Brian, Jon…..and Bob

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There’s an old Jewish tradition that we don’t speak out loud of the living and the dead at the same time, lest the Angel of Death hear us and get the idea to smite those who are still breathing.

Traditions are lovely things but sometimes I just can’t help myself, so permit me to invoke a second, accompanying Jewish tradition: mumbling a disclaimer:

“Not that I wish to conflate those who are alive with those who are not. However…..”

Brian Williams has been suspended.

Jon Stewart is leaving The Daily Show.

And Bob Simon was killed.

It’s just too much bad news in one week. Not just because of the losses involved, but because each story is utterly, absolutely, unreservedly ridiculous.

I never met Stewart or Simon. I worked with Brian Williams for two years, decades ago, before he began his NBC career. Back then Brian was a young, earnest, ambitious, self-effacing, hysterically funny, hard working, highly talented guy. He was quick to praise you when he liked your writing, but he’d deflect compliments aimed in his direction: yeah, it was a nice suit – he bought it on sale; sure, his smile looked nice on the giant promotional poster in the lobby – the p.r. person reminded him to floss that morning. Waiting for a live shot he’d feed the squirrels on the lawn. After his shift he could be spotted chowing down on a slice of Original Ray’s, al fresco – sitting on the stoop of the Lincoln Square Synagogue across the street.

And he sparkled on camera, from the first moment station management sat him in the anchor chair to fill in on the Noon broadcast. We all knew we were watching a star being born, and nobody was surprised when he jumped to NBC and reached the top of his profession. He had the gift.

So what happened? People say different things. They say Brian got a big head along with the big contract. They say he got a little full of himself. That he started showing off, taking too much credit, embellishing, exaggerating, maybe even outright fibbing… to build himself up. They also say he stopped being so nice to folks, which may explain why you saw almost none of his staff rush to defend him.

But really. He makes a few self-aggrandizing remarks, gets caught, and everything comes crashing down? He’s “Lyin’ Brian” with a Pinocchio nose on the front page of the New York Post?? Suddenly he’s off the air, while a thousand talking heads who’ve never met him and don’t know him shed crocodile tears and thunder with self-righteous, disingenuous rhetoric about “lost credibility?”

Please.

Jon Stewart is the Will Rogers of our time. He makes us laugh by telling us the truth – about our politicians, our government, our world. He calls out the self-important blowhards, catches them in contradictions, and skewers them with a mix of sophisticated wit and “are-you-f***ing-KIDDING-me” astonishment. In doing so he’s managed to get millions of under-40 slackers interested in politics. Well, sort of. As long as the stuff is funny. These are the same folks who tell pollsters they get most of their news from watching The Daily Show. They trust a comedian to inform them. They don’t trust the news media, but they scream at an anchorman – whom they don’t watch – for not being perfect.

Don’t cry for Jon Stewart because he’s had enough, he’s restless and wants to be taken seriously.

Don’t cry for Brian Williams (he’s “shattered,” reports say) because he’ll have to manage on only 5 million dollars this year.

Cry for Bob Simon.

60 MINUTES

Not a flashy guy. Not a laugh-out-loud funny guy. Not a parachute-into-the-story-with-a-team-of-handlers-after-a-trip-to-Banana-Republic-to-look-the-part guy.

An old-school news guy. 47 years of hard work. Shot at in Vietnam. Kidnapped in Iraq. Made fierce friends and bitter enemies with his Middle East coverage. And a gifted writer/storyteller like few before him or since. The real deal.

And a lousy car crash takes him away. A traffic accident. They happen every single day. Traffic reporters gloss over them in seconds. They’re meaningless. They’re blips on the screen. Except when they’re not.

Utterly, absolutely, unreservedly ridiculous.

Way too much bad news in one week.

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WSPA’s Cardboard Campaign

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        FTVLive

 

How many different ways is this wrong?

In an apparent effort to motivate her Spartanburg, South Carolina newsroom staff and kick up the numbers for the February book, WSPA News Director Karen Kelly has recruited….. a cardboard cutout. According to FTVLive the cutout depicts a young woman with two children, presumably hers, but who knows? In an internal memo the staff is told the woman’s name is “Michelle” and her role is spelled out this way:

“MEET Michelle

Michelle is who you want watching your newscasts, your stories.

She will be in every editorial meeting with us and in the newsroom during the day. She will likely make occasional trips to Greenville and Anderson.

When you pitch, pitch to her. When you write, write to her.

This is who we need watching in February.

Women 25-54 is her demo.

She has children and she cares about:
Their Safety
Saving Money
Recalls that have impact on her family

Even if you think a story doesn’t directly impact Michelle find a way to write it to her.

Give her additional information that is relevant to her.

Post stories and send alerts on stories she cares about.”

Let me start by at least trying to give Ms. Kelly the benefit of the doubt:

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She’s no novice. According to her official bio, Ms. Kelly has logged some 20 years in the news business, most of it in the Greenville/Spartanburg market. She joined WSPA in 1998 and has risen steadily in the ranks, from producer to EP to Managing Editor, getting the ND job a little over 2 years ago.

Also, she has a point, or rather a slightly distorted kernel of a point. When crafting news scripts, it’s important to know who your audience is, and very helpful from a stylistic standpoint to focus on one specific person. I’ve done this for years. I call it the “Best Friend Test.” Write as if you’re telling a great story to your best buddy, and your copy will be strong and conversational instead of stuffy, jargony and print-like.

But that’s as far as I go, because frankly, everything else about this episode stinks.

Using a silly prop in the newsroom insults the hardworking professionals who bust a gut every day to get the news on the air. They know how to do their jobs. They should be motivated by managers who desire excellence, not treated like children.

Deliberately targeting one specific segment of the audience is a tired old technical tactic thought up by consultants who care only about ratings, not standards. Talking only to young women to the exclusion of everybody else, and re-crafting stories to appeal to that narrow segment is poor journalism and disrespectful of the people watching the news… including those very women. Just ask them!

Then there’s the phoniness factor. Is “Michelle” even a real person from the community or just an actress posing in a stock photo? How exactly should newswriters approach her? Should they say, “Okay, how do I re-write my story about that double-murder suspect, or that accused arsonist (actual stories, by the way, on the station’s website) so that blond supermodels will tune in?”

Finally, dare I mention it…. the socioeconomic and race issues. WSPA serves the 35th market which is roughly two-thirds white, but Spartanburg, the station’s home city and headquarters is 49.55% African-American. Spartanburg’s median household income is $28,375. Look at the cardboard cutout again. I don’t want to say what I’m thinking.

I’ve reached out to Ms. Kelly just to ask if the memo is authentic, not a hoax, and to confirm that a cardboard cutout does indeed now reside in the WSPA newsroom. Others have contacted her as well. No reply so far, but a newsroom employee told my colleague Jim Romenesko they were not allowed to discuss the matter.

I may be old school and willfully oblivious to Sweeps strategies, but I still believe the news business is too noble a profession to be handled in such a disdainful way.

 

Ear Of The Beholder

Back in the very early days of Newswriting.com I posted a Writing Tools article aimed at helping journalists eliminate racism from their copy. I’m reproducing it here (with a few enhancements) because in light of everything that’s been happening lately, I believe the lessons laid out in that piece can be broadly applied to all of us in the way we speak, the words we choose, the actions we take and how we interact with people who may not look like us. Every human being deserves equal respect regardless of background or ethnicity. Yet many of us have difficulty processing the pain and perspectives of others, simply because we don’t share a common history. We need to listen better, care more and talk face-to-face instead of shouting and accusing. I hope this article helps some folks make some progress in that direction.

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A long time ago I was assigned to write a crime story that looked pretty much like any other. There were a few details about the incident, and a brief police description of the suspect: Male Black, 25-30 years old, 5’10”, 175 lbs., dark shirt, dark pants. I wrote the story, included the description, and thought nothing more about it (Note: I’m far from the only one who routinely did that. See the sample below:)

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A day or two later, at the morning meeting, the news director read an irate letter from a viewer complaining that we had perpetuated negative stereotypes about African-Americans. Such a vague description of a suspect, the writer complained, adds nothing to the story, because it could apply to millions of people. All it does is contribute to the harmful perception linking blacks to criminal behavior.

The letter was signed, Ed Bradley.
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At first I was stunned. Had I done something wrong? Me? Impossible! All I did was repeat, verbatim, what the police had told us! Just the facts! Who was even thinking about racism, stereotypes, or anything else? Then I got defensive. Suppose the guy had been white? Wouldn’t I have written the story exactly the same way, just changing “Male Black” to “Male Caucasian?” And doesn’t that prove I’m even-handed? (Note: Again, see a typical sample below:)

 

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I’ve had many years to think about this, and I now believe Mr. Bradley was right.

This is not about overt racism, but a more subtle form. As a writer, you may think a particular reference or categorization is completely innocent and innocuous, and you may have the best of intentions when you use it. It doesn’t really matter. If someone else is offended by it, that’s valid, and it needs to be acknowledged. It’s arrogant to assume something’s OK just because it doesn’t grate your personal sensitivities. Racism is in the ear of the beholder. Every person’s feelings are unique, and every bit as important as your own.

In this case, saying I would have treated the story the same way with a white suspect is no defense. Because it wouldn’t be the same story. Rightly or wrongly, the public does not condemn all whites when a story airs about a white criminal. Tragically, the same cannot be said about black suspects, which means we have to be extra careful. We’re supposed to tell folks what’s going on, not insult them. Why reinforce a negative stereotype about an entire community if it can be easily avoided?

I no longer routinely put generic police suspect descriptions in my stories. But I have not discarded them completely, nor have I eliminated skin color as a means of description. If, for example, we know that the suspect has a scar, a limp, unusual clothing, or other unique characteristics which significantly narrow the search parameters, I will say so, and in the context of narrowing that search even further, I will also include the person’s race if I know it. Once there’s a real chance of identifying the suspect, every available bit of information, including race, becomes necessary. Color, like it or not, is a distinguishing characteristic. Just not by itself.

Don’t get defensive, as I did, when your error is pointed out. Someone just gave you a gift that will make you a better writer, and a better person. Accept it, and learn from it. Also try to remember that this is an ongoing, evolving process. Acceptable words from five years ago may no longer be appropriate. Remember, yours is not the final say. Once the complaint is out there, it’s out there, and we have to be mindful of it.

It helps when managers steer writers back to the proper path. A few years ago, for a story on personal finance, I interviewed three money experts. All three were well-known, with broad reputations. And all three were white. My news director asked only one question: “Couldn’t you get a person of color?” I had been concentrating strictly on the story. My boss had to consider the story, and the audience. He knew that some of his viewers might not like being told where to put their money by folks who didn’t look like them or have anything in common with them. Appearances count.

Even seemingly extreme sensitivities can have legitimate origins. A reporter friend of mine was dressed down by one of her managers for wearing running shoes while interviewing Rev. Jesse Jackson. The manager claimed the reporter “had not shown Minister Jackson the proper respect.”

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The fact that the reporter wore running shoes every day, on every story, during every interview, was irrelevant. The manager was offended. I thought this was outrageous and completely impossible to predict, until a friend outside the news business said of the reporter, “Well, she was doing her ‘Little Miss White Girl’ thing.” Apparently there is a bona fide sore spot there, but I’d never heard of it, and I think 999 out of 1,000 journalists would have never seen it coming.
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As writers we have to face the fact that we’ll never achieve a 100% success rate here. Sooner or later, we will offend, simply because our audience is multi-ethnic and our knowledge is imperfect. But we can minimize those embarrassing incidents, with a few guidelines:

BE A PERSON OF GOODWILL. Skepticism in the news business is healthy. Cynicism is not. People of goodwill speak reasonably with each other, taking each other’s feelings into account, and if a mishap occurs, it’s usually accidental and easily corrected. Assuming the worst about people guarantees trouble.

DON’T KEEP THINGS TO YOURSELF. If a phrase, term or categorization just doesn’t feel right, but you’re not exactly sure why, read it to a colleague, or several colleagues, and ask, “Does this bother you?”

WHEN IN DOUBT, DON’T! Why risk the integrity of a story by including a term that’s not only questionable, but distracting? Why do anything that pulls the viewer away, even for a moment, from the core purpose of the story?

The subject of race is difficult, and potentially hurtful. No one person has all the answers, and no one person does everything right. Misunderstandings can happen, no matter how hard you try to avoid them. So let me apologize right now, if anything I’ve said rubs you the wrong way. No disrespect was intended. The goal was not to dictate or criticize, but to start a conversation. We should keep talking about this.

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David Garth Changed History

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John Lindsay. Ed Koch. Tom Bradley. Menachem Begin. Rudy Giuliani. Mike Bloomberg. Luis Herrera Campins.

They all have two things in common:

1. Superlative, even history-changing political success.

2. David Garth got them elected.

A sickly, homebound little kid from Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Woodmere, New York, David Garth grew up to become one of the most formidable political consultants of our time.  He was an unabashed streetfighter with an uncanny knack for picking winners, elevating them from obscurity, and crafting their TV messages with unmatched skill, precision and, possibly most importantly, simplicity.

He said it himself:

“I sometimes think our real strength is in underproducing, in stripping away all the political clichés like blue shirts for TV. You’ve seen one of my campaigns, you’ve seen all of them.”

A classic David Garth ad was easy to spot because it usually contained the same elements: Candidate looks straight into the camera. Speaks in simple, plain-talk, easy-to-grasp sentences: What’s wrong with the status quo; What I’ll do to fix it; Why I’m not perfect, and why that’s OK. All the while, titles cover the bottom third of the screen, reinforcing what’s being said (a tactic Garth claims he originally employed to cover up some scratchy video). Finally, the slogan, exquisitely tailored for the candidate and the occasion.  Like Lindsay referring to the NY Mayor’s job as “The Second Toughest Job In America.” Or Koch, the obscure Manhattan Congressman, running for mayor by taking digs at his predecessors, including Lindsay: “After eight years of charisma and four years of the clubhouse, why not try competence?” Or the two words that knocked off the ruling party and got Luis Herrera Campins elected president of Venezuela: “Ya Basta!” (“Enough, Already!”).

Watch the master at work in these 1977 Koch ads (Koch went on to serve three terms as New York’s mayor):

(Thanks to YouTube and the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives)

Four years later, it was all about Koch’s achievements:

Before Koch, Garth, still perfecting his craft, helped Lindsay recover from a disastrous first term as mayor, by having him fess up to his mistakes in a unique way:

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Lindsay was reelected.

Garth specialized in New York politics but he dabbled elsewhere. Venezuela was one example. He also helped Begin get reelected as Israel’s prime minister in 1981.

Many believe one of Garth’s greatest successes occurred in Los Angeles in 1973 when he helped Tom Bradley defeat Mayor Sam Yorty. It was a rematch of their 1969 battle which Yorty won, partly by stoking racial fears, casting Bradley as a radical extremist in league with Black Nationalists. With Garth’s help, Bradley, a former police officer and city councilmember, wiped out those fears in 1973, by acknowledging them, then ridiculing them, right into the camera:

“The last time I ran for mayor, I lost. Maybe some of you worried that I’d favor one group over another. In the first place, I couldn’t win that way; Los Angeles has the smallest black population of any big city in America.”

Bradley served five terms as LA’s mayor.

Garth was not above “going negative.” But when compared to today’s toxic, venomous, go-for-the-jugular, White Lie, Big Lie, Gross Distortion nastiness that substitutes for political discourse, one gets nostalgic, even a bit misty, for the way things once were. Garth played it straight. He kept it simple. He stuck to issues. He told the truth. He picked the right people. And he won.

David Garth passed away on December 15. He was 84.

The Ebola Embarrassment

o-EBOLA-VIRUS-facebookIt’s not hard to find examples of ridiculous excess and hyperbole in the Ebola story, and in the way it’s being reported. Generally I have no problem pointing them out. I’m frequently critical of my colleagues in the media.

But this time it’s worse than that. This time I’m flat-out embarrassed and ashamed.

Watch this CNN video all the way through, if you can stomach it:

On a day when important safety guidelines are revised, does CNN bring on a public health expert to explain? Do they seek out a doctor to elaborate? How about a spokesperson or former official of the agency that made the changes? Perhaps an administration representative… at any level… to discuss the broader implications?

Nope.

CNN opts for the empty “conflict” route. Fire up the split screen… a sure sign that an argument is imminent…. and toss two talking heads into the ring, one from the far left, the other from the far right. And what do they talk about? The usual (not in so many words but the message is clear): We support Obama. We hate Obama.

I’ll be fair. I’ll assume CNN covered the story responsibly, with all the proper elements, earlier in the day. A big assumption, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. Does that excuse this 5 minutes and 59 seconds of utter trash? Did it teach us anything new? Did it enlighten us even a little?

This was beyond a simple waste of airtime. It was poison. At a time when the public is panicked, terrified that a deadly disease may be inching closer, what’s needed more than anything is clear, sober, unambiguous, reliable information. Instead CNN turns the entire story into a left-right Ultimate Fighter grossout, deliberately stirring up emotions for no reason other than to attract attention and boost ratings, and I’ll bet every last nickel they’re far from the only ones doing it.

This evening I spoke to a group of high school students interested in journalism but concerned about the implications, legal and moral, of reporting negative information that potentially damages someone’s reputation. During our discussion this video came up. I nearly gagged. But I made sure they understood this is a perfect example of what a journalist should NOT do.

I worked for CNN early in my career, many years ago. I was proud of the work we did. Nobody should be proud of this. We should all hang our heads.

How Derek Jeter Made Me A Yankees Fan. Again.

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You’ll forgive me for interrupting the normally newsy content of this site with a few thoughts about … baseball. And the Yankees. One Yankee in particular.

A miracle may still happen, the club may yet snap out of its season-long hitting funk and win enough games to reach the playoffs. Old-schoolers like me who remember “pennant races” won exclusively by first-place teams, will swallow hard and celebrate nonetheless, should  the Not-Really-Bombers manage to scrape to the SECOND wild card berth… or Team Number 10 out of 30 to reach the postseason. Whatever.

It’s just hard to keep rooting for a club when you simply can’t connect with the players, or even care to remember their names. Such has been the case for two seasons, as a group of seemingly faceless mediocrities have played in Pinstripes. Last year we endured last-minute “Who’s he?” replacements for injured stars (not once all season did I see a fan in a Vernon Wells jersey). This year we’re subjected to aging veterans purchased at great cost but performing dramatically below expectations, as well as a new cast of virtual unknowns (Can you keep the Brians, Ryans, Brendans and double-Chases straight? I can’t).  Jerry Seinfeld likes to say we don’t really root for a team, “We root for the shirts!” Sadly, those shirts have become empty suits.

There are exceptions, of course, and none more exceptional than the shortstop we won’t be seeing much longer.

I’ve been a Yankees fan since the days of Maris and Mantle. I’ve watched the team lurch from Murderers’ Row to Mangled Mess, from “REG-GIE” to Rigor Mortis and back again. I stayed loyal as long as I could. But from the late ’80s into the early ’90s, I lost interest. Though the club still carried one or two noteworthies on the roster, the team played poorly. Worse, after the outsized, egomaniacal Billy Martin Bronx Zoo era, they seemed boring. Toss in the ’94 baseball strike and it was very easy to just dismiss the whole lot of them.

Then along comes Derek Jeter.

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Not by himself of course. He played with a bunch of equally eager and talented young players who wanted to win, and a sage-like manager who knew how. Suddenly the Yankees were champions again, and deliriously happy about it.

All the players were fun to watch. Jeter was special. We all have the same memories. Those leaps into the stands. The clutch hits (a home run in NOVEMBER??) The famous “flip!” What was he even doing there? (“I was supposed to be there,” he says, barely blinking). Jeter played hard. He played intensely, like it mattered more than anything else. Because to him, it did.

This was Old School. A reincarnation of the vintage Yankee ballplayers who set the bar higher and lived up to it. This was what I’d been waiting for, and I wasn’t alone. Fans wearing player jerseys? Go to any game, anytime. It’s wall-to-wall pinstriped 2’s.

Orioles Yankees Baseball

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Others have written eloquently about Jeter’s character, so let me just point out a couple of things that make a difference to me.

First, his 20-year career took place during a rather ugly time, when many pampered-rotten superstars besmirched their respective sports by engaging in boorish, abusive, and at times criminal behavior. Steroids. Dog fights. Spousal abuse. The occasional weapons charge. Or simply mouthing off, or walking away, because the obscene fortunes they were paid to play a child’s game wasn’t enough, didn’t show respect.

Derek Jeter epitomizes respect.

Not a speck of scandal. Not a cross word about anyone. Actually, barely any words at all. But when he does talk, it’s about the game. Or his family. Or the fans. In careful, meticuloulsy non-controversial tones, always with gratitude. And respect. Addressing 50,000 fans after the last game in the old Stadium, there was no hooting or hollering, no “Listen Up!” no “I Can’t Hear You!!!” Nope.

They gave him the mic. And he said, “Excuse me…..”

Second, this so-called Farewell Tour (a term he hates, he says, because he wants to focus on winning, not leaving) we’ve been watching. Yes, Mariano Rivera’s long goodbye last season was moving and emotional, and Rivera went out with class, dignity, and one of his strongest seasons ever.

But Jeter is struggling, and he knows it. We all know it. Look, he was never Superman, and at 40 years old he’s not what he once was.

Still, there he is, nearly every day, playing as hard as ever (“You’re on the field maybe three hours a day,” he said recently. “Why wouldn’t you play hard?”) He runs out every grounder, sacrifices himself to advance runners, occasionally delivers a clutch hit, even manages to quiet those “no range” critics from time to time:


I just think there’s something sweet about watching a performer age, decline perhaps, but not give up.

I’ll miss him. I’ll miss watching him walk to the plate, accompanied, at his insistence, by a recording of the late Bob Sheppard. I’ll miss the way he readies himself in the batter’s box, stretching his right arm behind him, as if to say, “Give me a moment, please.” I’ll miss that slightly playful expression on his face when he jokes with the catcher, and how that vanishes when he faces the pitcher. I’ll miss the “DE-REK JEE-TER” chants by the Bleacher Creatures and how Jeter always tipped his cap to them from his perch at short. I’ll miss it all.

More than a couple of columnists say they believe Derek Jeter saved baseball, rescuing the game from the PED era. I don’t know, sounds a little grandiose. But here’s what I do know. Derek Jeter made me a Yankees fan, all over again. I’ll always be grateful to him for that.

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Thank You, Don Pardo

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They don’t make them like Don Pardo anymore.

How many people not named Vin Scully spend 60+ years with the same employer, in or out of show business?

Don Pardo started his long career with NBC in 1944. Don was your typical “booth” announcer, reading commercials, station ID’s, promos, PSA’s, all of it live. He did news, too. Everybody remembers those first CBS audio bulletins by Walter Cronkite when President Kennedy was assassinated. On NBC, it was Pardo:

While most booth announcers toiled in semi-anonymity, Don became a face… as well as a voice… that attracted extra attention. Here he is with Bill Cullen on the early Price Is Right game show:

Of course, most of us over 40 (50??) remember Don’s voice opening Jeopardy every day, and host Art Fleming thanking him (in a little bit you’ll hear whose idea that was!)

In 1975 Don took that leap into semi-stardom on Saturday Night Live, holding forth every week in Studio 8H at NBC. But what you may not know is that he kept doing his mundane booth announcer duties at the same time (there are, after all, six more days in the week besides Saturday night!) Plus, as long as he was already in the building, Don took the elevator down to the 6th floor to front a news show I worked on for a while. At first, he was just an off-screen presence:

Eventually, Live At Five smarted up and put him where we could see him!

Don passed away on August 18th. He was 96. Back in 2006 he was interviewed for the Archive of American Television. (Here’s where you’ll find out where “Thank You Don Pardo” came from).

Oh, and one last thing.

Don, what advice would you give to aspiring announcers?

Yep. Thank you, Don Pardo!

Six Flags. One Tweet

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A recent breaking story here in Los Angeles has stirred up an important debate about social media, the quest for the “exclusive” picture, and the bounds of propriety and civility.

On July 7th, four people were hurt when a ride derailed at the Six Flags Magic Mountain amusement park. The accident was caused by a tree branch falling on the tracks.

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More than 20 people were stuck dangling in their seats for several hours, 40 feet above the ground, until firefighters could reach them.

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As news photographers arrived, one of them spotted a Tweet from someone claiming to be a trapped rider. The photog immediately Tweeted back, asking, “Do you have pics?”

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His request unleashed a wave of criticism, as Mediabistro points out:

“That tweet was quickly pounced on as an example of uncaring media interested only in getting those exclusive photos, with one person sending a mocking tweet, ‘Stay classy @NBCLA @KHOLMESlive. You haven’t been rescued yet, might fall, but u have pics bro?’ “

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If you work in the media, sooner or later you’re going to be called insensitive, callous, unfeeling, and a bunch of other names. We know that many of our viewers, listeners and readers look down their noses at us, even as they hungrily consume our product.

But in this case, do the critics have a point? Or are they overreacting?

When everybody has a phone/camera/internet device in his pocket, when picture-snapping has become so ubiquitous that folks photograph their lunch before eating it and “selfies” sprout faster than mushrooms, is it wrong to ask a presumed “victim” for pics? Did the photog cross a line?

Well, here’s the thing. That “line” was crossed a long time ago. Probably back in Ben Franklin’s day, when colonists first started reading newspapers. Only the tools have changed.

The job of a journalist is to get the story. All of it. Including the parts that may require doing things that leave a bad taste. Tweeting a request for a picture is exactly the same as knocking on a victim’s door or shoving a mic in his face and asking, “How did you feel?”

Tacky? Sure. Necessary? Let me ask you this: If somebody stranded on that Ninja rollercoaster did take a picture, perhaps looking straight down from his precarious perch, wouldn’t you want to see it?

Me too.

What better way to convey the actual atmosphere… what it was really like up there, trapped, scared, waiting for help. If we now have the sophisticated tools to enable that, honestly, how could we not ask for the picture? We’d be derelict in our duty.

I’ve been doing some informal polling of friends and colleagues on this. Most are fine with what happened. Here’s a typical response:

“I suppose some may think it’s a bit heartless… but frankly I don’t blame the photog.  He was just trying to get first (and maybe exclusive) photos for his station.  It’s nothing that editors, photogs, producers and news execs haven’t done for ages.  What’s the difference between that and CNN’s iPhone campaign – or the local channels here asking viewers to send in shots of breaking news?”

A former News Director in the L.A. market put it this way:

“The two aren’t mutually exclusive. You can seek the pictures/ story and give consideration at the same time. It’s important to remember that while some people don’t want to talk about what happened, many others do. It can even be cathartic for them to share what just happened.”

Now it turns out the guy who sent that original Tweet hadn’t even been on the coaster. He was either making a sick joke or trying to deceive people and call attention to himself. Which brings up another point about these new and powerful tools. That’s all they are: tools. They can be used properly or abused. You can take a hammer, drive a nail into a two-by-four, and build a house. Or you can smash a window. Social media has made it possible to instantly spread the truth when evil people want to cover it up. It has also enabled some to tell flat-out lies, dress them up very convincingly, and show them to the world in seconds. We in journalism need these tools, but we also need to be extra careful and absolutely sure we’re not being played for fools.

Need a laugh? Visit The Groaners! and check out all the ridiculous words TV newspeople keep using, again and again!