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.

Is a blogger a journalist free to write what they choose? Can some one writing about their own community – the epitome of citizen journalism – write freely without subjecting themselves to resident’s scorn?

Judging by the experience of Daniel Cavanagh who seems to have generated the ire of his Brooklyn New York enclave of Gerritsen Park, the answer is sadly, no. Cavanagh’s copy about local handshake deals and rowdy neighborhood youths has resulted in physical threats, property damage and intimidation. So much for the new era of civility and tolerance, so much for freedom of speech.
The New York Times piece Not Quite a Reporter, but Raking Muck and Reaping Wrath raises serious questions about hyperlocal journalists facing retribution, criticism, scorn and the ire of their friends and neighbors. It posits the question if some one cannot write critically, even if they transgress and write about some thing, one or relationship where they are personally engaged, is that in any way protected?
Hyperlocal is the commercial buzzword these days. There are large companies like AOL and its Patch sites, as well as scores of TV stations and newspapers creating local, multimedia coverage, soliciting local columns and information, posting truly granular data about a specific town or neighborhood. Is there no room for criticism? Is there no room for muckraking? Have we all gone so soft and superficial that we only care about supermarket coupons and yard sales?

Today’s New York Times story portraying comedian Jon Stewart’s advocacy role in support of 9/11 responders to that of CBS news icons Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite seem out of proportion to history, to journalism and to impact.
Mr. Stewart – though both popular and persuasive – does not merit comparison for his remarks on a single show or position compared to the risks that Murrow for instance took when he spoke out against Senator Joseph McCarthy or the Army hearings; nor that of Cronkite when he editorialized about the long-term future of the Vietnam war. Stewart – to his credit – did speak out using his platform and popularity to ridicule what he felt was happening in Congress, but in doing so he did not risk nor face the same consequences as Murrow or Cronkite.
In our rush to make comparisons to the past – all of us – journalists, professors, every one must be more careful to make more apt, thoughtful comparisons than what is offered today by both the Times and a quote from a professor of popular TV culture at Syracuse.

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.

A new study about the use of media by college students and young graduates, those known as Generation Z, raises serious concerns about how little they know, how devoid of curiosity they appear to be, and how willing they are to settle for single-sourced information. It purports to have us believe that young people read very little, what they do read they accept unquestionably with little skepticism or doubt, and that when they search online the most superficial results happily suffice.

If they are in fact as under-informed and happy in their apparent ignorance, then the future is truly in play.  If they demand so little and are so easily pleased, then it is just-as-likely to be true that they will never demand more from the media they consume or rely on to make key decisions.

The New York Times So-Called ‘Digital Natives’ Not Media Savvy, New Study Shows reports the study by Northwestern University found “that college students have a decided lack of Web savvy, especially when it comes to search engines and the ability to determine the credibility of search results. Apparently, the students favor search engine rankings above all other factors. The only thing that matters is that something is the top search result, not that it’s legit.”

The study reports 25% students willingly accept the first site that appeared in search. Only 10% felt it was necessary to credit the source of their information or the credentials, and apparently none actually sought to verify that information independently. Additionally Google trumps Yahoo and both surpass Wikipedia in trust.

And there is little knowledge of even the most fundamental aspects of web management; again, from the New York Times, ” “Some students even thought that a .org domain name meant a site was inherently trustworthy – they weren’t aware that the .org extension can be freely registered just like .com.”

The Northwestern study concludes with this last graph, “While some have made overarching assumptions about young people’s universal savvy with digital media due to their lifelong exposure to them, as our study suggests, empirical evidence does not necessarily support this position. As our findings show, students are not always turning to the most relevant cues to determine the credibility of online content…”

The need for an informed citizenry, for a connected and discerning electorate, for an educated elite in business and the public sector demands individuals who are in fact trained, schooled and very savvy.

If in fact they are not curious, not inclined to push their knowledge and awareness, then in fact they are the epitome of “Stupid is as stupid does” and Forrest Gump was never so right.

Frank Rich has written a compelling Op-Ed piece (6.4.10) in The New York Times Don’t Get Mad, Mr. President. Get Even asking if or when the British Petroleum gulf oil spill will finally trigger Mr. Obama’s anger to reach a boiling point. I think for many Americans, especially those living from Texas to Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and to Florida, that tipping point passed some days ago.

Doesn’t it bother any one but me that he seems so measured?  So level headed… so unflappable even as pelicans and other shore birds die; just as beaches, industries and communities all slathered in oil may not recover for a generation?  Doesn’t this disaster rise to the level where some one in government, some one in charge, can appear to be righteously pissed off over the event, the handling, the aftermath and the guile of the company and executives in charge?

And then comes the story from The Washington Post Gitmo Becomes $500 million Camp Costly that the government’s investment in facilities at the prison camp includes features that might be considered by some, especially those suffering from the downturn in the current economy, to be lavish by any standard.  Fast-food franchises, an Irish bar, astro turf and playgrounds (mostly unused) litter the base even as its mission is on the decline and the urgency of these constructions seems to be mitigated?

A story in the Seattle Times over the weekend reported fees for the Washington Mutual bank failure have topped $100m and are still climbing.  Of course these are fees that to be paid from whatever is salvaged from the assets even as that means an even smaller fiscal pie is left to pay back to investors.  What was most alarming was the line that attorneys are charging $925. and hour for their services.  That’s a higher rate than most criminal attorney’s charge on capital cases!  Doesn’t any one wonder whether this seems exorbitant?  Is there a better way, a more affordable way?  Should there be?

The lessons learned from the bank failures and the catastrophic consequences of the financial meltdown are still yet to be calculated.  But for those responsible, isn’t tar and feathering an option worth reconsideration?  Shouldn’t many Americans who are living on savings, borrowed money, who have lost jobs and in many cases are losing hope, what little remains, aren’t they justifiably angry?  What’s wrong with showing anger?  What’s wrong with being authentically mad?  Why is showing anger something that seems to be out of place?

I cannot help but recall the lead character from the movie “Network” who asked his viewers to go to their windows and scream, “I’m mad as hell and I am not going to take it any more.”

On the eve of election night here in California, as well as other states, I do wonder when the electorate will find its way of expressing its simmering anger… not just in a ‘toss the bastards out” kind of knee-jerk response, but when will we demand and get better?

Taxes and fees are rising while services are declining, dwindling and diminishing.  Is this a good deal for any of us?  Some one will have to explain this to me as if I am a child because while I understand what is happening, and what seems inevitable, I am at a loss to comprehend how some people are trying to spin this as a positive thing in our lives?

Recently Colorado Springs announced it might turn off one-third of all its street lights to save money.  I guess this is the same logic that Toyota used in determining it would be less costly to hide defects in lieu of announcing a recall, with all that inevitable negative  publicity and notoriety.  I think that’s called calculated risk – what a few law suits would cost when weighed against the harsh negative glare.

So Colorado Springs may darken some lights… I guess the first fender bender or trip and fall will be less expensive than providing the public with the amount of light that was once determined to be in the public good.

There was an article recently in The New York Times that subway ridership was down but the cost of running the trains was rising, so the transit agency spokesmen explained fewer riders will have to pay higher fares for the privilege of using the service.  And there was a story in the San Francisco Chronicle that Bay Area transit agencies were so bloated with executive’s high salaries that they will never have sufficient ridership to pay that burden.  Instead they are cutting routes and decreasing service frequency, presumably creating a hardship for the riders, but no where in the article was there any indication the agencies were grappling with the inherent, underlying problem.

I guess their calculated risk is that no one will come to the transit agency offices with the intent of storming the gates and tar and feathering executives and those responsible.

We lost a lot when tar and feathering went out of style… just imagine…

Look – I admit I do not pretend to have the answer.  I see all this as a conundrum.  I see the coverage of these stories as little illustrations if fruitless dialogue.  The public certainly and justifiably feels screwed just as agencies and governments retreat behind barricades and bromides offering defensive assertions that mega salaries are required to assure they have best and brightest management.  The best and brightest – and this is what they have given us?  Yet another conundrum.
The over arching system feels rotted.  The supporting assumptions and beliefs seem brittle and broken.   Let’s call it for what it is – the system is broken and until those in charge step up and admit the changes required are more difficult (and personal) than simply raising taxes and fees while cutting services we will have little meaningful resolution.

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