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Jewish World Review March 15, 2002 / 2 Nisan, 5762

Bob Greene

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What would Jack Benny make of this? | There are all kinds of inspirational quotations about the importance of freedom of the press in a democracy -- words meant to stir the heart. But the most important quote I've ever heard about journalistic freedom -- or at least the most reassuring -- is one destined never to be carved on the wall of a newspaper building.

The words were spoken by William S. Paley, the founder of CBS. At one point, someone in CBS' news division worried aloud about how expensive it was to do a thorough job of covering the world -- and about whether the news division could do its job properly, and still make money for the corporation.

Paley reportedly told his employee not to worry about it.

"You guys cover the news," Paley said. "I've got Jack Benny to make money for me."

I've been thinking about that quote for the last few days, in light of the developments concerning David Letterman and Ted Koppel.

It's a new world we're all living in. When William Paley said, "You guys cover the news -- I've got Jack Benny to make money for me," he meant that his prime-time lineup of great entertainment, in the years when there were only three commercial television networks and no such thing as cable, was bringing in so much money that the news division could be shielded from economic pressures. CBS was rolling in so much cash that Paley really could declare a church/state division between news and entertainment, and allow his reporters to do their jobs without worrying about ratings or profits.

Now? All bets seem to be off. "Nightline's" ratings are not what they once were, although the program continues to be of the highest quality; there aren't a lot of Bill Paleys around to assure news departments they should just keep their eyes on the story. With all the cable news products 24 hours a day, ABC evidently feels "Nightline" is expendable, that Letterman would be more attractive in Koppel's time slot.

Some have depicted this as Stupid-Pet-Tricks-triumphs-over-war-cove rage-from-Afghanistan, but it's more complicated than that. I have a somewhat firsthand perspective on the two men in the midst of all this -- during the beginning years of "Nightline" and of Letterman's late-night show when it was on NBC, I worked as a contributing correspondent for "Nightline" as a side job to the newspaper column, and was Letterman's guest on his show fairly regularly. The two men have much in common -- both are intensely serious about the most minute details of their work, both are searingly intelligent, both are realists about the unforgiving nature of their profession at the level they have reached.

When I was doing stories for "Nightline," the broadcast did not go head-to-head with Letterman -- Johnny Carson's "Tonight" show was the competition. "Nightline," in those early years, almost always led the show with a five- or six-minute taped report from the field, to be followed by Koppel's live interviews with newsmakers. Bill Lord, the executive producer, never let any of us reporting the setup pieces forget what the competition for our stories was: Carson's monologue. He wasn't telling us to jazz up our stories -- he was simply stating a fact. Viewers had a choice: Watch us, or watch Carson. So we'd better try our best to make our reports so good that the viewers would stay with us all the way to the end, when Koppel would begin his interviews. Not too much pressure.

I don't know how this is going to play out. The real shame is that two of the finest broadcasters alive have to be pitted against each other for one late-night time slot on one network -- with so much sewage in prime time, you'd think that Koppel and Letterman wouldn't have to fight for scraps late at night. In the end, the most apt and sobering quotation about the limitations of what reporters should expect about the distribution of their work may come not from William Paley, but from the late A.J. Liebling. Liebling was writing about an era of newspapers, not television, yet his point endures:

"Freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one."

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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