Swollen Egos, Shrinking Heads

Pretend you work at ABC News. Pretend you are serious about your occupation and proud of your company. Pretend you are confident about the future.

Then all of a sudden, not long ago, you learn that a couple of Hollywood producers have gotten access to the front lines in Afghanistan to do a reality-based entertainment series. You can’t get anywhere near the front lines; you can’t even get the kinds of answers you want about what’s happening on the front lines from Donald Rumsfeld — but this hot-shot show-biz type who’s responsible for Black Hawk Down and this other guy who turned out the TV series Cops are getting all the access they want, and the result is that the up-close and personal stuff about the war on terrorism is heading for prime-time, not World News Tonight.

And then, more recently but no less suddenly, you learn that your corporate bosses want to dump your most prestigious program, Nightline, and replace it with a late-night talk show hosted by a comedian!

You might be serious about your occupation. Those corporate bosses of yours, the folks who run the Walt Disney Company, are not. In fact, they seem to be disgusted with the whole news division. Should they be? Yes and no.

Yes, because the upper-echelon stars at ABC News are possessors of egos the size of mountain ranges and could use a little dressing-down. Barbara Walters thinks of herself as a monarch. Diane Sawyer thinks of herself as Barbara Walters. And Nightline’s Ted Koppel published a memoir not long ago in which his tone was that of God reviewing the past six days of creation and deciding that he was well pleased.

And, in fact, to respond to the threat to his program, Koppel did not send a memo to his Disney bosses or make a phone call or request a meeting to clear the air; he wrote an Op-Ed piece for The New York Times, as if the fate of Nightline were as important to the world as the fate of the West Bank.

Which is the problem these days with all too many journalists. Covering the major figures of their time, they begin to think of themselves as major figures, too. Covering the most significant events of their time, they think that their private concerns are significant events, too. At the Walters-Sawyer-Koppel level, humility in a journalist is slightly less common than bladder control in a newborn.

On the other hand, no, the Disney executives should not be disgusted with ABC News because, egos aside, it is home to a large collection of excellent reporters. Unfortunately, viewers may now be less willing to acknowledge that. Imagine one of your friends slapping another in public. Initially, you sympathize with the victim. But after a while, you find yourself wondering how the victim got himself into such a predicament in the first place, and, becoming uncomfortable with his humiliation, you begin to avoid him. You do not really want to, and you still sympathize with him, but sympathy is not the basis for a rewarding relationship.

In the specific case of ABC News, sympathy is not the basis of a trusting relationship. Perhaps the viewer will stop believing that he can rely on Nightline and World News Tonight and Good Morning America because the people on those programs are working in such trying circumstances, no longer free to do their jobs because they are trying to hard to keep their jobs.

By making their dissatisfaction with ABC News public, in other words, what the mouse-ears at corporate headquarters have done is undermine public confidence in the ABC product. They have, thus, ensured that there will be more reasons for dissatisfaction in the future.

I hope that Nightline survives the threat from David Letterman. I hope it continues to air and to be the kind of quality forum for discussions of public affairs that it has been for so many years. In fact, I hope that nothing worse happens to ABC News as a result of all this than a slight, and long overdue, shrinking of egos.

Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT .

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