Social Media Gone Vile

January 13, 2012

Early Friday the profession of the media lost one of it’s finest craftsman when former ABC and CBS correspondent Richard Threlkeld was killed in a traffic accident on Long Island, New York. The local paper Newsday filed a picture along with their story Richard Threlkeld, former CBS newsman killed in crash and that has unleased a cascade of comments taking issue with bumper stickers on Threlkeld’s car – labeling him part of the ‘liberal”, “biased”, an “Obama supporter” and member of the “lametsream” media. Inaccurate since the title of the article described Threlkeld as a ‘former” newsman… no longer in the profession and free to advocate for any position he might choose.

But the question that is more appalling, and frightening, is what is it – even in death – that makes people feel that social media is a forum for invective — even it seems about some one they don’t know personally? What is it about the anger that seems to exist, just simmering at the surface of too many people’s daily lives? What did happen to all those cries for greater civility following the Tucson shooting of Rep. Gifford just a year ago.

Or, just as challenging, what is it about the media that seems to have raised such hatred, distrust and anger among some consumers? Obviously those who made these insulting and personal remarks are consumers of media – they read the Newsday article and then felt perfectly OK to make judgments about the victim.

The ability to make comments is of course protected free speech. But the anger, the rush to judgment, the inappropriateness of the timing of these comments gives me pause.

Dick Threlkeld was a masterful writer, story teller, correspondent and a good friend of both my father during the Vietnam war and me when Dick and I both worked at CBS and ABC on the US west coast.
He was a craftsman – a wordsmith – a gentleman – a friend.

From the Associate Press

By FRAZIER MOORE
AP Television Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — Richard Threlkeld, a far-ranging and award-winning correspondent who worked for both CBS and ABC News during a long career, has been killed in a car accident, CBS said.
The 74-year-old Threlkeld died Friday morning in Amagansett, N.Y., and was pronounced dead at Southampton Hospital. He lived in nearby East Hampton.
Threlkeld spent more than 25 years at CBS News, retiring in 1998. He was a reporter, anchor and bureau chief. He covered the Persian Gulf War and the Vietnam War, the Patty Hearst kidnapping and trial, and the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.
He worked alongside Lesley Stahl as co-anchor of “The CBS Morning News” from 1977-79, and reported for “CBS Sunday Morning” from its inception in 1979, as well as for “The CBS Evening News With Dan Rather.”
In 1981, Threlkeld decided to go to up-and-coming ABC News without fanfare and without telling CBS.
“I don’t like to horse trade. I’m not a horse,” Threlkeld told The Associated Press at the time. “After I decided ABC was the best place for me to go, it would have been wrong to make a verbal agreement and take it back to CBS to see what they could do.”
At ABC News, he served as a national correspondent for “World News Tonight.”

In what is a wise and I hope foresighted decision ABC is the first of the big 3 networks to say it won’t continue to pay licensing fees associated with securing major interviews.
ABC ends checkbook journalism, will no longer pay for interviews appearing on the Poynter website includes a quote that ABC News President Ben Sherwoood, “concluded that the cash-register approach to journalism was starting to tarnish the network’s credibility, even though the practice was relatively infrequent.”

That’s putting a good spin on it. Paying for access, paying large sums including $200,000 to Casey Anthony was just one in a series of stories that date back many years and include free travel, accommodations, gifts and more to secure prominent interviewees.

I’ve been critical calling the practice perverse
and decrying the practice of raining money for some time.

Admittedly I have witnessed examples of this practice by all major broadcast and cable networks and been personally involved in such stories – and while I found the practice distasteful I admit that I too had involvement.

ABC deserves major kudos for breaking away from this practice. The audience is better served. The business of journalism is better for their decision. The network is at risk of losing some “exclusives” but in the world where that word has lost all meaning, relevance and importance, it is a courageous step and the network has earned acknowledgement.

It’s been going on since before the verdict but now the bidding war for Casey Anthony’s story has gone big time with attorneys holed up in pricey New York hotels as they negotiate Casey for her licensing rights. That’s right – network’s don’t pay for interviews so instead they offer lavish treatment and buy the rights to photographs and other family memorabilia; it’s called the licensing rights for everything surrounding her actual tell-all tale. Payola by any other name is still wrong.

Postings in social media on this are colorful ranging from outrage and revulsion to snide comments about the ethics (or lack thereof) involved in even considering buying her story, much less rewarding her. None of this is new. None is shocking. It is what tabloids and quick-books have made fortunes on over the years. The networks should not be blamed – they are selling a product and need to corner an ever shrinking piece of the viewer’s loyalty. Sadly this is being done under the banner of news, but that seems to cause few any pain or difficulty.

Meanwhile – Casey may be in Palm Springs according to some… while cross country her lawyers are no doubt turning up the heat in their bidding war… and the weatherman said it was going to be a scorcher in New York today. No doubt.

ABC Rains Money

July 11, 2011

Paying for interviews is against network standards but there is nothing prohibiting payments for licensing rights and other perks paid to news sources and potential interviewees.  The latest? A two-hundred thousand dollar ($200,000.00) payment to Casey Anthony!   It isn’t new – it happened as recently as last night (Sunday)with a six figure deal with Jaycee Dugard and her publisher for a ‘first-look’ at her story.  It has happened over many years – and each network is guilty of doing it, although ABC and NBC have been in a more financially secure position reportedly to be more lavish in their offers.

And don’t think that money only flows to the victims or good guys in such stories.  Two networks were in a fierce bidding war for the songbook of Phillip Garrido – Dugard’s admitted captor and rapist – shortly after the story broke.  Attorneys representing a friend of Mr. Garrido received six figure offerings for his songs which included lurid details of a cross country sex odyssey and other perversions.

The audience doesn’t seem to see a difference between paying for news or paying for access.  In a  celebrity driven world it seems as if we have become accustomed to the habit of stars and news makers wanting to be compensated for their first hand stories.  Networks have been more than obliging in paying sums for what guarantees them the right to brand the interview an “exclusive”.  But does all this loot change the story – does more money make it ever so much more necessary to add an adjective or color the telling of a story in a particular way to make it seem worth the cash?  One cannot demand top dollar and then disappoint the paymaster.  It wouldn’t be good for business, especially when that is show business.

It may be good for business but it is bad for ethics, and there’s just no way around that.

Paying for interviews? Rewarding executives or news makers or personalities for their bon mots?

Not in the old days – not when news wasn’t expected to make money – not before corporate ownership took hold and made news divisions responsible for their bottom line and turning a profit. But now, in the wild west of media frenzies thanks to networks, tabloids and scandal sheets, it’s anything goes – and the highest bidder may win, regardless of the terms or conditions associated with the interviewees’ demand.

This For Instant Ratings, Interviews With a Checkbook in a recent New York Times received very little attention, or so it seemed to me. I would have expected, maybe just hoped, for more attention to be paid to the consequences.

Once upon a time people appeared on media because it was truly an opportunity to reach a mass audience. Now thanks to a plethora of media there’s little doubt that any one can get attention, some times far too much or unwarranted attention.

Paying for interviews – or rather for access is not new. The Times piece makes it seem as if it is a recent development… it has existed for years – prime time programs have done it, programs with the most prominent of news anchors have done it. A wink and a nod and money is paid for family photos or archive material in the thin guise that this is the cover for what will become a guaranteed interview with the personality too.

It can be paid to the prospective interviewees, or it may come in the form of lavish wining and dining for friends or families. It happened during the Koby Bryant case, for John Mark Karr who confessed to the Jon Benet Ramsey killing, even to people associated with Phil Garrido who recently plead guilty to the kidnapping and rape of Jaycee Dugard. It’s just not new. And it feels skanky to do it – even when under the direct instructions of senior news managers in New York.

There are so many questions – if you pay, will some one be more forthcoming? If you pay too little, will they hold back? If you pay for one media does that count if some one else pays more for a different platform? Does payment change their story – are they more likely to juice it up to hike the price, or claim to know more than they really do — but money makes them be bold, even to the point of lying?

News divisions once had a policy that prohibited paying any one for a news story. That existed as a fire wall within news, but was not as rigid for prime time magazines or the morning shows which at some networks are produced by the entertainment divisions. Times have changed. Networks demand all programs produce a profit. And now news figures – even temporary news headliners – are sought after as exclusives. They may or may not have much to say – they may not even offer much to discourse or common knowledge – but they command payments just to speak. I don’t feel good about a lot of this whatsoever.

David Carr’s To Beat Today, Look to Tomorrow is a thoughtful compendium of what’s wrong with morning news. Those stalwart morning shows… on ABC, CBS or NBC are hardly news any more, certainly not often news-worthy and more often news-light.

Soft features that once would never see airtime in what was once called the 7 o’clock “hard news hour” now dominate and sometimes even lead the broadcasts. Editorial-lite, anchor-intense gabfest now proliferate where once pointed interviews were the morning staple.
News was made – people wanted to be heard making news – programs wanted to break news – politicians and others were expected (and perhaps at times were excited) to appear and speak the truth (that’s news!) as the business day began.

What has caused the change? Not that long ago news makers who said quote-worthy things on a morning show set the agenda for the day to follow. They were even used as snippets in subsequent broadcasts. How long has it been since that happened?

When did TV News lose its balls? When did TV news decide it was better to get the interview and promise not to offend than to actually hold people accountable and perhaps, dare even, make news in the process?

Is it some sort of unwritten code not to be tough? Is it the result of cut-throat competition that has resulted in a broadcast environment of pabulum? Or perhaps what is more likely, did news producers find their legs cut from beneath them by corporate ownership (Viacom, GE, Disney) that is more concerned with legislation and other corporate divisions than they are devoted to their news operations and even concerned for the absence of what once passed for content?

Ok, for disclosure – as a freelancer I do work for more than one of these morning broadcasts 0r their cable cousins, albeit far from the decision centers on West 57th Street, Times Square or 30 Rock.

Guests are fawned over – given fruit baskets with notes signed from “their friends and family at XYZ news”. Yes, God’s truth… that’s what I and others have been instructed to write. I have declined.

I have noted over the years the news divisions sway over the content seems to have been minimized – the intensity of the questioning has been lessened. In its place we see a zeal for getting the guest – for proclaiming it an exclusive even when there was no competition for the story itself.

Have we all deluded ourselves into believing that the audience cared about an exclusive that was, on its merits, not truly important? Does making a hullabaloo about an exclusive raise the story to be worthy of the water-cooler later in the day?

David Carr is correct. The morning news model is dated.  Once there was a chance to earn greater interest because the shows were content heavy, compelling attention, and featuring well-written copy instead of largely ad-libbed repartee.

One day the audience might again demand more. Today in the 500 channel world of entertainment it seems as if too many stations – like CBS’ Early Show – are mired in repeating what is already shown elsewhere – echoing through the airwaves – instead of forging new ground.

So sure, toss out the old anchors. Pretend that’s the problem and the solution. If we are following the tried-and-true model of network production next the New York masterminds will once again remodel the show’s set and change graphics package for the program.
For when the anchor carnage doesn’t pan out, this will surely so the trick… after all we’ve experienced this before.

He was simply one of the best.  Howard Brodie was a master of his craft, an artist who drew images of World War II for the US Army and hundreds of courtroom sketches, including Charles Manson and Patricia Hearst among so many other high profile trials, for CBS News. He was a teacher, mentor and friend.

I first met Howard Brodie when an editor at the CBS News Los Angeles bureau in 1976. By then he was already a legend – one could tell because even the best and most experienced cameraman spoke enviously of what Howard captured with his eye and fingers. They would wait, anxiously, as Howard finished his sketches and they would ask how he wanted them shot – with a push in here? A tilt down there? Senior correspondents like the late Terry Drinkwater and producers including David Browning would eye each drawing appreciatively and adjust their scripts for that evening’s CBS Cronkite newscast.

One particularly busy day Howard rushed in from court and courteously, but leaving no doubt to the urgency of his question, asked if I would stand at my desk and stretch my left arm outward… “Freeze!” he asked, even as phones rang off their hooks around me. He needed to capture the muscle tone of an arm in that position; he had seen it in the court but needed the complexity of the muscles and tendons to finish it. I was his proxy. It took all of 20 seconds.

I knew then I had become a (very small) part of Howard Brodie’s art. I hardly remember the case but I always remembered the man – his presence was powerful, his courtesy was never failing, his laugh could punctuate a newsroom, his art simply powerful and stunning. He captured moments- as a reporter and artist – and created signature moments of trials of the century.

Older audiences for network newscasts may signal the death of the evening news – oh wait, maybe this obituary is already past due for newscasts that cost too much to produce for too little profit for too small an audience.  That is a trifecta representing the end of news as we know it.

Audiences are aging and networks have largely failed to capture the attention or loyalty of the younger Gen X, Gen Y, Millenials, Gen R and other audiences.  As the network news audience ages the doom and gloom around those once proud organizations becomes more intense.

I’ve heard an internal number at ABC News shows the average World News Tonight audience is 61.3 years old.  Public numbers are not as venerable.  At that increasing age medical-pharmaceutical and a few other advertisers are about the only ones who will find this audience at all desirable.

It foretells the end of the evening news as we know it today. Is that a bad thing? Is this just another evolutionary step? In the cafeteria era of news, will the end even be noticed?

From TVNewser, “Report: Broadcast TV Aging Faster than the Population.

Broadcast television viewers are getting older at a faster rate than the general population, according to a new report from analyst Steve Sternberg.
The report does not mean that literally, of course, but rather the median age of network TV viewers continues to rise every year, outpacing the general public.

The median age for CBS last season as 55, with ABC at 51 and NBC 49. Fox, which does not have a network news division, was the youngest of the big four at 44 years old.

So what does it mean for broadcast TV news?

For network news divisions, the aging is troubling, but unlikely to affect their economics in the short term. With the proliferation of cable news outlets, broadcasters have already been hit hard, and seen their audiences erode over the last few years…
As a result CBS News and ABC News, which do not have cable networks to prop them up, have been through a series of devastating layoffs and cutbacks.

Because news shows typically sell ads targeting viewers 25-54 years old, it gives them more room to maneuver as the networks continue to age upward. Only CBS has a median age above the key demo.

Longer-term however, it is a troubling prospect. The entertainment programming typically drives most of the profits at the broadcasters, and as they age up and the audiences decline, the profits will get smaller.

Smaller profits means that the network will look for more ways to cut back. Those cutbacks could end up coming from the news divisions, with its already small margins.”

Perhaps the problem isn’t that audiences do not believe their news providers, as one recent poll would have us believe, maybe we just don’t want a diet of facts we disagree with or truths that disturb us?  Maybe it is that we are becoming largely a nation of self-righteous, opinionated zealots who disagree with any voice other than our own?

There has been a lot of coverage about the recent survey that Americans do not trust their news sources.  It’s prompted many news managers to assert their coverage is absolutely grounded in fact, rooted in the inherent bedrock of journalism and the larger audience’s problem stems from reading, watching and listening to other organizations who clearly, evidently don’t respect or even value news, truth, and fairness in the same high degree or standard.

But I haven’t read any one yet who has laid some of the blame on the audience.  What, blame the audience?  Are they the victims of poor reporting or to blame for failing to demand better?  What?  Wait!   Could not a compelling argument be offered that over the past 20 years the audiences have demanded less and worse, they have appeared to be satiated on a measly diet of incomplete news mush.

Audiences today seem to be divided in Foxes or Hedgehogs, those who find a web source and burrow down (foxes) or those who behave like hedgehogs nestling among many stories or sites picking up tidbits of information that they associativity relate into a  pastiche.

Whether that audience finds the right blend of news and facts and information seems irrelevant for they feel informed, and based on a wide array of bits of information they are as assertive as they believe themselves to be well self-informed.  But audience surveys show how poorly informed they truly are.  USC’s Annenberg School did a survey – both print and TV side by side – of the Los Angeles market and found “A composite half-hour of LA local TV news contains 8:25 of ads; 2:10 of teasers (“stay with us – there’s a story you won’t want to miss”); 3:36 of sports and weather; and 15:44 for everything else. So besides sports and weather, only about half of a half-hour of news is news. How much of that 15:44 is about events that happened in the Los Angeles media market? Local news takes up 8:17; non-local news gets 7:27″  The full document can be found as a link from there.

So what has gone wrong?  How do we dissect the road we took that has led to our own dismay and destruction as a trusted source of information and news?

TV News is an industry which became a playground for consultants invited by general managers and news directors in pursuit of dollars.  The professionals were often co-conspirators in the rush to expand audiences and achieve higher ad revenue as news became a business instead of a responsibility.

This slippery slope dates back generations.  In the 1970s consultant-inspired thinking gave life to happy talk and eyewitness news which were innovative at the time but became feeding grounds for wasted time, irrelevant comments, and ersatz displays of emotion.  In the 1980’s live trucks enabled reporters to use technology – some of which were over by the time the newscast began but by-God they had presence.  They were there LIVE and again precious air time was sacrificed for glitz.

Stories that were complex were deemed to be too difficult for TV or were said to be “too depressing” for the audience that might be watching at meal time, and the consequence is an entire generation was fed a buffet of crime and chaos.  The ‘if it bleeds it leads” style of news still predominates in  even the largest markets.

News is partially to blame for creating an audience which has been stuffed on the candy of irrelevance at the expense of substance.  A friend says television news doesn’t handle complex carbohydrates well and that’s true.  It doesn’t because anything serious or chewy is skipped over with the conviction that the audience either doesn’t care to be bothered with the facts or wouldn’t understand those complexities or the nuance.

Consultants told news managers the only things the audiences care about was weather and traffic, witness the boom in high dollar technology and promotions for super duper Doppler and accurate at all costs weather and traffic graphics that proliferate in all media markets today.

It is easier to watch weather… it is certainly easier for anchors to engage with banalities about the weather in lieu of risking showing ones true ignorance of substantial news matters.

I recently watched the NBC affiliate in San Jose take more than 30 seconds to announce and illustrate a set of 4 new stamps about cowboys on their evening news.  The fact that none of them stemmed from the bay area, the artist was a not local resident, nor was there any editorial linkage to the story that made it relevant was, in itself, irrelevant.  On any night when there is substantive news to report, the producers chose this story as more important, and it became the subsequent subject of an engaged dialogue between the anchors, as if 30 seconds wasted on the story itself wasn’t indulgent enough.

If the education system has done a poor job teaching civics it is a lesson that has not been lost on reporters who are assigned to important stories without the proper grounding.  Just before opening arguments in the 2005 Michael Jackson molestation trial in Santa Maria, California a reporter from the Los Angeles market asked me, “Which side goes first?”  They truly had no idea; clearly they had not even watched enough episodes of “Law and Order”.  It is a simple thing, and they should have known – but they didn’t – and the amount of other, missing information was daunting.  This was a person who would go on to report the trial, assumed to be some one with knowledge, and yet they were vastly out of their league reporting anything but a fender bender.  Or new stamps.

Should we be surprised that we have created a generation of idiots?  Hardly.  In entertainment this is an audience who watches programs such as “Are you smarter than a 5th grader?”  Why we set the bar so low, not even at the junior high school level, is probably because we have little conviction the adults in the audience would be competitive if the curriculum was more challenging.

News today is in an economic crisis.  Networks are closing their overseas bureaus preferring to simplify and voice over material from bases in London.  Former CBS correspondent Tom Fenton warned of the consequences of this in his book Bad News: The Decline of Reporting, the Business of News, and the Danger to Us All.  What was bad then (2005) as overseas bureaus were closed and reporters on the ground in distant lands were fired is being replicated today by ABC News in the United States.  One cannot cover news as if it is an exercise in distance learning.  Nothing can be substituted for feet on the ground, eyes on the scene local knowledge of the people and institutions making important decisions and creating news.

The point is this — when confronted by a survey that the audience doesn’t trust its sources of news is really not that unexpected.  Distressing to professional news people – yes, it should be.  Distressing to any one who cares about an educated public, yes!  it should be too.  But is it the fault of news, per se?  Partially of course.  The blame or responsibility for this is at the feet of a society which doesn’t really seem to value its news, or any one that gives lip service to news instead of really understanding and wanting to be taxed with serious substance, instead of the pabulum that has passed as news for so long?

There is blame for many – for education systems that don’t teach the value of news and information; for individuals who shun anything but infotainment, and then participate in surveys to say they don’t trust news.

It prompts me to wonder, just who do they trust?  Who do you trust?  Comment or email… let me know what you think?

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