Wednesday, February 20, 2002

Get Me Rewrite

I just deleted those items about Katie Couric, Joan Didion and Johnny Apple. No one cares. I certainly don't. So why bother?

In the bigger picture, the R.W. "Johnny" Apple item is a fairly good metaphor for a never-discussed problem in Big Media. The problem is that no one retires. They just hang around, sucking up salary and bonuses and precious space in the paper or airtime on the television news.

I remember talking to a friend at The New York Times about another reporter there and she said to me: "he's the next Johnny Apple," meaning the next Big Foot Washington correspondent whose beat ranges far and wide. "Except," she said, "Johnny's not going anywhere." And now he won't be going anywhere for another 3-5 years, even though he's 67 years old and should have packed it in after the 2000 election (if not before).

Another Timesman who should retire is William Safire, whose column will soon enter its 30th year. I still enjoy Safire's work from time to time, but it's not about that. It's about getting out of the way so someone else can get a shot. Surely a journalistic organization as vast and prestigious as the Times can find another conservative voice out there somewhere. Let's get him or her or it on the op-ed page. Fresh blood is important to the vitality of any institution.

As bad as the hanging around is at the major papers, it's epidemic at the networks. I remember when Brit Hume left ABC News to join the Fox News Channel. A friend called and asked: "why would he ever do that?" The answer, of course, was that he had to do it if he wanted to anchor an evening news show. Jennings wasn't going anywhere. Koppel wasn't going anywhere. Barbara Walter wasn't going anywhere. Diane Sawyer wasn't going anywhere. The only place Hume could go (to be an anchor) was the Fox News Channel.

When I worked at NBC News, I remember someone saying that Garrick Utley was being groomed to be the next Tom Brokaw. That was 16 years ago. Now it is said that Brian Williams is being groomed to be the next Tom Brokaw. I wouldn't bet on it. Dan Rather will never go away. Mick Wallace will never go away. Ed Bradley will never go away. On and on the list goes. If you put all of their salaries together you'd have roughly $100 million to spend on young talent.

It's a staggering misallocation of resources. But it won't change. One of the reasons it won't change is that ratings are personality-driven. Consumers see the news as a commodity product. So who they "like" (Brokaw, Rather or Jennings?) is determinative. Retire Rather and the likelihood is that the CBS Evening News will drop nearly 1 Nielsen point. It would probably take CBS two years to rebuild that lost Nielsen point with a new anchor. In the interim, they would have to suffer through the lower ad rate (and lost revenue) that a lost Nielsen point implies. In a weird way, CBS is stuck with Dan Rather until he dies.

The E-Z solution is a retirement age policy. Everyone's gotta get lost at 65. But it'll never happen. These people are going to be yammering at us and opining to us for a good many years to come.