying the lesser mortals below.

  2. Anonymous

    We’ll stipulate that the NYT is tone-deaf. However, At the risk of seeming callous I am struck by the extensive coverage of the injuries to the ABC journalists. To be sure their injuries are serious and newsworthy. But are they any more newsworthy than the injuries that befall our soldiers each and every day? Is this just media myopia?

  3. Specks

    Suspect that an analysis of media would show that covering themselves is their number one story. Certainly true of cable.

  4. Neil

    As a followup, today’s Globe-which-we-all-love-to-hate has an op-ed piece by Michael Socolow who teaches journalism at UMaine, that talks about a “dirty little secret” in journalism–that war reporting is the fastest way to to get ahead.The article begins with a description of an escape by Eric Sevareid, after parachuting from a plummeting airplane, from “chanting, naked tribesmen carrying sharpened spears.”Then to his point:”Nothing burnishes a journalistic résumé like time spent “in country.” Raddatz made the same point but couched it in terms of journalistic integrity rather than opportunism. Most combat journalists are young and have few family commitments says Socolow. One journalist in Britain just won a lawsuit against ABC News for not renewing his contract because he refused to go to Iraq claiming family obligations trumped the supposedly “voluntary” assignment.”Risking life daily is powerfully romantic, and challenging that concept is anathema to the war reporter.”There’s a lot of cynicism and opportunism in the process. Just because a couple of journalists who knew the risks going in were injured, doesn’t mean that their motivations, and those of their employers, aren’t fair game for discussion.

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