LOS ANGELES – I'm gonna get a facelift, and then I'm gonna go over to FoxNews." — David Letterman, March 11.
Gambling is a dumb career choice, but there's one bet you can always win: if a hallowed institution of journalism is challenged, put all your money on the Media Critics going nuts.
When ABC offered David Letterman its late-night slot, the Journalistic Gatekeepers fouled their Depends. Good Lord, Ted Koppel is a legend! How dare those Disney creeps replace a 23-year-old news program! Letterman is some sort of filthy comic!
And the simple story of a gifted broadcaster talking to another network quickly became the horrible tale of Serious News being flushed down the Disney Toilet.
Few stopped to think about Letterman's role in 2002. There are many talented late-night hosts these days, but Letterman is unique. Especially since Sept. 11, he has become a weird hybrid of Walter Cronkite and Johnny Carson. Humor, news, compassion and honest emotion are things we want to see before going to bed. Letterman has done it like nobody else. He thought his network didn't appreciate his work, and his contract was up for renegotiation. The New York Times' Bill Carter broke the story. Koppel and the Nightline crew didn't have a clue.
Last night, Letterman announced he would stay at CBS. He praised Koppel, a frequent guest and a talented newscaster. CBS will do something or other to promote The Late Show the way NBC pushes Jay Leno's program.
But let's act like a Media Think Tank for a moment and wonder What It All Means. Network news still has a decent audience and still makes money, but people don't depend on Koppel, Jennings, Rather and Brokaw the way they used to. Why should we? The pompous, big-haired newscaster has been a joke for decades. From Ted Baxter on Mary Tyler Moore's show to Kent Brockman on The Simpsons, TV viewers have learned to laugh at anchormen as show-biz folk. They make big money to sit behind a desk and act very important, even if they're interviewing Kermit the Frog or introducing a segment on new trends in pet care.
We get news when we need it. I spend most of the workday checking news sites, only turning on the satellite teevee when something big is going down. I read the papers in the morning, but generally skip the front page because I already saw all that on the Web. With the BBC, NPR and several good local stations in Los Angeles, I use the radio for breaking news — especially if I'm sitting in the drive-thru waiting for a hamburger. And if something scary is happening, I go straight to the all-news channels. And when it's late, I turn to Letterman to hear some smart, goofy jokes about it all.
I'm not alone. Network news once claimed 75 percent of the TV audience. Now they're lucky to get 40 percent.
Why regard a network news personality as some sort of sacred hero? Look, we know the anchors have talent agents — yeah, talent agents just like the ones who work for Tom Cruise or Jennifer Lopez. We know those anchors make enough money to run a small nation. This is a media-saturated culture, and anybody who goes to the doctor now and again can read all about the media people in People magazine. Yet the newscasters sit behind those anchor desks acting like we have no idea.
Letterman went on television last night and explained his contract negotiations. It was funny, unscripted and honest. Serious news anchors can't do that, due to some ethical something-or-other. Paula goes to CNN, Greta comes over here to Fox News, yet they can't talk about it on the air. But I read it in the New York Times or New York Post or from Jim Romenesko's Media News.
Smart talk-show hosts like Letterman and Jon Stewart are trustworthy. We, the home viewers, know what happens behind the curtain. We know journalistic objectivity is a stupid joke — life is subjective, folks. We automatically parse each newscast we watch. You report, we decide. Letterman isn't going to play objective on us. If he's angry, we see it. If he's feeling good about New York City, he tells us. Yes, Letterman and his ilk are entertainers, but they're also well-informed humans who will put the news in perspective.
They're like the famed newspaper columnists previous generations relied upon. We trust them because they don't hide behind a journalistic integrity we don't trust. Yes, Letterman makes a pile of money, but he admits it, and in his Midwestern fashion is embarrassed by all the fuss.
Even as the War goes on and Americans are mostly trusting the Bush administration to do the job, we don't much trust career politicians and career anchors. And even though the network anchors did a swell job after the terrorist attacks, we've all got a lot of news choices and need not depend on the anchors with the big hair. Letterman is going bald just like everybody else. His uncomfortable admission of working in the entertainment industry is just as bald ... and just as comfortably honest.
My music-industry column resulted in about 400 e-mails. Never have so many readers agreed with me — I won't get used to it. A few complained that I was encouraging the theft of intellectual property. (I wasn't; the column was all about recording artists feeling ripped off by the industry and the clumsy response by the industry in dealing with technology changes.) Also got a lot of mail about my California election column. Let's take a look:
Lloyd Albano writes:
Did you ever consider that what allows you to sit comfortably in the "middle" is the fact that there actually is a Republican party to the right of where you apparently stand? Perhaps you look forward to having the center of gravity in the state shift even further to the left so that you can take your place on the edge of the new "fringe?" A little less name calling and a little more substance on how Simon and other actual Republicans are in fact wrong on substance would be in order.
Paul Hepburn writes:
You love to call us the losers. Why don't you use your article to identify the REAL losers in this state — the blind moronic liberals who will vote AGAIN for Davis who you correctly identify as someone who should be shoveling trash? We are not used to losing; we are becoming used to being surrounded by liberals who love to lose where it counts — in our backyards!
Brad Stewart writes:
I realize that abortion is going to be the issue that Davis will try beat Simon to death with because that's all he can do. However, I don't think that even Californians' hearts are so dark that it will work this time. Would I rather have Simon by 3-4 percent or Riordan by 8-10 percent? I'll take my chances with Simon, and I believe you will eat crow come November.
Charles E. Newman writes:
I wish you had written this article, or it had been posted, earlier. I think you are exactly right. Being from North Carolina, I'm not crazy about Elizabeth Dole either, but I plan to vote for and support her since she has the best chance of winning. The alternative is more obstructionism in the Senate.
Robin Corkery writes:
As you say, Riordan is a Republican Democrats can love. There is a reason that conservatives would vote for Simon even knowing that Davis may beat him in November: Riordan may well be more liberal than Davis. Like other rich guys who began their careers with an undeveloped political consciousness, Riordan may have thought it sensible to start with the Republicans. So did Rockefeller, Percy etc. But Riordan's lack of interest in Burke, Locke and Madison has led him to be easily influenced by those who have drawn close to him over the years and are more well read in the literature of political economy than he. People not unlike you, Mr. Layne, who can, by doing the intellectual heavy lifting on topics Riordan has never shown much interest in, create a Carteresque figure who can be marketed as a Republican.
And now to the letters about my music-industry column:
Ben Lauter writes:
You're right on the money, but I think the thing that the music industry most overlooks is that file sharing, for many people, helps them decide what music to buy. It's ridiculous when one says "I've always wanted to get into jazz," and the immediate response is to insist the person buy an album, have the person potentially realize he or she hates it, then realize said person has wasted its money. Unless it's a band a label is promoting, chances are one won't be hearing them on radio or television, so anything else becomes a "taste test." In other words, the music industry doesn't even want you to hear the music first, they just want you to buy it and try it.
Pam Graham writes:
Your column today was very irresponsible. I am not defending the record industry, however, as I try to teach the children in my family the difference between right and wrong, the positions as stated in your column make my job very difficult. You know the difference between right and wrong, yet you chose to do wrong and publicize the wrong with pride! What am I suppose to tell children?... My only response can be, do you lack judgment or are you unethical? My family knows right from wrong and we act accordingly, no mixed signals.
Barry Vandenakker writes:
What I have not seen in any article about the downward trend of CD sales is the impact DVD has had. Personally I have only bought four CDs in the last two years since owning a DVD player, where before I would buy three to four of them a month. Now my money goes to three or four DVDs a month. The same goes for many of my friends, some of whom have become avid DVD collectors.
More letters have been posted at my site. Thanks for all the good mail.
Ken Layne types from a shack behind his Los Angeles home. The author of trashy thrillers such as Dot.Con and the upcoming Space Critters, he has written and edited for a variety of news outfits including Information Week, the Sydney Daily Telegraph, UPI and Mother Jones. Since the Enron-like collapse of his Web paper, Tabloid.net, in 1999, he has been posting commentary to KenLayne.com.