Dumbing Down Dateline

In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, recalls former Dateline NBC correspondent John Hockenberry, the network diverted him from reporting on al Qaeda and instead wanted him to come up with a version of "the show Cops, only with firefighters." During the invasion of Iraq, a network exec axed a segment featuring "a reporter in Baghdad who was experiencing the bombing firsthand" on grounds that it conveyed "a point of view." Hockenberry sees these stories as lessons about how television news "lost its most basic journalistic instincts" in pursuit of stories that "reassured the audience by telling it what it already knew rather than challenging it to learn. This explains why TV news voices all use similar cadences, why all anchors seem to sound alike, why reporters in the field all use the identical tone of urgency no matter whether the story is about the devastating aftermath of an earthquake or someone's lost kitty." He also criticizes conflicts of interest as "NBC News was covering wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that our GE parent company stood to benefit from as a major defense contractor." As another example of the conflict between news and General Electric's business interests, he noted that GE does business with members of Osama Bin Laden's extended family. "In early 2002," he says, "our team was in Saudi Arabia covering regional reaction to September 11." However, GE turned him down when he asked for help contacting the Bin Ladens so he could interview them about their estranged family member.