| Home | Interview with Broadcast Veteran Ed Fouhy -- June 2001
September 18, 2014

Ed Fouhy, 66, is the executive director of the Pew Center on the States, an Internet-based research and information service established to report on public policy issues at the state level. He was a reporter, producer and news executive for more than 25 years starting as an associate producer with CBS News in 1966, Saigon bureau chief, then senior Washington producer of the "CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite" during the Watergate years. Later he became CBS News Washington Bureau Chief, then CBS News Vice President and News Director. Fouhy also served as ABC News Vice President and Washington Bureau Chief, and as executive producer of prime time news magazine programs at NBC News. He was executive producer of the 1988 and 1992 presidential debates, and founder of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism.

Ed Fouhy What's wrong with broadcast news coverage today?

Ed Fouhy: Far too many entertainment values have crept in and have displaced news values. I think it's primarily at the local news level, where there's ferocious competition every day. There's been generally a race to the bottom. Why are networks spending more time on one story as opposed to several as they did in the past?

Ed Fouhy: It's cheaper. I think all of them (the networks) are in the same boat financially, and so they are doing what you do when your budget is being squeezed. You swarm all over the major stories because you don't have the manpower or the money. The less important stories, you give them short shrift or no coverage at all. The competition for TV viewers is fierce. You've got FOX, CNN, MSNBC, the networks, public television and local television. What does the future hold for broadcast news?

Ed Fouhy: I think it's very difficult to see that. Probably the audience will continue to be fragmented as news becomes more and more a commodity and it's available quickly, easily and cheaply, not only in the established news media, but also on the Internet. I think, to the extent that they depend on a mass audience as the three major broadcast networks do, that they are more threatened than the all-news cable operations are. Why has CBS News ranked third behind NBC and ABC and can't catch up? Should they replace Dan Rather or merge with another news operation?

Ed Fouhy: Oh, I don't know. I don't pretend to be a show doctor for CBS. There's also a lot of factors that go into the very tiny differences among the three network news ratings. As you look at Brokaw, Jennings and Rather, all of whom have been there for 20 years or more, every one of them has been number one at one time or another. So it's difficult to say if it's the anchor appeal. Whether it's the lead-in programs, whether it's the shift in the affiliate system, so many good affiliates left CBS when FOX came along and CBS dropped the ball on their NFL renewal. Whether it's changing lifestyles of Americans who are no longer home at 6:30 and gather around the electronic hearth the way they did 25 years ago. I think all of those things have something to do with it. The availability of news on the Internet -- before you go home you can check the headlines and know whether or not there is anything important happening in the world. People aren't stupid. They watch when there is something important. And with these long commutes, a lot of folks are up to here with news that they're getting on the radio in their cars on the way home. Is there an overload of news?

Ed Fouhy: Yes. There's an overload of news about the obvious. During the Cold War you had to check the news to find out if the Russians were going to put a missile down your chimney. That all changed in 1989. So the news is not nearly as compelling. There's also been a lack of imagination on the part of network news executives in redefining what the news is in a post-Cold War. It's much more locally oriented and a far different nation than what we had 45 years ago when these formats were first established. I think the format is tired. It is no longer a particularly attractive way to present the news. You once said that we need to move from the journalists' agenda to the public agenda. What's the difference?

Ed Fouhy: I think it's often beating the other guy. Beating the competition. Particularly when it's covering politics, it's a dive into irrelevance often as far as readers and listeners are concerned. By that I mean, mining someone's past in search of the scandal that may or may not be there when the public is often much more interested in what the candidates' present ideas are, present policies, present record. Got any examples?

Ed Fouhy: George W. Bush. Lots of stories about a drinking and or a drug problem that may or may not have ever existed -- we're not really sure because he didn't talk about it. Meanwhile, the essential policies that he had followed in Texas were under-reported. Now that he's president, and we're seeing that he has a very, very conservative agenda, it's coming as a surprise because I don't think we were properly informed during the campaign by reporters who were more interested in a phantom drug problem than in what he had done or not done during his five years as govenor of Texas. What was it like to be Washington producer of the "CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite" during the Watergate years?

Ed Fouhy: It was running as fast as you can to cover these major stories that seemed to break like waves. Once you'd get through with one, there'd be another major story and it was just exciting. I had a feeling that people in the country were paying attention. There was a lot of effort to get it right. There was a sense of the nation being fascinated by it -- whether it was the war in Vietnam and the Washington angle on that, the Civil Rights Movement and the Washington angle on that, or the Watergate story. These were major national crises that engaged every thinking American. You were executive producer of both the 1988 and 1992 presidential debates at NBC. What made those debates so unique?

Ed Fouhy: I don't think the '88 debates were unique. They were pretty much following the formula that had been cobbled together back in 1960 of the candidates and a panel of journalists asking questions. In 1992 we were able to break away from that straightjacket and find a more flexible format that engaged the audience in a way that they were just overwelming popular and also the timing was different. We had all 4 debates in 8 days, so the audience built for each one. Given it the fact the activity came at a time when voters are paying attention to the campaign, which is to say, in October, that there was a different format for each debate, it's not surprising these were the largest audiences ever polled for any political broadcast on television. Do you agree with the criticism that Jim Lehrer was too easy on the candidates when moderating the Gore-Bush debate?

Ed Fouhy: No. I think Jim did an excellent job of eliciting information. He is a superb interviewer -- does it every night -- and he's very good at it. John Harris of The Washington Post recently wrote that the media has been soft on covering President George Bush as opposed to President Clinton. Do you agree?

Ed Fouhy: Yes. I think this White House is far more controlled than the Clinton White House was. Journalists thrive on leaks and conflict -- in the last couple of weeks there's been more conflict. But in the early going there was a lack of conflict. The Republicans were in charge everywhere, and the White House wasn't leaking like a sive. There weren't the scandals of the travel office, like there was in the early days of the Clinton administration. The Bush administration went in with a very disciplined and very experienced White House staff. They shut down the leaks, and because the Democrats were not putting up any effective resistance, there was the lack of the usual give and take between the two parties that generate news. Why did you found the Pew Center for Civic Journalism?

Ed Fouhy: Because I felt that journalism, particurlarly television news, had drifted away from it's moorings as a very important part of a healthy democracy. Has the center been effective in helping change that?

Ed Fouhy: Yes, but I think there's a long way to go, and market forces are very powerful. I was in Chicago on Monday and I was reading the Sun-Times and I saw that they had forged a partnership with one of the suburban dailies and the local CBS station to cover the expansion of O'Hare Airport in a coordinated way. They're helping citizens in the Chicago suburbs to convene and to talk about this, and they're getting beyond the superficial official announcements and looking at the impact of expanding the airport will have on all of the stakeholders, not just the conventional ones. So, when you see the basic elements of civic journalism taking hold in a city the size of Chicago with its very vigorous journalistic traditions, it makes you feel very good about an idea that was really just beginning eight or nine years ago. Some newspapers are now charging users to access their newspapers online. Will this strategy work, and do you think paying for online content is the wave of the future?

Ed Fouhy: It's hard for me to see how that's going to work. There are something like 25 million websites, and anybody who is at all sophisticated can find the information they want without paying for it. I think that people who are attempting to assemble services on the Intenet that people will pay for are liable to be very disappointed, at least in the short run... I'm seeing it here [at]. With the possible exception of the Wall Street Journal, maybe we all better pay more attention, to the fact that they've got an extremely affluent audience, and they are providing a service that no one else provides. Maybe that's the model that we should all be looking at. But in so far as most newspapers charging for their content, I simply don't see a model out there that is economically viable. Reporters today have more education and earn more than reporters of previous generations. Is this good or bad for journalism?

Ed Fouhy: I think it's good in that it attracts high quality people. I think bad in that it tends to isolate journalists from the vast majority of Americans who are less educated, less well paid, and are coping with difficulties that stem from those two differences between themselves and journalists. Why did you want to be a journalist?

Ed Fouhy: I thought it was a way to have an interesting and useful life. I grew up at a time when there were a number of journalists who I found were very admirable, and I thought that they lived lives that were fascinating. They got to see the world, and to do something that was important.

Copyright © 2001, Inc. All rights reserved.

Other interviews:
  • Linda Cohn, anchor/reporter, ESPN -- May 2001
  • Sol Levine, former producer, CNN -- April 2001
  • Charlie LeDuff, reporter, New York Times -- March 2001
  • Pierre Thomas, correspondent, ABC News -- March 2001
  • Gene Roberts, former managing editor, New York Times -- February 2001
  • Sydnie Kohara, anchor, -- January 2001
  • Lowell Bergman, former producer, 60 Minutes -- January 2001
  • Joie Chen, anchor, CNN -- December 2000
  • David Plotz, Washington Bureau Chief, -- November 2000
  • Christopher John Farley, senior writer and pop music critic, Time Magazine -- October 2000
  • Bob Edwards, news anchor, National Public Radio -- October 2000
  • Sharon Epperson, CNBC correspondent -- September 2000
  • David Maraniss, reporter, The Washington Post -- April 2000
  • Wolf Blitzer, anchor, CNN -- March 2000