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Network News Chiefs: ‘The audience ultimately will make the decision as to whether we are still relevant or capable or not’

At The Atlantic‘s Washington ideas Forum this afternoon, the magazine brought together the three networks news chiefs for a panel discussion. James Fallows spoke to NBC’s Steve Capus, ABC’s Ben Sherwood and CBS’ David Rhodes discussed the future of the evening newscasts, broadcast journalism’s relevance in an digital world, and what their organizations have planned for the future.

Fallows began the conversation with something of a loaded question, asking if the network newscasts should even exist in a world where news is available from a plethora of outlets, 24/7. Sherwood noted that the three evening newscasts saw higher ratings this year than they did last year.

“I still think they are incredibly important outlets and forums,” Capus said. “I disagree that it shouldn’t exist. You look at the size of the audiences that gather every night, they are still substantial.”

“It is true I was in cable for 15 years until February, but I think the one misnomer in the sort of dialogue about these newscasts or these news division is that credibility has become quaint” Rhodes added. “It has not.”

Capus was asked whether the politically polarizing network that he oversees, MSNBC, hurts NBC’s news credibility. He responded by arguing that no, it does not, but that the environment on cable news does not necessarily lend itself to good journalism.

“The competitive nature of, especially the cable environment I think does a disservice to journalism,” Capus said. “Our networks are competitive at times, but it pales in comparison to what happens on the cable side. It is harmful because we need people to stand up for quality journalism.

“So are you getting out of it?” Rhodes responded.

“I think MSNBC provides a great service, I think Fox plays a greats service and I think CNN does as well,” Capus replied. “I think there is a place for all three, but I don’t think that the mandate of Pat Burkey or Brian Williams on “Nightly News” is the same as what Rachel Maddow will do tonight.”

Rhodes dismissed the broadcast/cable dispute, arguing that there was plenty of opportunity for all of the players.

“We are programming different programs for different audiences,” Rhodes said. “I don’t think we should be judgmental–and I don’t think we are–about other outlets that are finding audiences.”

Fallows closed out the panel asking whether the broadcast news divisions were up to the task of calling it like it is, in an environment where even basic facts about the world are disputed by politicians. Not surprisingly, all three argued that of course their organization were, while also leaving from breathing room for opinions and points of view.

Ultimately, as Capus said, the future of network news is really in the hands of viewers and consumers. Cable news gets a lot of press, and has loyal fans, but the broadcast news programs reach far more people in a given day than just about any other news outlet period.

“The audience ultimately will make the decision as to whether we are still relevant or capable or not,” he said.

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