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 News has reportedly moved its “World News Tonight” into an automated control room, much as it had previously done with other news broadcasts including “Nightline”. I saw the story when it appeared on TVNewser .

The ‘old’ model was certainly effective for broadcasts with Peter Jennings and Ted Koppel, so there must not have been anything wrong with what they had — this is simply the future – this is automation – this is also an investment which pays dividends in the diminution of soft costs often otherwise referred to as human operators. The article featured this quote explaining the advantages, “An ABC spokesperson says: “The automated technology allows the news division to have greater uniformity and consistency in the way all broadcasts are produced – from creating a more streamlined production workflow to allowing producers more creative control throughout the production process.”

I am glad they cleared that up.

My point is this – why be obtuse? As communicators and journalists who theoretically are pledged to speak simply and accurately, why not be forthright and say this is more efficient from an economic base. The problem many people – including me – is that we read quotes like these which feel massaged – which read as saccharin, false or phony – which fail to be credulous… and because of that, we begin to feel a lack of trust, a loss of trust.

The real question is – and this has nothing to do with ABC – when did we lose our way in the world with truth? When did we decide to use words as shields for what we really don’t want to say? When did spin, manipulation and verbosity become preferable to just plain old speech?

And why does it continue – even when so many of us – maybe you – really see through it? My posting, while admittedly feeble, is my way of saying – “Caught ya! I accept your decision, but I don’t buy your words.”

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.

ABC News has hired Elizabeth Smart, formerly in the news as a Utah kidnap victim when she was a child, as a correspondent assigned to kidnapping and high profile missing person cases, according to The Hollywood Reporter and reported in People Magazine.

Is this a strategic move or one aimed at creating and fostering special appreciation among victim’s families?
Is she a bona fide journalist or a talented ‘talking horse’?

The issue is simple – what’s her training, journalistic experience or story telling? Obviously she will work alongside talented producers; obviously she will be guided and hand-held… but is she being sent out as a lure to sway the sympathy of victims?

It is worth asking is this good journalism or smarmy public relations and booking?

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.

Anchors Awash

May 17, 2011

Sometimes when anchors go into the field to show their commitment to the audience they seem to forget that it isn’t about their glow or their presence. This is a pretty blunt MEMPHIS: IT’S ALL ABOUT DIANE SAWYER piece attacking ABC anchor Diane Sawyer for her presence as well as coverage of the Mississippi floods.
It’s a good reminder that the media is not the story – has never been the story – should never be the story.

With all the equipment involved – and the high financial stakes – remember this is May sweeps time – it is easy to forget the media is only and forever witnesses to history. Just the witness, not the story.

Do anchors add to the coverage? Or drain resources, no pun intended for the flood story? Do people in trauma ‘relate’ to anchors better than they respond to journeymen reporters with more connection to the territory?

You be the judge.

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.

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