Causing Trauma on Live TV; NBC Makes a Child Cry

A New Low on Live TV

It’s not permissible for any adult to make a child cry — anywhere, and especially not by a professional team of journalists on live, network television and stay on the shot, continuing the interview even as the guest breaks down.

Shame on the TODAY show. Shame on the hosts, the field producers, and the control room because they should have known better.

NBC’s TODAY Show interviewed a survivor of yesterday’s shooting at a Florida high school beginning by asking the condition of her best friend who was shot next to her.
The young woman, just a junior of perhaps 15 or 16 years, softly answered, “she didn’t make it.”

As any one would, her lips quivered. Her eyes watered. She wiped her face with the sleeve of he sweatshirt.

Yet NBC chose to stay on a single picture of her for an interminable several seconds before going to double boxes showing the hosts in Korea along side the student as she broke down and tried to regain composure.

Rather than simply end the interview, NBC chose to continue. It felt more exploitative than journalistic inquiry.

Rather than say, “we’ll be back in a moment” with the decency to allow her to recover her composure, NBC stayed on their shot to continue the interview. Whether the young girl wanted to stay or go, as a child she was given no choice, the adults offered her no option.

Would it have been reasonable for her to know she had a choice?
Would it be defensible for the network to say, “well, she could have asked to end it?”

To her credit, the young woman did recover but had to do so before millions of the audience.
To her credit, the young woman was an eye witness who had valuable insight to share. And she did.

It’s just not to NBC’s credit that it risked causing her trauma and embarrassment in order to save their interview. They continued the interview while professing “their sorrow for her loss,” but the fact is, they continued.

An unanswered question? Why didn’t the producer in Florida tell the control room and anchors in New York NOT to ask about her friend, that “the friend had died.”

Or worse, did they know and chose to ask the question? Whenever I produced network live shots, and I was responsible for hundreds over 30+ years, I made it my responsibility to tell the program when/if there were ‘hot buttons’ to be aware of, mindful for, and how to handle lest we trespass over someone’s emotional line.

An unanswered question? Was there any consideration of changing the program as it played across other time zones? A thought that perhaps if this was a bit raw when aired live in the East, it ought to be edited or deleted or framed with a new introduction before it played in the Central, Mountain or Pacific time zones?
And for any who might say this is fair game, that “we need to see the faces of victims” and “understand the horror of a school shooting, in order to appreciate the damage.” Phooey.

There is never an excuse for professional journalists to add to a victim’s pain.

There is never a sufficient apology for “not knowing” what someone is about to say, especially on live TV.
There is a higher duty for all professional journalists to make their coverage as immersive as possible, but always within the boundaries of human decency.

Sadly it seems that NBC’s TODAY show plumbed new depths of what appears to be exploitative television.

 

Advertisements

The Missing Story: Maybe the fact is – if there is a nuclear attack, there may be nothing the public can do to save itself. Maybe that’s the story no one wants to really look at.

The most alarming picture Sunday from Hawaii experiencing an incoming ballistic missile wasn’t the highway billboards or chyron crawl over a sport program on local TV, but rather the panic in the streets. People were running for their lives, hiding in bathrooms or closets, and saying “good byes” to their families. Why or where were they running, or simply – in a nuclear attack – would it have mattered?

And why isn’t that the most prominent question for Day 2 of this story?

While the cause of Sunday’s false missile alarm in Hawaii needs to be investigated, even more shocking is the fact that no one seems to have known what to do, where to go, or how to react.

And that confusion and panic is frighteningly still unaddressed in news coverage.

It is knee-jerk to point fingers and decry the accident. And goodness knows there are been countless ‘national security consultants’ who have flooded the airwaves wringing their hands offering arm chair speculation about the accident safely from Washington, a distance of 4,826 miles from Honolulu. But their emotionally delivered insight hasn’t shed any light on the larger question… in this day and age of ever-larger nuclear buttons on desktops, what is left for the rest of us to actually do?

Many in the news business will recall the hackneyed phrase oft-spoken when there is a screw up on air, “Broadcasting will stop while we assess the damage and assign the blame.”
Today we are witnessing the mea culpa, the governor taking responsibility, the President assuring us “we’re going to get involved” in the inquiry, but really. So what?

The recent wildfires in California, the hurricanes in Puerto Rico and Houston and more remind us of the necessity of having an escape route from imminent danger along with packed bags of our most important papers. But in a nuclear attack… escape where? And will there be any one left to inspect our papers.

Anyone growing up in the 50’s and 60’s will remember Bert the Turtle and “Duck and Cover.” Many of us remember practicing in our classrooms hiding under desks while being shooed away from the windows. As if, now looking back on that, would it have mattered in the least? There was a day when the yellow and black nuclear fallout shelter signs adorned buildings on every block… today, I wouldn’t know where to even look for a shelter in my community.

Once again, a lot of media is focused on the ‘what happened,’ or the ‘how did it happen”? Both are important questions but fall short of the more important — so what do we do?

Absent the distraction of politics or personality in either Washington or Pyongyang, Sunday’s incident in Hawaii proves that we may have early warning detection systems… even notification protocols… but what is it the public is supposed to do to save itself?

And why isn’t that prominently included in today’s media coverage?

As an old assignment managing editor, I’m just asking…

Why does the public think media misbehavior is new? Or is the media to blame?

Lauren McGaughy has written a thoughtful story in the Dallas Morning News about how the media’s onslaught on a story can be as traumatizing as the tragedy they’re covering.

A town, even a neighborhood is transformed by a media scrum, and as a consequence the media often gets a black eye in the aftermath.

Sure stories like this are often true, or have an element of truth to them. More true now by electronic media than even 30 years ago when there were just 3 networks and a handful of local affiliates, contrasted now to 5 major English language networks (6 if you include the Associate Press’ TV service), 2 Spanish language domestic networks, and literally scores of stations reporting in multiple languages to a global audience.

Plus radio… plus wire services… plus newspapers.

It is easy to criticize all this. The din of the media is overwhelming. The press of the pack is as unrelenting as their deadlines.

Live shots, exclusives, TV bookers clicking along the sidewalks searching for and enticing victims and their families with free trips to New York to sit on the set of morning talk shows where anchors can profess their emotion and sorrow, sometimes even offered on behalf of “all of us” in TV land.

We do live in an era where the technology has altered the way stories are covered. What used to be a more measured, even methodical pace has been transformed into an unimaginable pressure cooker of competition for the infamous and unrelenting 24/7 news cycle.

The audience expects, partly because we in the media have created this expectation, that entire stories from crime to investigation to resolution can be completed in a day, or perhaps as quickly as a 48 minute episode of Law and Order.

But Ms. McGaughy, criticism of the media is not new. The earliest reference to press-misbehavior (that I can remember) stems from Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page. But in this single graph it reminds us that we should keep check on our behavior with an eye to the larger picture of life.

“Bunch of crazy buttinskies with dandruff on their shoulders and holes in their
pants.
Peeking through keyholes, waking people up in the middle of the night to ask them
what they think about Aimee Semple McPherson.
Stealing pictures off old ladies of their daughters that get raped in Oak Park.
And for what?
So a million shop girls and motormen’s wives can get their jollies.
And the next day, somebody wraps the front page around a dead mackerel.”

The people of Sutherland Springs certainly did not ask for the spotlight on their community. They deserved to be treated fairly and professionally, their stories shared but their grief not exploited.

Ethics classes and discussions can prepare this intellectually, but some of that seems to be bent and challenged in real world applications. We’d like to see all this in Manichean terms but we live out lives in the nuance of grey, and can only do our best to do it well in every respect.

Social Media Gone Vile

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.

Veteran Correspondent Richard Threlkeld – RIP

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.”

Iowa & Retail Politics – then why are we only hearing from the pundits and anchors?

In Iowa and New Hampshire – two small states known for their tradition of retail politics – why do we hear anchors and pundits tell us this repeatedly while there never seems to be time to hear the candidates speaking to voters? Or even more daring, why don’t we hear much of what the prospective voters think after meeting and shaking the candidate’s hands?
This is more than a sound bite – more than 10 seconds – more than rhetoric.
More than a talking point heard before or a rebuttal to some other campaign assertion.

There seems to be a disconnect. This isn’t intended as a riddle. But the coverage assures us that these are states where the candidates are saturating every town, township, city and opportunity to press the flesh and yet the coverage shows instead, primarily, the anchors and pundits talking about voter reaction instead of allowing us to hear and judge for ourselves.
In an environment with so much available air time why isn’t some network allowing time for the story to breath?

Real news doesn’t include nipple slips

Once upon a time when news was not a commodity and what was editorially selected for print or broadcast was of the most pressing nature so that it deserved reporting, there were fewer stories about incidental nudity or wardrobe malfunctions.

But Nicki Minaj Nip Slip During “Good Morning America” today this has become news… It doesn’t matter which network – or how it happened – or if it was incidental or accidental. This is now grist for the content wheel. And it is, forgive me, awfully superficial stuff.

And here is a worthy-to-be-remembered apologetic quote using the term “regrettably.” From TV Newser, “ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider, “Although we had a five-second delay in place, the live East Coast feed of the concert regrettably included certain fleeting images of the performer that were taken out of later feeds in other time zones. We are sorry that this occurred.”

And then – adding this, again from TV Newser, “TMZ spoke with the Parents Television Council: “For the umpteenth time in recent memory a morning news show has included inappropriate content for children and families.” It prompts me to ask — the “umpteenth time”? Did I miss so many of the others? How can they be so carried away with hyperbole – “the umpteenth time”? I guess we should ask for their list (Hah!) – or maybe just watch morning news more carefully.

Maybe this is just a Saturday story… but here’s the point. Until you can put a smoking gun in the hands of the ABC producers and prove they intended this to happen, which I don’t think is even remotely reasonable, can’t we just move on? Is this a worthy-to-be-reported story?

It would seem that there are are more editorially worthwhile things to discuss. My argument here is: this isn’t news. It isn’t fashion. It seems at best to be an isolated and fleeting screw up.

Content matters – this even isn’t worthy. Even by ranting I have given it undue prominence. I guess I just wanted to make a clean breast of how I felt.