The Late, Great News Game

August 20, 2009


“I’m glad you’re not overreacting. What do you wanna run?”
“I don’t know. What do I wanna run? — They didn’t do it.”
“They didn’t do it? You don’t have close to that. You have unattributed cops.”
“She doesn’t have ‘Gotcha!'”
“You don’t have “Gotcha!” for page one until you have a shot of the kids.”
“So we’re going on the perp walk.”
“What time do they walk?”
“So we stretch it a little — You gonna pay for that?”
“Yes, we stretch the deadline to eight o’clock. If we get art on the two kids at the walk of shame, it’s “Gotcha!” If we miss them, the subway is page one.”
“The subway is bullshit!”
“You don’t have it, you know it. You wanna run the story? You got five hours. Get the story. Do your job! Do your job!”
— Executive Editor Bernie White admonishing his hyper-active Metro chief in ‘The Paper.’

(Illustration found here).

Don Hewitt, creator of “60 Minutes” and a pioneer in broadcast journalism, died Wednesday at age 86.
Among the many accolades to be planted at the feet of Mr. Hewitt in the next few days, and there will be many, one of the most-interesting is seemingly a nod towards the current ugly brand of TV news.
From the Washington Post’s Hewitt obit:

Mr. Hewitt’s impact on television was almost unparalleled, said Marvin Kalb, founding director of Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy and a former reporter for CBS and NBC News.
“We never made money before ’60 Minutes,’ ” Kalb said of news and public affairs programs.
“That had probably, with the exception of the introduction of the Internet, the most profound impact on television news.
It meant that everybody else had to make money, and in the quest for profit, standards began to fall.
Then add the Internet and you can see the powerful impact the combination of new technology and news profitability had upon the quality of the product.”

And the ‘quality of the product’ nowadays sucks.

‘Money’ is a key word in Kalb’s comment above.
And if truth be known, money was also part of the ideal for another journalist (though not really the right word, ‘journalist,’ for this guy) who died this week, Robert Novak, dead from cancer.
He once remarked in an interview that Medicare wasn’t needed, and when reminded of the folks benefited by the program — the poor and elderly — Novak shrugged with a quip, “We all die in the end…”
And like Hewitt, Novak was an influence on the current state of TV news, though, it will be debated whether it was for good or bad — Novak made popular the in-the-face, big mouth quasi-journalistic approach now popular on Fox News.
Both these old dead guys contributed to the sleaze, one most-likely inadvertently, and the other most-likely didn’t give a shit.

Prior to the financial success of “60 Minutes,” TV news was a network’s freebie, a “public trust” venture that didn’t really depend upon making money.
Although Hewitt would innovate a bunch of new ideas, like cue cards and graphics on screen during the 1950s, even staging the first televised presidential debate (between Nixon and JFK) and expanding CBS news to half-an-hour, it was the news-magazine format that changed the whole game.
Quickly after its launch in September, 1968, “60 Minutes” climbed to the top of the TV rating and has near-about stayed there: The show remained in the top 10 for 23 years, hitting No. 1 five times and earning 13 Peabody Award during his tenure. In the most recent TV season that ended in May, the program ranked No. 13, averaging 14.3 million viewers.
And like the entertainment division, high ratings mean big bucks.

Although “60 Minutes” practiced good journalism for the most part, the problem was in the imitators.
The networks (not much to cable in them days) responded — ABC with “20/20,” puffing the career of one Barbara Walters, but NBC never ponied up with a similar show (at least nothing I could Google).
And TV news transformed news gathering in general, moving from straight reporting to cross-dressing entertainment with journalism, thus slowly and surely the print side of the industry started its long, slow slide into oblivion.

In 1975, the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE), the bailiwick of print journalism, revised and renamed the 1922 “Canons of Journalism” to a “Statement of Principles” (about the same thing, but in easier language) and again in 1996.
Both new versions, however, left out a critical ending to the 1922 edition, the claim of “Decency“:

A newspaper cannot escape conviction of insincerity if while professing high moral purpose it supplies incentives to base conduct, such as are to be found in details of crime and vice, publication of which is not demonstrably for the general good.
Lacking authority to enforce its canons the journalism here represented can but express the hope that deliberate pandering to vicious instincts will encounter effective public disapproval or yield to the influence of a preponderant professional condemnation.

And insincerity is now part of the problem, and the problem is so bad, the ASNE, for only the second time in its history (1945), canceled its annual convention for 2009, citing “…uniquely stressful period in our business as we face both structural change and deep recession.”

No shit, Sherlock.

This year alone, at least 10 major newspapers, including such giants as The Philadelphia Daily News, The Miami Herald, The Boston Globe and The Chicago Sun-Times, were on the financial ropes and were slashing newsroom staff or closing altogether.
The demise earlier this year of the fabled 150-year-old Rocky Mountain News — an award-winning, highly professional outfit — can be seen as a microcosm of the industry.
In Time magazine’s obit for the newspaper:

In shuttering an operation sprung in 1859 from a gold-mining camp just blocks from its downtown Denver home, Scripps directly or obliquely blamed everything — the economy, the Internet, demographics — and everybody — Denver Post panjandrum William Dean Singleton, ignorant consumers, bloggers — for the diminished tabloid’s demise. They certainly were factors.
But the black hats in this sad Western tale are the suits: the Scripps’ newspaper executives whose ineptitude over the past 25 years fumbled away a prime market to a competitor they should have killed off two decades ago.

The ‘suits’ and greed once again.

Even in young reporter Mark Twain‘s day, newspapers survived through its community, good or bad:

Twain witnessed a Chinese man who was chased and stoned by hoodlums under the eye of a policeman who did nothing to interfere.
“I wrote up the incident with considerable warmth and holy indignation,” Twain wrote.
“There was fire in it and I believe there was literature.”
He was astounded when the article didn’t appear.
The editor of the paper explained that “the Call was…the paper of the poor; it was the only cheap paper. It gathered its livelihood from the poor and must respect their prejudices or perish….The Call could not afford to publish articles criticizing the hoodlums for stoning Chinamen.”
Twain concluded, “I felt a deep shame in being situated as I was — slave of such a journal as the Morning Call.”

Of course, the movie quoted above, The Paper, represents the ideal of newspaper journalism, a position of importance in the community and with those professionals working in its crazed newsroom.
Noted film reviewer Roger Ebert nailed it:

Watching “The Paper” got me in touch all over again with how good it feels to work at the top of your form, on a story you believe in, on deadline.
Here on the movie beat everything is pretty neatly scheduled and we don’t cover a lot of crimes (“Ace Ventura” excepted).
But I used to write real news on deadline, and those were some of the happiest days of my life.
This movie knows how that feels.

Ebert also threw in a far-distant-preview barb in his review — and this from March 1994 — on the ‘suits’ knowing all about journalism:

Last week, the new owner of The Sun-Times, Conrad Black, was quoted as criticizing journalists: They get too involved in the story, they all want to be stars, they’re cynical, they’re disillusioned, and a lot of them drink too much.
Everybody seemed scandalized that he would say such things. I think the problem was that he couched them as criticisms. A lot of the people I’ve worked with would use them as boasts. “The Paper” knows all about that, too.

Damnit! You know I can’t talk — I’m on deadline!

UPDATE: 8/20/09 PM
Just came across Glenn Greenwald’s latest, which goes into a more-fine detail on nowadays journalism, scoping in on the Tom Ridge political/terror alert bullshit and with one line nails what goes for MSM news reporting these days: ‘These journalists are the anti-I.F. Stones.’ (Most-excellent ring to it).
Read Greenwald’s post here.

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