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A ‘sensational’ summer for TV news?

In 2001, journalists were preoccupied with the Gary  Condit and not with al-Qaida or terrorism.
/ Source: The Associated Press

One of television’s top journalists says this summer will likely test whether the networks have learned from their past infatuation with sensational stories.

Just before the Sept. 11 attacks, networks spent the summer of 2001 preoccupied with California congressman Gary Condit’s missing staffer and shark attacks, said Tom Bettag, senior executive producer of ABC News’ “Nightline.”

The words “al-Qaida” weren’t mentioned on the ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts all summer, he said.

“Now we’re doing stories about who in government is to blame,” said Bettag, speaking after receiving the Fred Friendly First Amendment Award from Quinnipiac University on Tuesday. “We in the media need to ask ourselves, ‘What’s our excuse? Where were we?”’

The attacks didn’t come out of nowhere, he said.

“Did we think the public wouldn’t care about terrorists?” he said. “Were we working the story as hard as we could? Was the story too hard to untangle?”

Television news divisions, driven in large part by the cable news channels, instead chased cheaper, less complicated stories — like Condit — that are believed to attract viewers.

Despite the election and ongoing war in Iraq, networks will be under enormous pressure to turn this into the summer of trials, potentially involving Michael Jackson, Kobe Bryant, Scott Peterson and Robert Blake, he said.

Ratings researchers are already saying the audience is getting turned off by Iraq, said Bettag, even though “Nightline” drew a larger-than-expected audience Friday for its special on Americans killed in the war.

The trials will be much less expensive to cover and will get extensive time on the full-time news networks, he said.

“The summer of Gary Condit blinded us to the summer of threat,” he said. “A national tragedy reminded us of how indispensable, and how good, we can be. We are lucky to have been given a second chance. This summer people will know us by our actions.”