By DAVID BAUDER
NEW YORK — If CBS anchor Scott Pelley succeeds in creating an evening newscast that’s a clear alternative to his rivals, Rep. Anthony Weiner may someday be seen as the coal mine’s canary.
During Pelley’s first week, the “CBS Evening News” devoted less than a third of the time to the sexting episode that has put the New York Democrat’s political career in jeopardy than either NBC’s “Nightly News” or ABC’s “World News.”
Andrew Tyndall, a consultant whose ADT Research logs the content of news broadcasts each night, noted that Pelley had “kept to the hard news high ground” in choices on the Weiner story. From the on-set recreation of a map that used to hang behind Walter Cronkite to resurrection of theme music that played when Dan Rather was anchor, Pelley’s first broadcasts have sent welcoming messages to old-time news traditionalists.
Weiner’s June 6 admission that he lied when first denying that he had sent lewd photographs to Twitter followers coincided with Pelley’s first night as replacement for Katie Couric. The Weiner story led NBC’s top-rated “Nightly News” that evening, yet Pelley did not get to it until after the first commercial break and reports about Afghanistan and Iraq.
The next night, ABC’s Jonathan Karl had a “World News” report exceeding three minutes that talked about Republican calls for Weiner’s resignation and addressed the question of what happens when private behavior becomes a public issue. NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell also reported on “Nightly News” about Republicans on the attack. CBS did not mention the story.
A Claire Shipman report on “World News” on Wednesday stretched over two minutes, focusing on the pregnancy of Weiner’s wife. O’Donnell talked primarily about the pregnancy in her “Nightly News” report.
Again, Pelley steered clear of the story.
Last week, NBC’s “Nightly News” spent a total of 8 minutes, 54 seconds on the Weiner story, according to the Pew Research Center Project for Excellence in Journalism. ABC devoted 8:16 to Weiner, while CBS spent 2:33 on the story, Pew researchers found.
“The message of last week could be reclaiming CBS as a more serious-minded news organization,” said Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Pew center’s journalism project. He cautioned, though, that it could be risky to draw conclusions from such a short period. Experts like Tyndall have contended that CBS had a strong hard news focus even before Couric left.
The Pew journalism researchers also found that during Pelley’s first week, CBS spent more time on international stories than the other two broadcasts, although ABC anchor Diane Sawyer was in Afghanistan at the beginning of the week.
A CBS spokeswoman denied there was any intent to send a specific message with its editorial decisions.
“They were typical CBS News editorial decisions, the kinds of which are made every day,” said CBS News spokeswoman Sonya McNair.
CBS has a history of asserting its news values in story selection. A decade ago, Rather gave little attention to the case of a missing Washington woman, Chandra Levy, even as other news outlets were spending considerable time on the story because of a congressman’s possible involvement.
Restraint on the Weiner story could be a popular stand: A survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press last week found that 63 percent of Americans said the news media were giving too much coverage to the story.
Pelley’s start as “CBS Evening News” anchor had little impact on a ratings competition where the network has been last for most of the past decade. CBS was encouraged that viewership for Pelley’s first week was up 6 percent over the same week in 2010, according to the Nielsen Co.
The Weiner story reappeared when Pelley took the weekend off. During Saturday’s “CBS Evening News,” Nancy Cordes reported on Democratic pressure on Weiner to resign as the congressman sought treatment for his problems. This Tuesday, Cordes did a story tied to the Weiner case on how it can be difficult to oust wayward members of Congress.
Meanwhile, ABC’s “World News” did a piece on Monday with Jonathan Karl reporting about Weiner being “under fire.” On Tuesday, following the more recent release of pictures of Weiner posing in the congressional gym, ABC’s Jake Tapper did a piece on how it’s nearly impossible for outsiders to even see the taxpayer-subsidized congressional gym. Weiner popped up halfway through Monday’s lead story on NBC’s “Nightly News” with a report on Ann Curry’s interview with President Barack Obama, who said that if he were Weiner, he’d resign.
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