When ABC News chairman and former president Roone Arledge died last week after a long bout with cancer, the tributes from journalists were naturally sentimental. And while Arledge would have found it all touching, he would have wasted no time, between puffs on his cigar, to remind the world that he was a hard-driving, edgy and passionate boss who relentlessly drove his staff to televise the revolution.
There’s no doubt that Arledge was a genuine visionary in the world of television. As the head of ABC Sports in the early 1960s, he quickly changed the game. Introducing TV viewers to everything from instant replay to “Monday Night Football” and, yes, Howard Cosell, Arledge transferred his acute sense of the dramatic to the sports world.
How Arledge managed to convince ABC executives to place him in charge of their flagging news division speaks volumes about his self-confidence. Dismissed as an outsider from the start, Arledge relished in breaking with ABC’s status quo, complete with an assortment of loud shirts and a sizable gold chain.
He was on a mission to alter the way television presented news, which required him to boldly tinker with tradition. Inevitably, this strategy ruffled feathers and did not make him popular. The press gave Arledge about as much respect as Rodney Dangerfield.
Of course, his personality didn’t help the situation much, either – remote, egotistical and selfish are just some of the more printable words used to describe him over the years. But Arledge’s credo was simple: You don’t have to love me, but you will respect me.
So dominant a personality was Arledge that his own insatiable curiosity about domestic and global affairs not only fostered an aggressive spirit among anchors and correspondents, but among producers, researchers and desk assistants too.
Reporters were instructed to literally “attack the story,” by fleshing out its full dimensions. With such enterprising journalism, ABC was the first to devote substantial airtime to a little-known disease called AIDS.
While I never met Arledge, I, like so many others in this business, count him as a mentor. Growing up on a steady diet of ABC News, I knew early on that I wanted to be a journalist. I landed internships with at “World News Tonight” and “20/20,” and both experiences left a lasting impact. By the mid-1990s, mergers with Capital Cities and, later, Disney, forced Arledge into an advisory role. But walking the halls, I could feel his presence.
Few producers set out on a task without first asking how “Roone would have done it,” and when ratings were good, a bottle of champagne from Arledge was always dutifully delivered to the newsroom. The commitment to serious reporting remained firm despite corporate concerns about the bottom line.
So it’s ironic that many executives in the turbulent world of 24-hour cable news see themselves in the tradition of Arledge or producer Don Hewitt of “60 Minutes.”
One day after Arledge’s death, for example, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC aired live coverage of actress Winona Ryder’s sentencing for shoplifting, with all the gravity of a Supreme Court decision.
Today, the concept of the celebrity anchor has run amok, with the lines blurred between actual reporting and commentary. Where Arledge used technology and innovative programming to try to provide more context, cable newscasts now reduce much of their analysis to silly bickering between pundits.
The result is a slap in the face to their global staff of experienced reporters and a disservice to viewers in dire need of useful content in crucial times.
Paying homage to Arledge on the night he died, Peter Jennings said on ABC: “His most ardent admirers, and we were many, would have happily wrung his neck on occasion. But we were very proud to work in his news division.” Fighting back his own tears, Jennings could also have been lamenting over the future of television news.
This appeared in Newsday (December 11, 2002)