November 1, 2001 — Ever since those horrifying moments when two passenger jetliners smashed into the World Trade Center towers seven weeks ago, Americans have been glued to their television sets with a seemingly insatiable appetite for information. And the TV networks have responded with a steady stream of around-the-clock coverage that has usurped the traditional formats and time constraints. The breadth and depth of coverage of the story is virtually unparalleled in television history.
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One veteran TV journalist at the center of the action, CNN prime anchor and senior correspondent Judy Woodruff, reflected on her industry’s successes and failures over the past 50 days. She made her comments at the annual Theodore H. White Lecture on Press and Politics at the Kennedy School of Government.
“Journalism in general, television in particular, has risen brilliantly to the occasion,” she told a crowd of about 400 people at the Forum. “Under very tough circumstances we have provided information, insights, and perspective that have served the country and the world well.
“People at every news organization have worked tirelessly, beyond the breaking point, and have done it with skill, perseverance, and presence. We all have made mistakes, but in a story with such wide-ranging uncertainties, there have been few.”
Woodruff admitted, however, that the networks’ reliance on television pundits to analyze the recent events often undermine their own credibility. “[These pundits] parade as journalists, but have never paid their dues,” she said. “The concept of accountability is alien; all that matters are attention and ratings.”
Big ratings, of course, translate into big money for the TV networks, and Woodruff noted that newsroom decisions are often dictated by the bottom line.
“Profits have always mattered,” she said. “Initially it was an important consideration; in recent years it too often appears to be the only, or at least the dominant, consideration.”
It is the desire for ratings and profits that have led many networks to slash their international news coverage in recent years, according to Woodruff. “Several decades ago foreign correspondents were a significant element of network television journalism networks; each had 15 to 20 foreign bureaus. Today they have less than half that.”
That said, Woodruff reflected, the war on terrorism may spur networks to renew their commitment to international news coverage.
“What happened on Sept. 11 remains grotesque almost beyond words,” she said. “At the same time, Sept. 11 was a reminder of what a complicated world we live in, and the extraordinary importance of information and the news media in that environment.”
This article was based on one written by Doug Gavel of Harvard Kennedy School Communications.