Reporting the World: Challenges for US Media. (Interview)
Kaplan, Rick, Harvard International Review
Rick Kaplan was president of CNN-US from 1997 to 2000. During that time, he was responsible for all of CNN's news programming, and under his guidance, CNN made strides in its analysis and coverage of both breaking and ongoing stories. Prior to joining CNN, Mr. Kaplan worked for ABC News, holding positions with several network programs from 1979 to 1997. Before that, he was producer for "The CBS Evening News with Walter Kronkite." He is spending the spring 2002 semester as a fellow at Harvard University's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy. Senior Editor Stephanie Wang interviewed Mr. Kaplan to hear his views on issues surrounding US media coverage, including the recent proliferation of tabloid-style news and post-September 11 reporting.
HARVARD INTERNATIONAL REVIEW:
What would you say are current advantages and disadvantages of your profession?
News should take a far more serious and in-depth, content-full look at the world. News needs to be less drawn to stories primarily because of their dateline or lack of dateline and much more intent on giving people news they need to know. Networks have been working off a business plan that doesn't work
Big audiences do not seem to be a problem when there are big events--in your term at CNN, you saw events ranging from the US impeachment proceedings to the Egypt Air 800 crash--but what about the level of interest in between the big events?
One network has done extremely well in the lulls, and that is NPR [US National Public Radio]. In fact, in the evenings, their listeners are greater than the sum of any two evening news broadcasts on television. They've done it because they have not succumbed to the thrill of tabloid reporting. They play to their core audience, [which to] a serious news journalist is a serious news audience. A lot of that audience has disappeared from television because television has let people down and because the number of soft stories and tabloid stories has skyrocketed. Networks never adequately found what it was they needed to replace the Cold War. When we went away from how many Soviet missiles were pointed at how many US cities, we didn't know what to do; there were no more spy-versus-spy stories, so what do we replace them with? Some people chose to replace them with the Gary Condit story. Sometimes OJ Simpson can carry the day, but if you're a serious news viewer, there are a lot of stories out there that you want to know about.
There are issues in healthcare and technology, spirituality and religion, education--a whole list of issues people pay attention to. Moreover, if you want to be a good citizen, you need to know something about international news as well because if we're going to have an honest debate, that knowledge is necessary. The Bush administration now is pretty famous for changing its public and private stance on various foreign-policy issues. This drives US allies nuts, but the reason why they do that is because those issues aren't discussed. US citizens need to be more interested in international news too. We're becoming one world, and those are issues that really do place us.
What about the general public, an audience that is commonly believed to be uninterested in the type of serious news you mention?
For those who want to tune into news for entertainment, there are other ways to be entertained; there is a whole crop of US tabloid news programs. If news programs did not devote their time to serious issues, they'd be pandering to an audience that is not loyal to them. People will only tune in to you when you have the sleazy stories. Why would you want to do that?
What happens when you are in charge of programming at CNN and all the rival groups carry the Gary Condit story? Polls often show that these stories are popular.
During the OJ Simpson trial, I was executive producer at ABC's World News Tonight. We had something like a two-tenths rating point lead just before the trial, and we were in first place. …