A few years ago, I was traveling and started talking to my cab driver who was from Cuba.

I said, "What would you say is the biggest difference between Cuba and the U.S.?"

He picked up a newspaper and said, "You have this! In my country, you can't believe what you read or hear on television; here, you can."

I've never forgotten that moment. Here was a man who realized the value of something most Americans take for granted: that what we read or watch is the truth. Is it biased or slanted with a political point of view? Maybe sometimes. but it's not a lie and it's not controlled or edited by the government; that a free, unfettered media is the single most important element in keeping government honest and keeping people informed is a given.

So here's the problem, and it relates to television - especially local news - more that it does to newspaper journalism. Television news has too much freedom; freedom to spend the first 10 or twelve minutes of a newscast on Michael Jackson, Lindsay Lohan or the latest celebrity train wreck at the expense of other, obviously more important information. So, why do they do this? Three reasons: ratings (money), weak management and lack of government scrutiny. Let's take it step by step.

Ratings - The best and the worst thing that ever happened to TV news became profitable. In the beginning, television stations put news on because they had to, as a public service...a requirement of their government license to broadcast, and they lost money doing it. The staff, many of whom came from newspapers, used the only story selection criteria they knew. "What does the reader (viewer) need to know...what's the important news of the day?" That worked well for quite a while, but then, as the audience grew and advertisers started to notice. Local news started to make money and ratings became important. That didn't matter at first because the professionals were still in charge and standards stayed high; the money became a good thing because stations spent more to upgrade equipment, hire more people and add more hours of news coverage, but over time, an insidious evolution has taken place. A few news directors realized they could attract an audience, at least in the short term by sensational reporting and sexy sweeps pieces. Their ratings did go up...other stations noticed and the erosion of TV news began.

Management - Part of the reason TV news is eroding is structural. The newsroom is made up of writers, producers, reporters and anchors...journalists. They're not the problem. If the TV news staffs at American stations were allowed to shape their own newscast, it would be a much more professional product than we generally see; but top managers at TV stations aren't journalists, almost without exception the general managers at US TV stations come up through sales; they didn't rise to the top by knowing where the line is journalistically. They rose to the top by knowing were the bottom line is, and therein lies the problem. They look at the overnight ratings and see dollars, and if the night their station's newscast led with Lindsay Lohan got a bigger number than the night they led with the war in Iraq...well for them, the math is simple. The problem with that thinking is if you continue to operate that way, you risk long term credibility for short term gain...and the message you send to your audience is "We're not really in the news business anymore", sooner or later you'll lose their trust.

Government scrutiny...A television station in a major market is worth hundreds of millions of dollars, they are licensed to operate by the federal government. Not so long ago, when their license came up for renewal every three years, they worried that their right to broadcast might be challenged, and sometimes it happened. Now, under a sleepy FCC, station licenses only come up for renewal every eight years. There are challenges to station licenses, but rarely are they successful. After all, a station making hundreds of millions of dollars can certainly afford a big-gun Washington attorney to fight off most community activists.

Now, here's my solution. There are more than 700 TV stations in the country...I propose Congress to require the FCC to evaluate each station's service to the community it serves every year using a published set of guidelines. Substantial weight should be given to the number of professionally run newscasts, covering news in the local community as well as regional, national and international events. A priority should be given to election coverage involving substantial time, analysis and debate. The standards for professional newscasts should be neither set nor judged by the FCC or other government agency. The standards should be set up by an independent coalition of journalists, and station performance in regard to those standards should be evaluated by an independent commission. Each station should be given a numerical grade, the stations should be ranked, and the lowest ranked should lose their right to broadcast when their renewal period comes up (it should come up much more often than every eight years), and, in a public forum, other contenders should argue why they can serve the community better.

I believe if broadcasters are made to realize the trust and obligation that comes with operating under public privilege and for the first time in years are made to feel the heat for ignoring the public trust, more TV journalists can go back to doing news and not just television.