The University Record, March 25, 2002

Former CNN reporter discusses commercialization of news

By Kara Bomzer
Record Intern

Bierbauer (Photo by Bill Wood, U-M Photo Services)
Charles Bierbauer has experienced many things during his 30 plus years as a journalist. As CNN’s senior White House correspondent, he covered presidents Reagan and Bush Sr. He witnessed summits in Europe and the Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta. Yet, he has never seen media as they are today, choosing to cover some things and ignore others, all in the name of ratings.

During his years in Washington, Bierbauer covered numerous goings on in the U.S. He earned many honors such as an Emmy and several CableAce awards. CNN even created the position of senior Washington correspondent in 1992 in recognition of his expertise in national policy and presidential issues. He also covered the Supreme Court and cases concerning First Amendment rights and the death penalty.

Bierbauer still covers the Supreme Court, but he does so a little differently now. He is an adviser and part of the cast of “First Monday,” playing himself as the host of “Curveball,” a show-within-a-show that tackles issues being dealt with in the episode in a talk format. Bierbauer says although the setting has changed, the way issues are presented is “not all that different.”

According to Bierbauer, there is a war going on in our newsrooms and it is “newsrooms vs. entertainment.” This war is encouraging news producers to keep things fresh and young in order to please what he calls the all-important 18–49 year-old demographic. For this reason, areas such as the Supreme Court, one-third of the U.S. government, go under covered. Television shows and news now have the same goal: to entice viewers to watch. Even “First Monday” takes license with its scripts for entertainment reasons, but Bierbauer defends the new CBS drama, saying “If no one in the news is going to take one-third of the federal government terribly seriously, maybe this is the best venue we’ve got.”

Bierbauer cited the recent Nightline/David Letterman conflict as an example of news fighting to find a place. During this incident, ABC threatened to cancel “Nightline” in order to make room for the hipper, ratings grabbing, “David Letterman Show.” He said that such an incident “undermines journalistic integrity” because it takes the move toward programming “cash cows” and younger viewers to a new extreme. ABC asked what the relevance of “Nightline” was, but the truth is that the battle had “nothing to do with relevance and everything to do with revenue,” Bierbauer says. Money is the main reason that certain issues, like Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman’s divorce, are reported extensively, while others, like the Supreme Court, are largely ignored day to day on the nightly news.

Network executives are not the only ones guilty of this. According to Bierbauer, after the Vietnam War, many blamed the media for America’s loss. As a result, American journalists have been cut off from a lot of the information that they used to have access to during a war. The Pentagon has put a tight lid on how much and what types of information it will give to journalists. On the other hand, Hollywood directors get a lot of help and extensive access to the Pentagon. Bierbauer gave the example of the CBS show “JAG.” “When the Pentagon likes a ‘JAG’ script, they will give the cast and crew extensive access to whatever is needed for the particular episode,” Bierbauer said.

In this increasingly entertainment-and-profit-margin-minded media, it’s “viewer beware,” Bierbauer says. There are more illusions in television, both in front of and behind the camera, than ever before.