A Smart Move – or just strageic? Or am I a skeptic?

ABC News hires kidnap victim Elizabeth Smart to cover child kidnapping and missing person cases. It is worth asking is this good journalism or smarmy public relations and booking?

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 News Interviews – is it ethical or just another example of: it’s not personal it’s business?

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

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.

What’s “new” is already old and what’s old isn’t selling

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? 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 what once passed for content?

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.

Ted Koppel in the Washington Post

This is well worth reading.

Ted Koppel: Olbermann, O’Reilly and the death of real news
By Ted Koppel
Sunday, November 14, 2010
To witness Keith Olbermann – the most opinionated among MSNBC’s left-leaning, Fox-baiting, money-generating hosts – suspended even briefly last week for making financial contributions to Democratic political candidates seemed like a whimsical, arcane holdover from a long-gone era of television journalism, when the networks considered the collection and dissemination of substantive and unbiased news to be a public trust.

Back then, a policy against political contributions would have aimed to avoid even the appearance of partisanship. But today, when Olbermann draws more than 1 million like-minded viewers to his program every night precisely because he is avowedly, unabashedly and monotonously partisan, it is not clear what misdemeanor his donations constituted. Consistency?

We live now in a cable news universe that celebrates the opinions of Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly – individuals who hold up the twin pillars of political partisanship and who are encouraged to do so by their parent organizations because their brand of analysis and commentary is highly profitable.

The commercial success of both Fox News and MSNBC is a source of nonpartisan sadness for me. While I can appreciate the financial logic of drowning television viewers in a flood of opinions designed to confirm their own biases, the trend is not good for the republic. It is, though, the natural outcome of a growing sense of national entitlement. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s oft-quoted observation that “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts,” seems almost quaint in an environment that flaunts opinions as though they were facts.

And so, among the many benefits we have come to believe the founding fathers intended for us, the latest is news we can choose. Beginning, perhaps, from the reasonable perspective that absolute objectivity is unattainable, Fox News and MSNBC no longer even attempt it. They show us the world not as it is, but as partisans (and loyal viewers) at either end of the political spectrum would like it to be. This is to journalism what Bernie Madoff was to investment: He told his customers what they wanted to hear, and by the time they learned the truth, their money was gone.

It is also part of a pervasive ethos that eschews facts in favor of an idealized reality. The fashion industry has apparently known this for years: Esquire magazine recently found that men’s jeans from a variety of name-brand manufacturers are cut large but labeled small. The actual waist sizes are anywhere from three to six inches roomier than their labels insist.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter that we are being flattered into believing what any full-length mirror can tell us is untrue. But when our accountants, bankers and lawyers, our doctors and our politicians tell us only what we want to hear, despite hard evidence to the contrary, we are headed for disaster. We need only look at our housing industry, our credit card debt, the cost of two wars subsidized by borrowed money, and the rising deficit to understand the dangers of entitlement run rampant. We celebrate truth as a virtue, but only in the abstract. What we really need in our search for truth is a commodity that used to be at the heart of good journalism: facts – along with a willingness to present those facts without fear or favor.

To the degree that broadcast news was a more virtuous operation 40 years ago, it was a function of both fear and innocence. Network executives were afraid that a failure to work in the “public interest, convenience and necessity,” as set forth in the Radio Act of 1927, might cause the Federal Communications Commission to suspend or even revoke their licenses. The three major broadcast networks pointed to their news divisions (which operated at a loss or barely broke even) as evidence that they were fulfilling the FCC’s mandate. News was, in a manner of speaking, the loss leader that permitted NBC, CBS and ABC to justify the enormous profits made by their entertainment divisions.

On the innocence side of the ledger, meanwhile, it never occurred to the network brass that news programming could be profitable.

Until, that is, CBS News unveiled its “60 Minutes” news magazine in 1968. When, after three years or so, “60 Minutes” turned a profit (something no television news program had previously achieved), a light went on, and the news divisions of all three networks came to be seen as profit centers, with all the expectations that entailed.

I recall a Washington meeting many years later at which Michael Eisner, then the chief executive of Disney, ABC’s parent company, took questions from a group of ABC News correspondents and compared our status in the corporate structure to that of the Disney artists who create the company’s world-famous cartoons. (He clearly and sincerely intended the analogy to flatter us.) Even they, Eisner pointed out, were expected to make budget cuts; we would have to do the same.

I mentioned several names to Eisner and asked if he recognized any. He did not. They were, I said, ABC correspondents and cameramen who had been killed or wounded while on assignment. While appreciating the enormous talent of the corporation’s cartoonists, I pointed out that working on a television crew, covering wars, revolutions and natural disasters, was different. The suggestion was not well received.

The parent companies of all three networks would ultimately find a common way of dealing with the risk and expense inherent in operating news bureaus around the world: They would eliminate them. Peter Jennings and I, who joined ABC News within a year of each other in the early 1960s, were profoundly influenced by our years as foreign correspondents. When we became the anchors and managing editors of our respective programs, we tried to make sure foreign news remained a major ingredient. It was a struggle.

Peter called me one afternoon in the mid-’90s to ask whether we at “Nightline” had been receiving the same inquiries that he and his producers were getting at “World News Tonight.” We had, indeed, been getting calls from company bean-counters wanting to know how many times our program had used a given overseas bureau in the preceding year. This data in hand, the accountants constructed the simplest of equations: Divide the cost of running a bureau by the number of television segments it produced. The cost, inevitably, was deemed too high to justify leaving the bureau as it was. Trims led to cuts and, in most cases, to elimination.

The networks say they still maintain bureaus around the world, but whereas in the 1960s I was one of 20 to 30 correspondents working out of fully staffed offices in more than a dozen major capitals, for the most part, a “bureau” now is just a local fixer who speaks English and can facilitate the work of a visiting producer or a correspondent in from London.

Much of the American public used to gather before the electronic hearth every evening, separate but together, while Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, Frank Reynolds and Howard K. Smith offered relatively unbiased accounts of information that their respective news organizations believed the public needed to know. The ritual permitted, and perhaps encouraged, shared perceptions and even the possibility of compromise among those who disagreed.

It was an imperfect, untidy little Eden of journalism where reporters were motivated to gather facts about important issues. We didn’t know that we could become profit centers. No one had bitten into that apple yet.

The transition of news from a public service to a profitable commodity is irreversible. Legions of new media present a vista of unrelenting competition. Advertisers crave young viewers, and these young viewers are deemed to be uninterested in hard news, especially hard news from abroad. This is felicitous, since covering overseas news is very expensive. On the other hand, the appetite for strongly held, if unsubstantiated, opinion is demonstrably high. And such talk, as they say, is cheap.

Broadcast news has been outflanked and will soon be overtaken by scores of other media options. The need for clear, objective reporting in a world of rising religious fundamentalism, economic interdependence and global ecological problems is probably greater than it has ever been. But we are no longer a national audience receiving news from a handful of trusted gatekeepers; we’re now a million or more clusters of consumers, harvesting information from like-minded providers.

As you may know, Olbermann returned to his MSNBC program after just two days of enforced absence. (Given cable television’s short attention span, two days may well have seemed like an “indefinite suspension.”) He was gracious about the whole thing, acknowledging at least the historical merit of the rule he had broken: “It’s not a stupid rule,” he said. “It needs to be adapted to the realities of 21st-century journalism.”

There is, after all, not much of a chance that 21st-century journalism will be adapted to conform with the old rules. Technology and the market are offering a tantalizing array of channels, each designed to fill a particular niche – sports, weather, cooking, religion – and an infinite variety of news, prepared and seasoned to reflect our taste, just the way we like it. As someone used to say in a bygone era, “That’s the way it is.”

Ted Koppel, who was managing editor of ABC’s “Nightline” from 1980 to 2005, is a contributing analyst for “BBC World News America.”

News obituary – the audience is dying and so is the programming as we have known it

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.”

A Congressman’s Speech Goes Viral! Imagine media coverage of compelling national debate and dialogue? If only…

Let’s face it, congressional speeches rank pretty low on the media’s food chart of what New York based executives think American audiences care about.  While there is still beat coverage on Capitol Hill, few speeches seem to make it on network radio or TV, and except for CSPAN, there is precious little video coverage of what’s said in the well of the House and Senate. What little is said is reduced to snippets of sound and not substantive blocks or speeches.

That’s what makes Rep. Anthony Weiner’s (D-NY) Thursday remarks about funding medical coverage for first responders to 9/11 all the more surprising.  His passionate speech, some will call it angry and emotional, was aired on both morning and evening newscasts Friday.  ABC’s World News Tonight treated it as a stand alone sound bite while NBC Nightly News incorporated it into a larger story.  But 48 hours after his remarks, by midday Saturday, the speech was watched almost 500,000 times on You Tube alone.

This poses the question – was it because he was emotional or did it merely tap the emotional third rail represented by 9/11?  Was that passion unusual for the House?  Online coverage Congressman Anthony Weiner gets loud, calls out GOP for 9/11 health bill made reference to Weiner as a modern day Mr. Smith, a modern day James Stewart, the incarnate member of the Congress, imbued with passion and commitment and oratory.

From my perspective I wonder whether there is a greater-than-imagined appetite for stirring oratory?  I wonder if the American media might steal a page from British coverage of Parliament, for instance Prime Minister’s Question Time,  where there has always been greater attention paid to the spoken word and disagreement.

No doubt the overwhelming amount of live coverage from Congress, as well as state houses and local elected offices and boards, is dismal – stiff, formal, impersonal and quite often less than articulate. But it it refreshing to see and hear compelling speeches. And judging from the response to Representative Weiner, networks ought to take note that the public does feel well-served when they can hear and see for themselves.

On the face of this it is a risk of producing “boring” TV. Or is it?