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.

And we paid money for this — FCC report “cites lack of local news, but has no ideas to fill the gap”

Four hundred seventy eight pages… that’s what it took to conclude that the state of local news in the digital age is in a serious state o’ crisis, with apologies to O’Casey.

This is the latest from the FCC on the sorry state of local news in the digital age. Not only did the FCC prepare the report at taxpayer expense but additionally paid for a commissioned news piece on paidcontent.org FCC Report Cites Lack Of Local News, But Has No Ideas To Fill The Gap.

The findings are not surprising, “There’s a big gap in local news reporting. There are fewer newspaper reporters covering “essential beats” like courts, schools, local affairs. The number of reporters in key places of government has dropped considerably. In New Jersey, for example, the number of statehouse reportesr (sic) dropped from 35 to 15 between 2003 and 2008. In the same time period, California went from 40 to 29; in Texas from 28 to 18; in Georgia, from 14 to 5.
Daily newspapers cut their editorial spending by $1.6 billion per year from 2006 to 2009; staff has shrunk more than 25 percent since 2006…
The report describes local TV as a kind of news wasteland. The stations are generally pumping up the volume of news while reducing staff, and give short shrift to serious topics like education, health care, and government. The report cites a TV news study by the Annenberg School of Communications that found such hard news topics took up a little over one minute in a 30-minute news broadcast. While coverage of city government withers, crime news proliferates. And the report notes the disturbing trend of “pay-for-play” arrangements, as well as the airing of “video press releases” masquerading as news.
Cable news is thriving on a national level but remains stunted at a local level. Only about 25 to 30 percent of the population can watch a local news show on cable.”

The Annenberg Lear Center study which came out in May 2010 Lear Center Report: sports & weather, crime, fluff dominate L.A. TV news makes a frightening case for the diminishing amount of substantive news and the value placed on important stories by news managers.

Look – it’s no secret that consultants have ruined local news – as well as the lack of commitment from station owners, managers, news directors and others of fiscal ilk. News was never profitable and for the vast majority of the 20th century, news was not profitable. In the late 1980s when it became essential to stations that news make money, all semblance of reality was lost. Now shows that proclaim to be news programs are dominated by traffic and weather – because that’s what consultants say the public cares most about… This is the most ephemeral of all substance… the least consequential… and yet it dominates in terms of new devices, maps and computer animations and a significant commitment of the total time of each news program.

Is it any wonder why so few audience surveys find that audiences treat news programs seriously, or make the evening news appointment television night after night, or where loyalty to a program or presenter was once a staple and is now a mater of convenience or happenstance? We’ve polluted the audience by offering features and soft stories as early as 5 or 7 minutes into the programs…. features which once would have been relegated to the end of the news show as a ‘kicker’ but which now appear earlier and earlier each show in order to give the audience something ‘light’ and ‘entertaining’ and ‘enjoyable’ as opposed to something which the editors felt was necessary and important and consequential.

This isn’t just a situation (problem) with local news. Watch many of the network programs and you can see the same symptoms about story selection and placement – an erosive degredation of what news ought to be presented contrasted with what is presented in the guise of news so that the audience will stay tuned.

We wonder why at a time when audiences say they’ve never been better informed thanks to digital content when in fact it appears that they have never known as little or less about so many stories, in spite of digital technology and delivery.

The Media is behaving as Lame and Lamer

If some one isn’t a bona fide, announced candidate – and says they’re not a candidate – why should any one in the media cover them as if they are any thing but a private citizen?
The Palin tour up the east coast raises serious ethical, moral and sensibility questions. Two very good articles Palin, Trump, pizza – and a debased media in tow and Sarah Palin and the Politics of Winging It raise serious questions about the conduct of the press.

Here’s the simple question – apart from the timing of Ms. Palin’s tour, her ongoing role on FOX News as a paid commentator and critic of the administration and all things Democrat, her rather repetitious allegations and assertions about the ‘lamestream media’ the question remains, why cover her at all?

We don’t cover other media personalitiess the same way – on either side of the political aisle – those darlings are not followed in caravans by eager journalists who seem to believe that if they might miss a stop on Ms. Palin’s tour they will somehow miss the scoop?

Ms. Palin is riding the crest of media attention – surely she does not warrant such attention based on what she says, her view of history, her appreciation of geography. Merely having a passport does not make her a world leader; having a driver’s license or hiring someone who has a bus license does not make her a tour guide.

So I just am left to wonder, when is some one who says they are not a candidate really some one who does not warrant further coverage? When does some one who prefers to lob verbal attacks from the sidelines of a single network find herself squeezed out of the rest of the media simply because she does not deserve greater attention? There is always an argument around the time of political debates over who to include – who has garnered enough public attention – who has a significant enough standing in the polls to deserve inclusion; but that is ALWAYS restricted only to those who want to be candidates. Ms. Palin – at this point – says she does not… she has opted not to join the fray – she has elected to opt out of the process.

To which – I wonder – why does the lamestream media she seems to hate so much feel so compelled to cover her every move, every word and every bite of pizza?

And just because it deserves to be called out again and again, FOX is so eager to be mainstream that their self-representation as the bulwark of the anti-press – every one else is lamestream, not them, is simply disingenuous.

Hail, Hail Trumpmania

The NYT’s piece “Trump Bows Out, but Spotlight Barely Dims” focuses attention on the hoopla surrounding Donald Trump and Trumpmania in the media.

But the most salient question is posed by former Ronald Reagan adviser Stuart Spencer “The media made him, the media kept him, the media kept promoting him…. Speaking of the proliferation of news outlets interested in politics, Mr. Spencer, 84 and admittedly fascinated by the new landscape, lamented, “There’s no referee anymore to evaluate what are serious issues and what are serious candidates.”

So who should be the referees? Who has the stature, the clout, the reputation, the gravitas, the following, the audience loyalty and confidence, the trust?

Just posing the question – is the media a paper watchdog? A toy tiger? What role should the media play – apart from monitoring and worse, fostering the noise?

Huckabee from the sidelines

Until this weekend’s unexpected announcement that he would not be running for President former Arkansas Governor and currently Fox News host Mike Huckabee was a leading contender for the 2012 Republic nomination.

But I wonder whether this early decision to bow out of the race was a strategic move to separate himself from the rough and tumble of a divisive and expensive primary campaign and wait until other candidates have destroyed themselves, battered and bruised the party, before a fractured convention proclaims Huckabee their nominee by acclamation?

Will it be easier – simpler – less costly on all levels – for Huckabee to comment from the media sidelines instead of subjecting himself to the political discourse and voter approval?

FOX news – O’Reilly and Hannity in particular – are already harping that the “mainstream media” will be highly partisan in this campaign – AKA, code for liberal and pro Obama. It seems so disingenuous for FOX to proclaim itself a David vs. Goliath… when Rupert Murdoch already owns such a piece of global media it seems insouciant to play the ingenue.

But what of FOX News commentator Huckabee? Will he be impartial… entirely neutral? Or will his comments by partisan, fomenting debate and suggesting how he’d handle an issue differently? Will Fox be his platform, his messenger until a blistering convention brawl results in no clear candidate from within the party and a call for Huckabee to become the standard bearer?

Just wondering aloud… will FOX police their host, or should they in an arena of free speech? But is this a strategy of Murdoch to truly have a candidate from within his broadcast empire? Maybe it is too much a grassy knoll theory. Perhaps.

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.

Staged photo ops – staged anything is problematic

A good piece by Poynter Photographers debate what should replace staged photo opps now that White House is ending the practice”raises questions for the political campaign and corporate world too — at what point should all publications cease to use staged, canned or handout video? What happened to the insistence by media to do it alone – to do it ourselves – to vouch for it because we knew it to be true, honest and authentic?
A good debate – the piece raises both ethical as well as technical considerations. It also raises questions of ownership and bragging rights… all part of the nature of this debate.

“Its the Apocalypse”, more after this

Is it just me or does much of the reporting from Japan have a certain giddiness, a breathless excitement of what may come next mixed with a dour expression of the degree of gloom looming with every next story?

I keep anticipating the growing expectations of nuclear horror to even drift right into the local traffic reports which precede most newscasts… “And in Northern Japan right now the 4 horsemen of the Apocalypse are causing major delays to the flow of human refugees from quake stricken areas about to become too hot for human life… and now, the news and the latest on what’s happening in this ‘developing story’…

Japan is a big story. We know that because so many anchors are in country giving the story their personal touch, their individual raised eyebrow of concern and sobering reporting. The disaster in Japan reportage is punctuated by all the big hitters – the New York and Washington show hosts – who have been sent to the center of the action, as if the usual cadre of reporters might not be sufficient to indicate how great the devastation, how overwhelming the human toll and emotion, the degree to which this story is setting and influencing a national (to us) agenda. Now that the media commitment has been made in country, now this is big, and they tell us so.

I am as interested in the Beltway experts who in the hour of nuclear international dismay have stopped bullying one another long enough while weighing in on “just what might be happening” with their own editorial driven speculation (prejudices/agendas/points of view) about unseen events/actions/news releases from half way around the world while making often self-serving, self-aggrandizing points such as, “as they have been saying, worrying and warning all along” some thing like this was bound to happen”, “it was just a matter of time”, and this “should be a warning to us to address our…” nuclear/energy/national policy decisions going forward”.

These are quite obviously serious times. Events, while moving quickly, are not entirely clear, seen or immediately reported. As much as we want to know now, as much as we feel we must have decisive information immediately, this is a story where exact facts, truths and events are as clear as mud. Patience, while a virtue, is not being practiced. Maybe it can’t be… but the breathless excitement over each new tidbit, headline, next half hour of what’s coming up and how bad it will be is getting exhausting.

Propaganda Personified in the Dear Leader

North Korea’s Dear Leader Kim Jong Il and his cult of personality in every aspect of life is showcased in this provocative piece North Korea’s Cinema of Dreams from Al Jazeera’s “101 West” program.

Al Jazeera’s 2+ year effort to gain access for their story pays off lifting the veil of secrecy about North Korea’s vaulted propaganda enterprise in an insightful portrait of young students poised to become the next generation of the actors, performers, film makers and documentarians.

This piece stands in sharp contrast to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer who took cameras along with U.S. envoy Gov. Bill Richardson on one of his diplomatic missions last winter, but so many of the shots focused on Wolf reporting about what he saw and what he felt precious little time was left for actual photo journalism. We saw as much of Mr. Blitzer on camera as we saw Mr. Richardson, and very little was left for anything more than street scenes. This work by Al Jazeera is more about the substance of what is taught, learned and practiced with ample time devoted to interviews and first-person insights and much less about the cult of a TV personality enjoying what’s bandied as his exclusive reporting.

It’s easy to bash North Korea. Hidden, secretive, a throw back to the middle of the 20th century – an enemy, a member of the Axis of Evil, but we do not know much – we do not often focus except at moments of terror and the verge of war. We should know more, though for so many reasons we see and hear and pay attention to very little.

Admittedly it’s always entertaining to read the pure propaganda from the official North Korean news agency KCNA and to wonder just who writes it, edits it – much less thinks any one would even be interested.

Al Jazeera has produced a program worthy of our attention. The network is winning praise for its Witness series of cell phone interviews and reports on Mideast tumult, but long before the events in the streets of Cairo the network has been steadily producing programs on events, places and individuals that are often shuttered to or ignored by western media. The ongoing ban by many U.S. cable operators preventing carriage of the network is shameful in a society which promotes free expression of ideas, discussion and debate.

Was the question rhetorical?

Just after the carnage in Tucson the airwaves, especially cable and talk radio, seemed filled with hand-wringing and calls for toning down the vitriol in political debate.

There appeared to be a chorus proclaiming a need to return to civility.

In the last 24 hours there has been a turn about – with one network in particular proclaiming that since there is no evidence that harsh words, intemperate thought and anger were at cause for the shootings, then they should not be held responsible nor subject to criticism.

I wonder – if things are so good across this country’s political spectrum, is there is no longer a need for civility?
How did things change so quickly? Did we forget already that regardless of the craziness of the shooter in Tucson, perhaps we all might do better with moderation in thought, anger and speech?