End nightly newscasts? -- Ken Tucker proposes to end the evening news

The candidates are popping up all over the media these days, but do you notice a certain form of programming missing from their campaign itineraries? How about CBS Evening News With Dan Rather, World News Tonight With Peter Jennings, and NBC Nightly News With Tom Brokaw? When was the last time one of these three shows broke a big story or filled in some missing information on the candidates? Suddenly, the network evening news shows are utterly irrelevant. And it serves ’em right.

True, over the past few years the evening newscasts have suffered budget cuts imposed by their greedy corporate owners. But they’ve also done their own commercial pandering, endorsing the cynical notion that viewers are illiterates with attention spans the length of Murphy Brown’s baby’s toes. The nightly news now routinely reduces major events and issues to a series of quick-cut quotes and flashy graphics, shoving soft-news features into the last segment of the newscasts to leave all of us slack-jawed rubes with a warm, feel-good message.

The result is hooey on the order of NBC News’ dawdling five-minute report June 23 on a micro-brewery in Appleton, Wis. The evening before, CBS News offered a superficial profile of Perot — the kickoff to a superficial five-part series — but gave over even more time during its closing ”Eye on America” segment to a ridiculously lengthy report on what Rather called ”a new American trend”: bargain outlet stores.

With such bilge dominating the broadcasts, can you blame anyone — newsmaker or viewer — for seeking alternative ways of making and getting news? To be sure, some of the short shrift that the evening news has received from the presidential candidates is to its credit: Because the three anchors are experienced hard-news journalists, it is assumed that their shows’ questions will be a lot grittier than the free rides the candidates receive from Larry King or your average polite phone-in caller. With all the soft-news options out there now, I doubt that President Bush wants to tangle with the tough-minded Rather again after their 1988 TV dustup over Bush’s role in the Iran-contra affair.

But in general, this trio of highly paid newsreaders isn’t pulling its cultural weight. So here’s a not-so-radical proposal: Let’s scrap the three network evening newscasts. Without Dan, Peter, and Tom around at dinnertime to convince people they’ve been given the world in a mere half hour, viewers might actually become readers again. We’d be more likely to look at a newspaper to get some in-depth coverage and context: Let’s hear it for the healing powers of print.

I’m not proposing the banishment of Dan, Peter, and Tom — on the contrary, I suggest we set them free to do what, in the past, they have always done best. ABC, CBS, and NBC could use the money saved in their news divisions to mount better, more extensive prime-time news specials. Let Rather return to his valuable role as presidential bloodhound, sniffing out high crimes and misdemeanors. Permit Brokaw, a shrewd interviewer, to do lengthier grillings of government officials and world leaders. Have Jennings use his writing skills and eloquent style as the host of more programs like his excellent January 1991 special explaining the gulf war to children and his more recent prime-time examination of Ross Perot’s past and character.

The ongoing media revolution in presidential campaigning has exposed the nightly newscast as a dinosaur worthy of extinction. Let’s put it out of its misery and get on with the evolution of TV news.