Come Saturday it will be interesting to look back and see which story this week grabbed more MSM attention; the sudden political demise of Rep. Tom DeLay, who for the last decade was arguably the most powerful politician in Washington, D.C., or the story of Katie Couric's long-awaited job swap from NBC's Today to the CBS Evening News. My hunch is Couric wins easily.
The media's navel-gazing with these types of stories is relentless and absurd. But the press long ago decided that whatever happened within its industry, and specifically within the world of television journalism, is wildly important and has to be reported with utmost seriousness. There's clearly a place for corralling obsessive industry details and that's what the trades and blogs are for. But the idea that a morning talk show host leaving her job to become an evening news presenter has to be chronicled, relentlessly, right alongside the rise and fall of powerful politicians is absurd. It's likely most reporters, editors and producers realize that and try to dress up their coverage, presenting Couric's NBC farewell as a key business story because Today is so vital to the network, turning an annual profit of $250 million. Point taken, but in the grand scheme of corporate America, is $250 million in earnings so hugely important? For instance, Exxon turned a $250 million profit every ten days last year, but you didn't read and hear endless reports about the company's personnel machinations.
Ironically, the stage-managed Couric tale did come with a ready-made angle attached, but one that reporters politely declined to focus on--the fact that Couric is going to be paid $15 million a year to read the news at CBS on week nights. (It comes out to be about $3,000 per-minute.) The figure, which is line with other high-profile network news stars, is, of course, obscene. That newscasters have become among the highest paid people in America raises all sorts of disturbing questions about journalism, including corporate use of resources, as well as the ability of the economically super-elite to be effective journalists. Journalists who, some say, are called upon to occasionally afflict the comfortable. But questions about runaway pay have for years been quietly downplayed by obedient reporters.
For instance, last November when, amidst much press fanfare, ABC's Ted Koppel retired from hosting Nightline, there was virtually no discussion of the fact that he had been making $10 million annually to host the 30-minute show just three nights each week. (Like Couric, Koppel pocketed approximately $3,000 for each minute the program, minus commercials, was on the air.)
Which is where the obvious double standard comes into play. Reporters want to treat the likes of Couric's new job hunt as essential, yet refuse to raise uncomfortable questions about it. The approach is more akin to celebrity reporting: Commercial triumphs are trumpeted, and while some chatter is allowed about whether the star's next vehicle will be a hit or a flop, the more pressing and potentially unpleasant questions are politely ignored.