Remember how Luther nailed his theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg? In effect, that's what Neal Pilson did with his CBS Manifesto. In a speech to television writers, editors and critics last month in Phoenix, the rookie president of CBS Sports said that the sports divisions of the three networks might as well abandon serious journalism. No more Woodward and Bernstein on fun and games. No more Sports-gates. Time for a reformation. From now on, it's mostly kitsch interviews and the ripping and reading of scores.
Only last year, serious journalism was the trendiest thing in sports television this side of Phyllis George in a bonnet at the Derby. Seeing how Pilson's predecessor, Van Gordon Sauter, huffed and puffed about his allegiance to journalism while climbing to the presidency of CBS News, what are we to make of this sudden about-face? Is Pilson saint or heretic?
The feeling here is that Pilson should be applauded for his candor but sentenced to the stockade for waving the white flag. To say, as he did, that sports TV can't do "60 Minutes-style" reporting because it's in bed with the leagues whose games it carries is to suggest that Howard Cosell has been a fraud lo these many years. And to state, as Pilson did, that "we are not equipped" for sports journalism is to beg the question. If the networks can pay the NFL a total of $2.2 billion over the next five years, they can jolly well get themselves equipped. Finally, to say that serious sports journalism shall hereafter be the province of the network news divisions is to relegate it to oblivion. How can recruiting scandals elbow Yasser Arafat aside on Dan Rather's show? In addition, when the news side does cover sports, it usually treats the subject whimsically.
Before we tiptoe through the wasteland of sports journalism on the networks, let's get our terms straight. Journalism—even 60 Minutes-style—doesn't have to involve wading through documents in archives to learn whether the athletic director at Sis Boom Bah U. is skimming off parking revenues from the stadium fund. There can be softer, informational pieces. Cosell's definition may be best: "Sports journalism on television has to be enterprise journalism. It shouldn't be reactive. It should be creative.... It's an unending task of information and education."
In fairness to Pilson, he still plans to cover major stories—point-shaving scandals, say—that others break. He'll still cover the news of the week on Sports Saturday and Sports Sunday. But enterprise? With one exception (a creative piece on racehorse surgery), CBS has surrendered the field all year.
The picture is better at NBC, but only barely. Now that Don Ohlmeyer has left as executive producer, no one knows which inmates have taken over the asylum. Producer Mike Weisman has used his Saturday pregame baseball show to provide insightful coverage of breaking stories in all sports, and Hilary Cosell, 30, Howard's daughter, keeps pumping along intelligently with her "Sports Journal" segments on SportsWorld. However, the network's commitment of its resources is ludicrous. Whereas Cosell p√®re has 11 staffers working on his weekly SportsBeat show on ABC, Cosell fille has one helper. NBC kisses her off with about six to eight minutes every other week.
Over at ABC, the elder Cosell, 62, a self-promoter on football and a know-nothing on baseball, remains a whiz at serious journalism. Even his resources are spread too thin at times, but all that's obnoxious about SportsBeat is the numbers: Its average rating of 3.4 (percentage of TV homes tuned in) over 18 shows is right down there with 2 a.m. reruns of The Life of Riley.
Which leads us to the cold breath of truth. It seems that CBS and NBC will continue to drift away from investigative journalism because they believe it doesn't play in Peoria. Maybe there's a germ of truth in that assessment. Maybe the American sports fan doesn't want to know any more about the hard issues facing sports than he's currently getting.
But should sports television ignore serious stories unless 1) they sell or 2) some print guy stumbles over them on the way to the Olympics? Says Roone Arledge, president of news and sports at ABC, about the implications of the Pilson Manifesto, "Baloney.... It's naive and almost cynical to say that [sports] is just entertainment. If it were just entertainment, people wouldn't be lobbying Congress all the time, and there wouldn't be all these multimillion-dollar lawsuits."
As Howard loves to say, "Exactly right! That's the point I made a moment ago!" Like him or not, he and his daughter are the last audible voices crying in the wilderness.