If you live by the sword…

We all know them… colleagues or bosses who wield enormous power often based on the most ephemeral set of skills or talents.  Many are sycophants, some are pathological, others are deceitful and conniving, but they invest considerable time embellishing their careers, often in spite of their limited talent and acumen, often if not always at the expense of others.

Network news, a business I happen to know well, is filled with such people.  There  are both men and women who have truly slept their way to power and prominence.  There are those who have married their careers to anchors and executives only to be eviscerated themselves, as if by a scythe, when their powerful benefactor’s star has lost its luster.

Last week ABC News announced the departure of long time executive Mimi Gurbst.  Many believe the 30-year veteran was edged out in a power shift that promoted those in Diane Sawyer’s coterie and cast aside those who were not among the favored few.  Others believe this is a touch of long-delayed justice for an individual who had littered her career path with other’s reputations.  What makes all this so interesting is the reaction to this story in The New York Observer “Top ABC News Producer Leaving Network To Become High School Guidance Counselor” by Frank Gillette. Mr. Gilette’s fawning lede and story, heaped with praise and adulation, triggered the most amazing series of comments – more than 100 of them, and none positive.  Reading the posts one cannot help but conclude that engaging with Ms. Gurbst professionally was like touching the third rail.

Network news is an industry which often puts its best face on its own dirty laundry and unpleasantries.  No where is this more visible than in tributes or saccharin eulogies offered about individuals who were not particularly well thought of even when they were alive.   But I cannot recall a public recollection made by colleagues laced with such vitriol and venom.  And that’s the lesson… if you live by the sword be prepared to be cut and slashed and wounded by those whose personal and professional reputations you traded as the currency of gossip, innuendo, and disrespect.

In disclosure I knew Mimi Gurbst at ABC years ago.  I haven’t spoken with her in more than a decade.

Scott Peterson – a family – a website – a surprise in cyberspace

Every so often an email catches you, surprises you, and briefly interrupts your concentration.  Scott Peterson’s appellate website succeeded in doing that just now… 6 years later… though he’s just down the road here in Marin county, I don’t think of him often.   I do think of friends who covered the trial, of episodes and moments that we shared in reporting from Redwood City and Modesto, but I don’t often think of what is evidently the continuing quest to prove his innocence.
Over 6 years a lot of water has gone under the bridge and through San Francisco Bay where Laci was found for a crime the jury believed Scott had committed.  A lot of money continues to be spent on Peterson’s legal appeal and more will be on California’s tortured path toward legal execution.

His execution will not bring back either Laci or Connor.  It may provide some comfort to Laci’s family, perhaps even a twinge of revenge, just as the lethal cocktail will be a burning stab in to the heart of Scott’s parents and his family.

The email did catch my attention.  So did the website.  And much more.

Hype only serves to disappoint audiences

News producers, managers and all those create news – the content which is the stuff that keeps the soap commercials from bumping in to one another – seem to me to be more frantic, ever-so-driven to capture and hold their audiences.  More than ever before it seems  that they too have drunk the Kool-Aide and now piously justify their hype as necessary to lure and secure audiences. Sadly though this is getting sillier and sillier as boasts are proclaimed that cannot be defended, promises are assured that cannot be delivered, and audiences – like you and me – feel more cheated.

It just feels like an era of news abuse – instead of trust – is in vogue and in turn, professionals are defending what is indefensible, hype.

For instance on a weekend report about the death of a University of Virginia co-ed the network anchors assuredly promise “we’ll have the latest on the investigation when we return.”  Really?  On a Saturday?  On a Saturday when investigators are not visible to the media and when there has been no news release from the police.  So the latest is… actually, when?  Yesterday!  And so it has already been… reported? And when?  Yesterday!  And so the boast of having the latest news coming up is really just a… hype?  A tease?  And that’s somehow OK… or if as professionals you knew there was truly nothing new, was the hype a lie? A white lie?  Or just a plain old-fashioned whopper since it was uttered with the prior knowledge that it was untrue.

Or for instance the Today show used the word “Exclusive” six (6) times about a single guest.  Exclusive appeared twice in anchor copy and four times as a graphic.  Are producers so desperate to convey the appearance of superior coverage that they cannot let that content speak for itself but must instead wrap it with banners and bravado to drive the point home?  Or maybe there is such churn in the viewership that the constant reminders of exclusivity are the only hooks remaining to lure viewers?  But if that’s the case then all the exclusives that appear day in and day out are not attracting audiences but may instead be repelling viewers who are tired of being abused with adjectives masquerading as important content.

It seems the corruption of the profession runs deep… as deep as our own self-identity.  A national radio show on journalism featured a guest who said, “reporters are now packagers” of news and claimed that he didn’t need to report because he had sufficient “listening posts” to tell him what was going on.  It feels a little absurd to ask, but I am mystified because  if reporters are not going to report, then who is?  And listening posts, who are they… and how do we trust his definition of who is responsible, and ultimately, who is vouching for them?  It is the proverbial slippery slope and, whoops!  We’ve started sliding.

Another panelist on this NPR program spoke of reporters whose job it was to now contextualize the news.  And a third said it was now completely correct for reporters to have an opinion and allow that to be reflected in their work.  I always thought that was opinion… not reporting.  Isn’t that what Op-Ed pages and Editorials  are for?  Is the new era of reporting relegating those columns to the dust bin of old journalism too?
We’re mired in the new words of the language – we have “commoditized” news to the point that it is most important to monetize it… even at risk of becoming homogenized content so as not to offend or challenge any one.  We are all now “content producers” which I suppose means we are all – as I am here – able to write and self publish, somewhat regardless of our authority or authenticity.  We speak passionately of being in touch or tune with our communities, although that seeks somewhat murky and ill-defined.  Is my community that of those who are overweight white 50-somethings of general affluence living in well-to-do communities featuring overpriced homes that represent much of our life-worth and that we fear could be depreciating in the current economic downturn?  Is that my community?  And if it is, pray tell, how is any one going to monetize me?

Look – the point is this – let’s watch our words.  Our boasts.  Our claims when we really know better.  Words matter.  That’s my clarion call.  Let’s think about the new clichés that serve little purpose but to make us sound au courant and quote-worthy.  Adjectives are colorful but when we use them intentionally to be misleading aren’t we all guilty of cheapening our profession?  Of course.  What’s wrong with reporting being the benchmark of what’s important, significant – the adage: news is the first draft of history?
What do you think?  Leave a comment… let me know.

Numbers Do Matter

News has become a playground for worsts and mosts and hyperbole.  News and TV generally from cable shows to even entertainment programs like Dr. Phil make everything black and white, regardless that we live our lives for the most part in the nuance of gray.  It’s not enough to be sad or sick, we want the people we see, read and hear about (and their stories) to be at death’s door.

Reporting numbers and speaking with experts is always challenging, after all, they, in theory, have knowledge that generalists and most journalists do not possess, but why is it that journalists so frequently fail to challenge their hyperbole?

During the weekend’s coverage of the Gulf oil spill one so-called expert from the Sierra Club spoke to NBC News with great emotion and absolute conviction that the spill was far larger than had previously been reported.  He gushed on suggesting the spill could in fact be 50,000 gallons, even 100,000 gallons a day!  Perhaps true, but he didn’t know, and he wasn’t challenged by the reporter who blithely accepted the assertion and proceeded on in the narration.  That’s a significant number and a wide discrepancy of perhaps up to 100%.  It’s OK not to know; it is OK to even speculate, but how about some context or qualification before numbers – any numbers – become misunderstood and the story misreported?

Geraldo (Rivera) on FOX News did it too, breathlessly interviewing guests from a busy Times Square intersection about what could of happened had the car bomb detonated.  Note the verb: could.  One guest, obviously pumped by the opportunity to appear on TV, burst forth that had a dirty bomb gone off “Times Square would be contaminated for anywhere from 50 to 100 years.”  Geraldo and the other guests solemnly but enthusiastically nodded approvingly accepting this assertion as sober evidence of absolute danger and impact.  The fact that the Times Square bomb was not dirty was never challenged while again, just speculating with the numbers between 50 and 100 leaves significant room for debate and discussion.

Speaking of numbers and expert’s assertions, look back at coverage from the oil spill in Valdez, Alaska.  When covering that we heard experts say that the ocean and islands would remain scorched earth and that nothing would ever grow on those shores or under those waters again.  The reality, within 6 months nature started to return.

The point is simple, but it is beyond bad news sells.  Yes it does… and that’s news.  If you want just the good news you should confine yourself, for the most part, to the sports section, although even that has become more difficult in recent years due to scandals and bad behavior.

It is frustrating that contemporary reporting on the oil spill requires reporters to seek out experts who are prompted to say the sea is forever doomed and all creatures will inevitably die, choked by oil and cloaked in a gooey slime unlike any we have ever seen before.  The car bomb isn’t allowed to be a close call but becomes an incident that would surely have resulted in thousands of casualties and a forever blackened a New York landmark.

Each sentence is mired in half-truths and certainly assumptions run amok.  As a journalist I bristle at what I consider to be reckless reporting that appears to hype the story, feed the hysteria, and ultimately deceive the audience.  There are so many other examples – certainly politics and it doesn’t matter whether you favor the left or the right, the administration or the opposition, health care reform or tea parties – my point is that reporters who use numbers and hyperbole unchallenged and unqualified do not serve the public interest, do not serve their profession well, and do more harm to the public discourse.

Ethics & journalism

…our paramount responsibility… is to present all significant facts, all significant viewpoints so that this democracy will work in the way it should work–by individual citizen’s making up his own mind on an informed basis. Our job is to contribute to that process and not to make up for them the minds of those who listen to and watch us. We must always remember that a significant viewpoint does not become less significant just because we personally disagree with it, nor does a significant and relevant fact become less relevant or significant just because we find it unpalatable and wish it weren’t so.”

Many will read that and scoff.  Ethics and journalism; in the same sentence?  In the contemporary era of shout out news where far too often the loudest or most popular voice predominates, where corporate content can be packaged to appear as bona fide news, where a TV anchor’s personal appearances can be billed to be as important as the event they are ostensibly covering… are ethics being practiced?  Are ethics important or are they an inconvenience?

It is too facile to decry the apparent dearth, some might say death, of ethics today, but let’s not wring our hands and harken back to a bygone era when ‘things were different’ as if that is some balm for our current condition.  Let’s not just give up muttering it used to be different, but, heck, it is what it is today.

It does seem more dire as business decisions dictate, even now dominate, decisions at news organizations globally.  Advertorials, paid content masquerading as original reportage, even this week’s decision by the Gannett newspaper chain to allow a sports team to report on itself Reporter and Players Wearing Same Colors raise serious questions about independence, unbiased news and trustworthiness.

I was teaching ethics in journalism this week to graduate students at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco;  it’s an important component in my writing for multimedia class, and I found that I was reminding myself and then reading aloud these words written by former CBS News President Richard (Dick) Salant.  This is from his preface to the CBS News Standards published in April, 1976.

He makes several salient points… including recognizing the difference between news & entertainment, the responsibility of news professionals to exercise their judgment and not be swayed by polls or audience opinions, and an obligation to report the news as it is, not as we want it to be.  I don’t normally quote whole paragraphs, but this is an exception.

“One (of his personal convictions) is the overriding importance to our form of journalism of drawing the sharpest possible line–sharp perhaps to the point of eccentricity–between our line of broadcast business, which is dealing with fact, and that in which our associates on the entertainment side of the business are generally engaged, which is dealing in fiction and drama.  Because it all comes out sequentially on the same point of the dial and on the same tube, and because, then, there are no pages to be turned or column lines to be drawn in our journalistic matrix, it is particularly important that we recognize that we are not in show business and should not use any of the dramatic licenses, the “fiction-which-represents-truth’ rationales, or the underscoring and the punctuations which entertainment and fiction may, and do, properly use.  This may make us a little less interesting to some–but that is the price we pay for dealing with fact and truth, which may often be duller–and with more loose ends–than fiction and drama.

Second it is my strong feeling that our news judgments must turn on the best professional judgments that we can come to on what is important, rather than what is merely interesting.  Again, our function, then, contrasts sharply with the rest of the broadcast schedule which surrounds us, and, indeed, which supports us.  In general, to the extent that radio and television are mass media of entertainment, it is entirely proper to give most of the people what most of them want most of the time.  But we in broadcast journalism cannot, should not, and will not base our judgments on what we think the viewers and listeners are “most interested” in, or hinge our news judgment and our news treatment on our guesses (or somebody else’s surveys) as to what news the people want to hear or see, and in what form.  The judgments must be professional news judgments–nothing more, nothing less.

A corollary of this basic principle is that if we are to provide what is important for people to know, we must not shrink from reporting what is newsworthy even though there are no pretty or dramatic pictures to go with it.  There is nothing wrong with a talking head–provided the head has something to say and says it well.  We must not be carried away by the cliche, which, like almost all cliches, is only sometimes true, that a picture is worth a thousand words.  It may be and it may not be.  A few well-chosen, well-written, and, above all, thoughtful, words may often be worth a thousand pictures.  The most exciting thing in the field of information is an idea.

And, finally, this is as good a place as any to remind ourselves that our paramount responsibility at CBS News is to present all significant facts, all significant viewpoints so that this democracy will work in the way it should work–by individual citizen’s making up his own mind on an informed basis.  Our job is to contribute to that process and not to make up for them the minds of those who listen to and watch us.  We must always remember that a significant viewpoint does not become less significant just because we personally disagree with it, nor does a significant and relevant fact become less relevant or significant just because we find it unpalatable and wish it weren’t so.”
Now that does seem to be fair and balanced.  Dick Salant was a lawyer and broadcast manager whose judgments were thoughtful and worthy of being read and heard 34 years after he wrote them.  He could hardly have been prescient to the economic conditions that affect the news business today, but he was aware of the dangers that stem from blurred lines and indiscriminate, reckless or less-than-thoughtful reporting, as well as the need to educate the craftsmen and women to appreciate the noble profession and responsibility to our audiences.

So ethics in (and) journalism?  Yes.  It must be taught, nurtured, amended and refined.

I believe Mr. Salant’s last point is the most important — audience’s must have the information they need to make informed judgments presented without our opinion, slant, bias, preference and prejudice.

I enjoyed reading this to my students.  It seemed worth sharing with you.