06/08/2007 04:05 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Resurgence in TV News? Paley Center Prez is Upbeat about Media as Museum Switches Name

The Museum of Television and Radio is no more, and with it dies the winsome idea of studious curators parsing the drama of long-forgotten sitcoms or compiling strange indexes to imaginary events and people. Not that that's what actually went on there among the thousands of hours of tape, but the word "museum" carries certain expectations -- scholarship, connoisseurship, and the notion that such a place might lead one into a state of virtue, much like eating bran or reading Tolstoy. This was, after all, the museum's opening gambit in the late 18th century: show the middle-classes an array of classical images and statues and you would show them, figuratively speaking, naked virtue. So you can see where a museum dedicated to television would run into difficulties; for though we may love television with, in some cases, debilitating cupidity, few of us would think that there is sufficient virtue in our affair to warrant a museum -- it would like going to a "museum" of candy, and being able to eat the exhibits.

The reason for the name change was -- perhaps aptly for the medium in question -- so much simpler: "People expected to see something on the walls,' said Pat Mitchell, the former president of the Museum of Television and Radio, "like Archie Bunker's chair." And located in midtown Manhattan, just off the flashier end of Fifth Avenue, one could only imagine the legions of tourists, frustrated by the lack of some Planet Hollywood-esque Yin to balance out their Hard Rock Cafe Yang.

To add further confusion, the Museum of Television and Radio was billed as a "museum of programming," when, in fact, its live programs were more about the media in general than about archiving television or radio programs. And the disconnect was becoming even more acute as Mitchell, glamorous and urbane, began to attract high-wattage names to the (non-programming) programs -- Katie Couric on her new career, Madeleine Albright and Henry Kissinger on how the media shaped foreign policy, and a discussion with Mikhail Gorbachev about CNN's 24-part series on the Cold War.

Then there was the Cagney and Lacey reunion in the Los Angeles branch of the Museum (which drew uber-C&L fan Helen Mirren) and the brilliantly whimsical "Whacked Soprano" panel back in the New York mothership featuring everyone who had been whacked in the course of the show.

And so, finally, the existential crisis was dispelled this week when the Museum of Television and Radio re-branded itself as the Paley Center for Media, an act that honors William S. Paley, the cigar magnate who built CBS into the "Tiffany" network, midwifed Edward R. Murrow into a broadcast legend, and created the "museum" in 1975. What Paley, who died in 1990, would have made of ditching the words "television and radio" is anyone's guess, but for Mitchell, who was President and CEO of PBS for six years before arriving at the "museum," and who worked in TV news from 1970 to 1999, it is an overdue recognition that the "old media" days are over.

Indeed, while many of her colleagues would doubtless be happier if some cosmic mishap could force us all to return to analog tape and metal type, Mitchell is almost evangelically upbeat about the power of technology. She pushed PBS, "at great expense" to embrace the Internet, and her vision for the Paley Center is one that holistically embraces and analyzes all digital media.

In a week which saw several newspapers filleted of key staff -- which, come to think of it, is now a typical weekly occurrence -- and a growing sense among media watchers that Rupert Murdoch (a Paley center board member) will take control of The Wall Street Journal (he may not swing the reporting rightwards, but he will almost certainly cut newsroom budgets to the point of compromising the value of the reporting), it seemed somewhat incumbent to not play along -- or at least get into the swing of the Paley Center's mission -- and ask Mitchell in what way her generation of media executives screwed the media up.

She disagreed with the premise. "There never has been a change as fast as the Internet has caused," she said, and it was understandable that media executives froze. "In hindsight, old media as a whole didn't pursue it full-heartedly enough."

But what about the fact that while the entertainment divisions have turned out stellar drama and comedy over the past decade (the British writer Ben Rodgers, who wrote a biography of the philosopher A. J. Ayer, argued in Prospect magazine that ER was so good it should be considered in the same narrative breath as Dickens), that when documentary has managed to thrive at the movies and broken new bounds on radio (in the work of David Isay and Joe Richman), television news has gone, for the most part, in the opposite direction, forsaking both quality and quantity -- if you discount the ADD repetitiveness of cable news.

Foreign news coverage, one of the Paley Center's key interests, was eviscerated on the networks throughout the 1990s, and worse, the stories that did appear were usually reported as infotainment, the disaster of the day. It has become routine to blame the media for not doing enough to analyze the case for going to war against Iraq, but it was, arguably, far more pernicious for the American public to be repeatedly told that the world was a nasty, brutish place, prone to violence and immune to reason; as one study of foreign news noted, military force was advocated on television ten times as often as diplomacy.

Things went downhill, Mitchell agreed, when large conglomerates took over the networks and began demanding quarterly reports. There was a shift in expectations; where once the entertainment divisions were simply expected to subsidize the news operations, news now had to pay its way. This might be good business practice but good television journalism is extremely expensive.

"Technology is possibly the change agent here," she said, pointing to Iraq as an example where digital media has reduced the cost of foreign reporting while simultaneously allowing journalists to cover the war in a way that was unimaginable even in the not-so-distant days of VCR. The problem, she says, is that security has been so expensive, consuming up to two-thirds of news budgets, that it's now crushing the ability of networks to report the war in a comprehensive way, thus obscuring the benefit.

"I think we might be seeing a resurgence in television news," she said. "I hope that doesn't sound too pie-eyed."

It was only fair to ask, in return, how my generation was screwing the media up. "You have the most amazing technologies," she said. "But, unfortunately, you're using it for less than world-changing content." She marveled at the absence of gatekeepers and the almost instant access to an audience through Yo Tube, recalling how difficult it had been to persuade her bosses to let her do a piece on the Northern Ireland conflict in 1978. "I'd just do it now."

The question is would anyone watch? Without hierarchies of authority and values, it's all dancing chicken noodle soup. "It's an evolutionary process," she said confidently. "There'll be an evolution in taste and attention."