It says everything you need to know about the current state of TV news -- indeed the current state of our media culture -- that on a day that saw Iraq moving closer to all-out civil war, with at least 76 Iraqis killed and 179 wounded in sectarian attacks, the CBS Evening News devoted one minute and thirty-nine seconds to coverage of Iraq... and one minute and fifty-six seconds to coverage of Anna Nicole Smith's appearance in front of the Supreme Court.
That's right, car bombs and mortar blasts were ripping through Shiite holy places and
Sunni mosques, the Iraqi foreign minister was urging U.S. officials to take a "less visible" role in the talks aimed at forming a new national government, the U.S. death toll hit 2,292, John Negroponte was warning of region-wide chaos, Bush was insisting he would stay the course despite the civil war that's not actually happening ... and CBS thought Anna Nicole was the bigger story.
What's more, a substantial portion of the paltry 99 seconds the erstwhile Tiffany Network gave over to Iraq was spent updating the latest developments in the Saddam trial where his lawyers -- wait for it -- walked out. Again. You don't say...
Of course, the Mrs. Smith Goes to Washington story came with all that irresistible B-roll of Anna Nicole jiggling her way through a pack of jostling paparazzi into the High Court, and allowed producers to re-hash 5-year-old file footage of Smith testifying that her marriage to octogenarian billionaire J. Howard Marshall was true love: "It wasn't a sexual, 'Baby, oh baby, I love you body'-type love. It was a deep, 'Thank you for taking me out of this hole.'" It also gave anchor Bob Schieffer the opportunity to intro the segment by saying: "The US Supreme Court is one of the great judicial bodies that the world has known..." (nudge, nudge, wink, wink... provide your own "great bodies" punchline, eh, Bob?). Hard for civil war to top that.
So, for those of you keeping track, it was Bombs: 1:39, Bombshells 1:56. And that's with the venerable, modeled-on-Murrow Schieffer at the helm.
The Bombs vs Bombshell balance was even more out of whack over on Nightline, which devoted its show-closing "Sign of the Times" segment to "the stripper and the Supreme Court" -- and didn't cover Iraq at all.
Remember all that talk about how the new multi-host, multi-segment format would allow the post-Koppel Nightline to grow and improve? Here is Howard Kurtz, quoting new executive producer James Goldston as saying "I'm absolutely committed to 'Nightline' remaining a serious, substantive show," then adding "[Goldston] has argued that the move toward shorter segments will allow more coverage of foreign news." Sure thing, James.
Tuesday night's Nightline featured Terry Moran reporting on New Orleans, Vicki Mabrey covering the movie Something New, an interracial love story that opened three-and-a-half weeks ago, and poor Chris Bury, one-time heir apparent to Koppel, slogging through a brief segment on Smith that seemed to exist for the sole purpose of having Bury end the piece by mentioning Anna Nicole's "remarkable journey from playmate to probate."
No wonder Koppel bolted when he did. A "sign of the times," indeed.
P.S. The Anna Nicole coverage provided a field day for soundbyte writers. Along with Bury's playmate in probate, the story gave Keith Olbermann the chance to channel the E! Channel icon ("I'm ready for the oral argument") and Tucker Carlson to tease his Smith segment with, "We'll tell you why former Playmate Anna Nicole got to flash her legal briefs before the Supreme Court."
P.P.S. No way the late night comics were going to miss out. Leno: "Court observers say this thing appears to be going in Anna Nicole's favor. Yeah, they said five of the justices were asking questions sympathetic to her argument, and the other four got lap dances from her." Letterman: "It's crazy. It's the first time in the Supreme Court that Ruth Bader Ginsberg has not been the hottest chick there... But give her credit; Anna Nicole made a compelling case. So good, as a matter of fact, Clarence Thomas couldn't keep his eyes off of exhibits A and B." Ferguson: "The sacred union of strippers and old oil men -- why is it being dragged through the mud of the Supreme Court? Why? What happened to the sanctity of the strip club? What happened to stripper/client privilege?"
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