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Watching the Watchdog: Decline and Fall of Eyewitness News

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I have a confession to make.

And an apology.

Back in the 70's, I was a reporter for WABC-TV, New York when we started an early evening news program called Eyewitness News.

It was a time of ponderous, pompous, patronizing, local news fronted by distant, ultra-serious "voice of God" anchors.

Assignment editors' diaries determined the day's news coverage, sending reporters off to the myriad easy-to-cover, self-serving news conferences which passed off as news back then (and, sadly, still dominate much of the news today).

Eyewitness News changed all that.

It brought energy, humanity and even wit to the screen.

Suddenly, New Yorkers had a news program presented by real people mirroring the city as it actually was.

Two anchors shared the reporting with reporters at desks on the set itself -- sometimes filling the screen with half a dozen people.

Our reporters were assigned beats, covered communities and were expected to dig up many of their own stories.

We took the information from the news conferences to the streets. We shot stories on how events affected real people -- the players in the events.

We let them talk. We strove for meaning, sought understanding.

Where the other local news reporters were almost all traditionally respectable white, middle-aged, middle-class and male, Eyewitness News hired a whole new type of tough, damn-the-torpedoes staff.

Black reporters, Latino reporters, young reporters and women reporters started appearing on the news.

And the place was lousy with extraordinarily oddball characters.

Howard Cosell, the brilliant lawyer turned sports reporter who wore a badly-dyed toupee and proudly described himself as: "Arrogant, pompous, obnoxious, vain, cruel, persecuting, distasteful, verbose, a showoff -- I've been called all of these. Of course I am."

Geraldo Rivera, the Puerto Rican social crusader who revealed the horrors of abuse and neglect at the Willowbrook mental hospital and sparked a nationwide reform movement.

The same Rivera who, once threated with suspension shot back: "If you suspend me, I'll have 10,000 Puerto Ricans lying down side by side, elbow to elbow ... and you will have to drive the news cars over them before anybody could get to work."

And Melba Tolliver, the proudly black reporter who changed her hair style from straightened to the sort of Afro favoured by the more militant Black Panthers to cover a White House wedding -- and threatened to quit rather than change back.

It was Melba who demurely asked the Stones' Mick Jagger, writer of (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction, "So Mick, are you satisfied yet?" and earned a leering riposte which made news around the world: "Do you mean sexually?"

Then there was Jimmy Breslin, the irascible, Irish working-class prophet who covered ordinary New Yorkers like they were his own family and wrote: "If a man, for private profit, tears at the public news, does so with the impatience of one who thinks he actually owns the news you get, it is against the national interest."

They even hired me, fresh from playing war correspondent for United Press International in the Congo. Maybe it was my English accent.

We were the peoples' news station. And the people loved us.

Eyewitness News took WABC-TV ratings from last place to first in the world's greatest market. Marshall McLuhan called it "a revolutionary event in telecommunications."

So, you ask, why on earth am I confessing and apologizing?

Glad you asked.

It's because we started something really good and it turned really bad.

Bad for democracy, bad for journalism and bad for viewers.

Following the huge success of Eyewitness News, inevitably entered those cynical vultures known derisively as news doctors.

They checked out what we'd done, decided it had everything to do with crime, weather, disasters, celebrities, that sort of thing, and charged considerable money to train TV journalists all over the known world -- including here at the CBC -- to learn and copy its format.

The doctors never understood that the essence of Eyewitness News wasn't all that crime, weather, disaster and celebrity stuff.

Instead, it was a revolutionary commitment to escape from the dull, dreary institutional news of the time and genuinely try to serve the people.

The news doctors trained TV newsrooms to copy all the outward and visible characteristics of Eyewitness News but simply ignored its soul, its dedication to public service.

TV news and the peoples' right to know have paid a terrible price ever since.

Eyewitness News knock-offs have flourished everywhere.

Endless crime, weather, disasters, celebrities etc. Little depth, less significance, even less meaning. To quote the Bard, much of TV news today: "... is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

For us journalists at WABC so long ago, Eyewitness News was truly a revolution in news broadcasting.

So I've already lived through one TV news revolution.

Now, as I approach my prime, I'm hoping desperately to be part of another.

We have to re-think, re-form and re-imagine our news. If we don't it will degenerate even further. And we all -- not just me -- will be to blame.

There, I've made my confession.

But is my apology too late?