Oldies, But Goodies…

Here, updated and slightly enhanced, are a few of my posts from the early years of NEWSWRITING. Enjoy!

 

After Virginia Tech

On April 16, 2007, Seung-Hui Cho, a senior at Virginia Tech, shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others in two separate attacks, approximately two hours apart, before committing suicide. In between the attacks, Cho mailed a package of writings and recordings to NBC News.

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The horrible story followed the predictable media track. The initial shocking events, newspeople scrambling to figure them out, spotty coverage evolving into a full-blown, wall-to-wall, music-and-graphics-enhanced “special reports.” Anchors flying to the scene. Satellite trucks sprouting on campus like weeds out of control. “Camp OJ” redux. Anyone and everyone remotely connected to the story getting his or her 15 seconds of fame. It all had a very familiar feel. We’ve done this before.

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Then Cho’s package arrived at NBC.

Suddenly, on top of all the usual excesses, the media had a piece of grotesque perversion to examine, and to air. But should they air it? And should they air it again? And again? And again?

Yes. And no. No. NO!

Watching Cho’s maniacal rantings reminded me of the twisted “manifesto” offered by the Unabomber years ago. You really didn’t need to watch or read all of it. A few lines, a few seconds, and you had everything. You clearly understand it came from a crazed mind, and no matter how much more of it you ingest, that’s all you’d ever know.

So, once you know it, stop showing it.

It was not wrong to broadcast Cho’s video once, despite concerns about the feelings of bereaved families or the possibility of copycat threats. One can feel sympathy for the victims’ loved ones, but news organizations cannot afford to censor themselves based on that sympathy. If we did, no war, no terrorist act, no earthquake, no story of any consequence involving victims could ever be covered properly. As for the copycats, they’ll be out there either way.

But once the story has been told, enough is enough.

I sincerely hope the responsible news media will put the Cho material away, never to be shown again, certainly never to be used as conventional “file tape” or “wallpaper video.” Like the pictures of the planes hitting the World Trade Center. Store it for historical purposes, and issue the appropriate warnings to your people not to pull it off the shelf. I suspect most news organizations will comply. The tabloids, the infotainers, the talk shows, and now the webheads, the bloggers… they’re another story. Restraint is not their calling card. And that’s a shame. It may be wishful thinking, but one would hope even they pull back a little this time.

One more thing. May God bless the memory of Liviu Librescu, the heroic professor and Holocaust survivor who put his body in the doorway so his students could escape Cho’s bullets and get away through a window.

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Think about it. Think about that confrontation. A young, twisted individual mad at the world for the “evil” he imagined… like rich kids who ignored him. A 76-year-old man who saw real evil in his lifetime, and instead of turning evil or violent himself, he sacrificed himself for his fellow man without giving it a second thought. The best, and the worst of humanity, on two sides of one door.

 

Imus

On his CBS Radio show (simulcast on MSNBC) of April 4, 2007, Don Imus referred to members of the Rutgers University women’s basketball team with phrases universally considered to be racist. After vocal protests from many quarters, Imus apologized and agreed to meet with the Rutgers team. MSNBC suspended Imus, and later fired him. CBS dropped him as well. Imus sued CBS for breach of contract. The case was settled, and by November of that year, Imus returned to the air on Citadel radio stations and RFD-TV.

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Yeah, I know, his sorry story has nothing to do with Newswriting per se, but it’s my website, so…

As a young intern just starting out at NBC in New York, I was concerned that a 20-something Orthodox Jew wearing a kippah (skullcap) on my head might not be readily accepted. My concerns dissolved on my first day when a gruff baritone voice behind me bellowed, “Your hat’s too small, babe!”

It was Don Imus’s way of saying Hello.

Imus said a terrible, outrageous and inexcusable thing about the Rutgers women’s basketball team. Imus has been saying terrible, outrageous and inexcusable things for 30 years, about everybody, every race, every religion, every orientation, every political affiliation. It’s his shtick. It may even be his real personality. Does that make it OK? No. But anyone who thinks Imus singled out one particular group for extra verbal abuse, is wrong. Which is why I found it surprising that one group took it on themselves to single him out, why it mushroomed into a crusade, and why Imus is no longer on the air.

Granted, I’m prejudiced. I know the guy. I also don’t belong to the group Imus offended, so I can’t fully grasp their outrage. That’s the normal human condition in our still-racist world. We protect our own first, and even if we’re evolved enough to show outrage when another group is hurt, the passion is never the same. So on that basis alone, I’m not objective. Still, shouldn’t the criticism be spread more evenly, and at a level that properly fits the crime?

Imus apologized. He agreed to meet with the Rutgers team. He was suspended. It wasn’t enough for the interests bent on “winning one.” So the advertisers were pressured, and Imus was gone. Meantime Ann Coulter calls a presidential candidate a faggot, smirks her way through an “Oh, grow up” non-apology, a couple of papers pull her column, and she’s back on Fox News a few days later like nothing happened. Makes you think.

 

When News Hurts

Tim Russert, NBC’s Washington bureau chief and moderator of Meet The Press, died suddenly on June 13, 2008. He was 58.

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Now that some time has passed, and perhaps a bit of the pain and emotion have run their course, I want to say a couple of things about the loss of Tim Russert and how we in the media handled it.

 

I never met Mr. Russert, though we worked at NBC at roughly the same time, he in Washington and I in New York. I knew him only by reputation and always found him to be a solid, well-informed, hardworking and effective Washington Bureau Chief and Meet The Press moderator. His achievements and successes are well known. He was very good at what he did and he seemed to take great pleasure in his work, always with that smile, that twinkle in his eye. He was beloved among his colleagues and co-workers. His death is a tremendous blow to NBC in both professional and personal terms, which begins to explain what unfolded there, in the hours and days that followed.

 

The coverage took a familiar and predictable track. Total shock led to saturation reporting which evolved into elaborate tributes, glowing eulogies and memorials, followed by considerable speculation about who should, or could, replace Mr. Russert, until, inevitably, a few isolated voices gingerly began to say things like, “Enough already!” or “Isn’t there any real news going on today??” They meant no disrespect. They were trying to point out, insensitively perhaps, that the media, especially NBC, had perhaps taken advantage of their access to the public airwaves by over-covering one of their own, creating the perception that they were pushing legitimate news off to the side, to the detriment of the viewers. This opinion, I suspect, may have added to the anguish felt by those who knew and admired Mr. Russert and were still grieving for him.

 

Another, less publicized element of the story is the fact that NBC didn’t report it right away. The network waited about an hour, until it was certain that all members of Russert’s family had been notified. NBC also asked other media organizations to wait, and they complied (Ironically, one didn’t. One of NBC’s Web vendors assumed the news had already become public, so an employee there updated Russert’s bio on Wikipedia even before Tom Brokaw went on the air with the announcement. The employee was disciplined).

 

So far I haven’t seen or read any criticism of the decision to sit on the story, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it does materialize. Barring bona fide concerns of national security or a massive lawsuit, newspeople don’t like to hold back information and we don’t like it when colleagues do it, either.

 

So we have two questions to consider:

 

  1. Was NBC wrong to hold the story, even for that short time?
  2. Once the story did come out, was the coverage over-the-top?

 

The answer to both questions is yes.

 

But that’s not the whole answer.

 

The rest of the answer is, don’t worry about it.

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A few years ago, two young desk assistants where I work were killed in a small plane crash. Their deaths hit us very hard. I still remember how dark and quiet our newsroom got when we heard the news, just a few moments after we’d gone off the air with our 10pm show. People cried. Some of us just stood there. We couldn’t move. We stayed that way for quite a long while. The next morning we began to report the story… just a small plane crash, carrying some young people most of our viewers had never heard of. But those kids were our family. We made it our lead story, not just that day, but day after day, until all the funerals were over. We pushed bigger stories aside. We spent far more time on this personal tragedy of ours than we would normally devote to anything similar where the people involved are not known to us. Make no mistake, we knew what we were doing, and we understood that maybe some viewers might wonder about it. We didn’t care. There would be plenty of time later to go back to “normal” news coverage, but right now, we didn’t feel very normal, and the viewers were just going to have to forgive us.

 

The people at NBC (and their colleagues throughout the news community) were being human. They’d been hit hard, abruptly, unexpectedly, with the worst possible news. A great friend was snatched away, right in front of them. When that happens to you, it hurts, and you do what you have to do, to deal with the hurt. You’re thinking about people, family, feelings… not “Is this the proper thing to do, journalistically speaking?”

 

Of course NBC held the story until the family was told. It was the human thing to do, to spare loved ones even more pain. And of course they poured their emotions into hour after hour of coverage. That’s how grieving people express their grief.

 

We forget sometimes that news organizations are made up of people with feelings. Maybe that’s because we’re so good at detaching ourselves from tragic events in order to report them clearly and fairly. So naturally we get a few crooked glances when the tragedy happens to us, our human side asserts itself, and detached objectivity dissolves away. Fine. Let the critics point it out, let them say, “Aha!” a few times. No big deal. It’s temporary. Our newsroom eventually returned to normal after we lost our two young friends, and NBC quickly pulled itself together as well.

 

To tell you the truth, it was enlightening to watch NBC during those sad days. We were privileged to see a different, very vulnerable side of some of the industry’s top professionals. It was comforting, in a way, to see that some things matter more than news, and we’re really all the same when it comes to the truly important things.

 

Civil War

 

On November 27, 2006, NBC was the first news organization to declare the 31/2-year-old war in Iraq a “Civil War.” The White House strongly criticized the network for using that term.

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Civil War has broken out in Iraq. NBC says so.

The network took a great deal of criticism for deciding to use what apparently is quite a controversial terminology. Most of the finger-pointing, I believe, is undeserved. But maybe not all of it.

It’s ludicrous to accuse NBC, as some on the right have done, of having a “political agenda” or even of being “anti-White House.” Reasonable people understand that a news organization’s agenda is simple: Be absolutely accurate, be absolutely clear, and be absolutely impossible to ignore. This agenda remains in place regardless of who’s in power in Washington. NBC News, like most legitimate news organizations, has a long history of annoying leaders from both parties who never seem to get the fact that what’s news and how it’s defined, isn’t up to them.

Some of the critics, however, come from within the journalism community and are anything but “right wing.” I suspect their main complaint arises from that third part of the news agenda. They believe NBC took this step not only in the interest of accuracy and clarity, but to stand out among its competitors, to grab some attention and perhaps even get some higher ratings, temporarily at least.

NBC will swear it isn’t so, and I hope that’s the case. But the drive to be “first” is part of every news operation, and it very likely played a role here (yes, technically they weren’t “first.” The Los Angeles Times and others have used “Civil War” from time to time, but NBC got there first in the only race it cares about… the TV news ratings race). Also, NBC had to know its decision would create an uproar and plenty of attention. That’s hard to resist, even when your motives are pure.

Then there are the critics who take a semantic tack. They raise up a centuries-old definition of Civil War and make the claim that, in the strictest terms, Iraq isn’t there yet. In other words, until a row of gray-uniformed men point their muskets at a row of blue-uniformed men, it ain’t Civil War. I’m neither semanticist nor historian, so I really can’t say much here, except to point out that definitions evolve with the times, and ultimately, the media, as a reflection of the larger culture, will play the greater role in defining these terms… they won’t be imposed on the public by scholars, or by government entities trying to manage events and perceptions.

Political agendas come from politicians. They call armed militias “insurgents” and “dead-enders.” They call wave after wave of religious and revenge-fueled mass murder “sectarian violence.” When they knew the country couldn’t stomach another war after WWII they called Korea a “police action.” And they never called Vietnam a Civil War, and they’ll never call Iraq a Civil War, because once they do, support at home will evaporate. So Vietnam became the central front in the Cold War, and Iraq is the central front in the War on Terror.

The media’s job is to speak truth to power. NBC is doing its job.

 

Is It Our Fault? Are You Kidding?

Texas Congressman Ron Paul and his loyal followers made loads of libertarian noise during the 2008 presidential campaign, but couldn’t convert all that fervor into votes. The Paul camp frequently blamed the media for that. I respectfully disagreed.

CNN/Los Angeles Times Republican debate in Simi Valley, California

I’ve been struggling with this column for several days. I want to be respectful of Ron Paul and his supporters. But their repeated complaint that the Texas Congressman never stood a chance in the Presidential race solely because he has been ignored, minimized or somehow cheated by the national media must be answered.

There’s no doubt that Mr. Paul has attracted a loyal and vocal following. He has demonstrated a degree of campaign savvy with his YouTube videos and fundraising-via-Web strategy.

But is he a viable candidate for President? Was he ever?

In primary after primary, caucus after caucus, voters emphatically said, “No!”

Nevertheless, after each of those contests, as well as after every debate and every new poll, Paul’s loyalists flooded the phone lines to talk radio shows, to C-SPAN, to the national networks. They bombarded the blogs. The refrain is always the same: “Why aren’t you covering him? Why do you dismiss him? Why are you denying him his chance?” Their implication seems to be that if we in the media did our jobs right, Ron Paul would be running away with the nomination.

Ron Paul

No, he wouldn’t.

Remember, this long Presidential campaign began over a year ago with literally dozens of contenders traipsing through the snowy streets of Iowa and New Hampshire for months on end, then standing side-by-side on one crowded debate stage after another. Voters in those states got a good long and up-close look at everybody. They didn’t need the media. They met the candidates in the coffee shops, the hair salons, the American Legion halls. They sat through countless town meetings and asked voluminous questions.

Armed with all that information, Iowa and New Hampshire chose. They didn’t pick Ron Paul. Or Tom Tancredo. Or Duncan Hunter. Or Mike Gravel. Or even Chris Dodd or Joe Biden.

The difference between Paul and the other also-rans? They understood the will of the people and the realities of politics, and they quickly got out. Ron Paul stayed in, blamed the media and continues to do so.

With all due respect, the media didn’t make Ron Paul a fringe candidate. He did. And the voters did.

Having failed at local, retail campaigning in the first two states, Mr. Paul somehow believed he could move ahead into a national campaign as if nothing had happened. But it takes much more than a website and a handful of ideas (I will not pass judgment on Paul’s views or positions, but here again, the voters have already done so) to mount a successful race. It takes proven leadership ability, superior organizational skills, fundraising prowess far beyond a few million dollars, and the capability of appealing to a broad range of voters, not just a small band of hardcore loyalists.

Ron Paul has exhibited none of the above. It doesn’t make him a bad person, or an ineffective Congressman. He may very likely be reelected in his home district. But he’s no national candidate. He will complain that the he was unable to get his message out. But the millions he raised on the Internet is supposed to be spent on doing exactly that: Getting out the message. So why didn’t he?

(I’m tempted to say many of the same things about Dennis Kucinich, who complained not only about the media but also about being excluded from some debates. However, behind Mr. Kucinich’s bluster lies a truly empty candidacy which has already been exposed, beautifully, by LA Weekly reporter Dwayne Booth who labored in near-Roger And Me style to get five minutes with the candidate.)

With all this, there are still those who will accuse the media of playing favorites, building up personalities, and ignoring the “little guys,” effectively dooming their campaigns. Those accusations may or may not have some merit. But the fact is, this year, perhaps more than ever before, it hasn’t made any difference. Because the voters have seen through any alleged media bias and made their own decisions.

Don’t believe me? Wasn’t Rudy Giuliani supposed to be the “national frontrunner?” Wasn’t Mike Huckabee supposed to disappear early? Wasn’t Fred Thompson going to be the savior of the conservatives? Wasn’t John McCain’s campaign supposed to collapse? Wasn’t Hillary Clinton going to cruise to the nomination without breaking a sweat?

To paraphrase a corporate slogan I detest: We reported. You decided.

 

Tom Snyder

Longtime TV personality Tom Snyder died on July 29, 2007. He was 71.

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He was always my favorite.

The cigarette smoke…

The unforgettable laugh..

The HAIR!

Tom Snyder was one-of-a-kind.

An anchorman who seemed too big for the job.

An up-close-and-personal talk show host who always asked the questions we wanted to ask. A conversationalist who at least sounded well-prepared, even when he really wasn’t!

After watching just a few editions of his Tomorrow show in the early ‘70’s, I was hooked. Here was a talk show you could curl up on the couch with, sink into the back-and-forth between Tom and his famous, infamous and often outright weird guests, as if they were right there in the room with you. There was nothing else like it.

Everybody noticed.

In those early years Don Imus was asked about TV personalities. Imus said he hated them all. Except one. “Snyder,” he said.

NBC was so high on Snyder, there were almost daily rumors about him taking over the Nightly News or even The Tonight Show. The network rolled out one magazine show after another to showcase him. Dan Ackroyd did Snyder almost better than Snyder did.

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Tom even showed up in the movies, sort of. One memorable scene had a crazed criminal suspect surrendering to police while saying, “Where’s Tom Snyder? I want Tom Snyder!!”

When WNBC brought Snyder to New York to anchor the 6pm hour of NewsCenter4, I was able to watch him twice a day, doing two entirely different things. Tom never seemed as comfortable behind the anchor desk as on his talk show set. For one thing, the smoking had to go. Only it didn’t. Once, as a reporter’s package ended, they cut back to Snyder with the offending cigarette still in his mouth. For a split second he looked terrified. Like a shot, he put down the cigarette, then, realizing it was too late, he smiled broadly, held up the still-smoky butt, looked right in the camera and said, “Hey, why should I deny it?”

Another time he closed the newscast with his favorite Thanksgiving turkey recipe, which basically involved marinating the bird in six different kinds of booze, throwing away the turkey and drinking what was left. “You won’t really have a Thanksgiving dinner,” he said, barely stifling his trademark laugh, “But you really won’t care!” NOW the laugh burst forth, and when it finally died down, Tom invited us to tune in next month… for his Christmas goose recipe!

Tom had that rare quality that jumped right through the TV screen and grabbed you. It almost didn’t matter what he was saying. He was just fun to watch, and I always made a point of getting as much Snyder as I could. It was a shame when his star began to decline. NBC paired him with gossip reporter Rona Barrett on Tomorrow, a disaster. Not long after, when Tomorrow ended, Tom made a classy exit, simply fading to black (he said he wanted to go out the way he came in) with his simple “Good Night Everybody!”

He had some tough years. He made a health club infomercial. Then he got a radio gig, another shot at local news in New York which flopped, then a CNBC show, thrown into a mix of mediocre talkers. Only when he surfaced on the CBS Late Late Show, which David Letterman created for him, did some of the old spark appear to return.

TV hasn’t been the same, or as good, since he retired. And it’s sad that there won’t be another Snyder comeback. Can you imagine what he would have done with a Paris Hilton? Or a Lindsay Lohan? Or a George W. Bush! And who else out there today has the whimsy to invite us to “fire up the Colortini and watch the pictures as they fly through the air?”

He will be missed.

 

It’s Personal

During a confrontational May Day 2007 rally in Los Angeles, several reporters were injured, it is claimed, through deliberate actions by members of the L.A. Police Department. Several lawsuits were filed and eventually settled. At least two of the injured journalists were personal friends of mine.

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My friend, reporter Christina Gonzalez has returned to work. Limping. Can’t move her shoulder. She may need surgery. Our colleague, photographer Patti Ballaz has a broken wrist. She may never lift a camera again.

On May 1, 2007, Patti, Christina and a bunch of other journalists were pushed, shoved, struck, knocked to the ground and otherwise roughed up by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department.

This incident has made me so angry I’ve had to struggle to find the right words to express my rage responsibly. The incident at MacArthur Park is being investigated half a dozen different ways. There will be personnel changes. There will be lawsuits. There will be reforms. And frankly, I don’t want to get in the way, mess anything up, or say more than the victims themselves have already said.

But the very idea that members of the media landed in the hospital because cops put them there makes my blood boil and turns my stomach.

Yes, police were trying to clear out a group of rowdy protesters who were throwing things at them. And yes, the officers’ superiors have offered up stuff like, “an aberration.” “over the top,“ or, incredibly, the rationalization that the cops lost control because, well, cops lose control easily!

Sorry, not buying it.

In the first place, law enforcers should not be lawbreakers. California law clearly allows journalists to be exactly where they were, and to do exactly what they were doing. None of this “We gave you those press passes and we can take them away” hogwash. No, you can’t.

Second, “losing control” doesn’t begin to explain what happened out there. It doesn’t explain why one journalist got knocked down and heard laughter from the cop who did it. It doesn’t explain why another reporter got shoved to the ground and was immediately told to get up again, by an officer who clearly was making it up at he went along. And it doesn’t explain why officers fired pellets at a crew in a news van. A stationary, parked news van.

Third, where’s all that great LAPD training? Is anyone going to say, with a straight face, that Los Angeles Police officers are incapable of clearing a crowd without breaking a cameraperson’s bones??

You also probably know this is not the first time, which is one reason why the LAPD remains the only police force in the country under the scrutiny of a Federal consent order.

But will things really change now? Can anyone or anything break the disgusting Us Against Them culture so inbred at the LAPD?

Maybe. Because like it or not, fair or unfair, it makes a difference when you attack a journalist.

Had those police batons come down only on protesters’ heads, it would have still been reprehensible, but a day later nobody would be talking about it. But the cops smacked reporters who were doing their jobs, and those reporters’ colleagues got mad and made sure the whole world saw it, again and again. Chief William Bratton, the most media-savvy police chief L.A. has ever had, desperately wants to maintain his almost mythical reputation as America’s Top Cop who brings down crime rates wherever he goes. He also wants to keep his job, now up for renewal. And he knows he blew it. So he just may work extra hard to fix it.

The early signs are encouraging. Bratton demoted two commanders and expressed his own personal outrage. More important, two weeks after the MayDay Melee (we media types have to give everything a catchy name) another protest took place in the same park, there were plenty of police, everything was peaceful, and no one laid a hand on any journalist.

Let’s hope it stays that way. I promise you, we’ll be watching.

 

 

Dear President-Elect Obama

Barack Obama was elected America’s 44th President on November 4, 2008.

Victory

Congratulations on your impressive and historic victory. As you prepare to take on the enormous tasks before you, it’s worth taking a moment to consider the role the media will play in your administration.

You’ve emerged from a long, grueling campaign in which whole sections of the press were, at different times, demonized, ridiculed, belittled, held up to mass anger, and, occasionally, kicked off the bus.

You are also succeeding a president and administration that routinely practiced secrecy and deception, while favoring “friendly” media, treating such “friends” as a virtual public relations arm of the White House.

The climate has been unhealthy, but you have the opportunity to change it, just as you promise to change the rancorous political climate in our country.

I hope you’ll take these recommendations to heart:

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Play It Straight. A secrecy-obsessed administration is a doomed administration. There can be no better way to begin to unite our country than by keeping its citizens fully informed. Your calls for service and sacrifice will be received enthusiastically only if the public fully understands what you intend to do, and how you intend to do it. We in the media are your vehicle to help you achieve this. It is part of our historic and constitutional mission. A free people must get their information from a free press. Tell us frankly and clearly what your plans are, and we will communicate the message.

Expect And Accept Bumps. Inevitably members of the media will criticize you and your policies. I hope you’ll always remember that reporters who ask tough questions or expose deficiencies are not the enemy. They are doing their job and their patriotic duty. It may be tempting to blame us or accuse us of bias when things go badly. Every president has done it at one time or another. It’s a bad habit too many politicians have cultivated. Break it.

We’re All The Same. Even When We’re Not. Please don’t play media favorites. How embarrassing it was to hear the Secretary of State praise “my Fox guys. I love every one of them!” How ridiculous to learn that the Vice President insisted on viewing only one news network on all the TV’s in his line of sight. How disturbing it was to read reports that journalists from two conservative newspapers were taken off your campaign plane because of “space limitations” while Ebony and Jet kept their seats. In a free society with a free press, no journalist deserves to be frozen out, nor do any of us want to “cozy up” to the government. Tolerance of all is essential, while a healthy, respectful distance is maintained Journalists and politicians are professionals. Let’s keep the relationship professional as well.

None of this will be easy because it goes against the grain. It’s so different from what has become the norm. But if you really do mean to bring about positive change, this is a great place to start.

Good luck, sir.

 

Are We Voting Or Betting?

As the 2008 presidential campaign began, some disturbing statistics confirmed the notion that most voters treat the election more like a horse race than a search for the next leader of the free world.

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I am troubled, though not surprised, by some new findings from the people at the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

They’ve calculated that so far, only 15% of all the broadcast stories about the 2008 presidential campaign deal with the candidates’ positions on issues. Barely 1% of the coverage looked at the candidates’ records. 63% of the stories focused on strategy and politics: who’s ahead in the polls, who’s trailing, who’s made a clever move, who’s committed a tactical blunder, and who’s raised the most money.

The horse race.

Perhaps instead of casting ballots, we should put down two dollars on Win, Place or Show.

I know there’s nothing new about this. Americans seem to be fascinated by polls, and news organizations are only too happy to scratch that itch relentlessly and to the near-exclusion of anything serious.

But we’re choosing the most powerful person on the planet. Shouldn’t our choice be an informed one? And shouldn’t we, as broadcasters, take the lead in supplying that information?

So why don’t we?

Three main reasons, I think.

1. Stories with serious information are harder to produce.

2. They’re not sexy.

3. Nobody else does it, so why should we?

In other words, in our glitz-obsessed, ratings-crazed environment, covering presidential candidates the right way takes too much effort and resources, with no assurance of an increase in viewership. So it’s not worth it, and no station wants to be the first to risk trying it.

I also suspect the candidates are totally aware of this, and even count on it. They know they can keep their messages vague and meaningless, and no one will challenge them. The result is an empty campaign and an ignorant electorate. Candidates appear on Oprah or Leno to sell their personalities more than their positions. And they fill their political ads with slogans and nasty personal attacks.

As a result, the typical voter who gets most of his news from television cannot tell you the difference between Candidates A, B or C on health care, taxes, Iraq, Social Security, education, or anything else that matters. She probably can tell you who’s in first place in the horse race.

Perhaps we broadcasters rationalize our dereliction of duty by pointing to all the “new media” alternatives where in-depth information on the campaign is readily available. But I’m not ready to cede our unique mission to a bunch of websites. We still reach more people in more places than any other means of communication. Our audiences depend on us. We need to step up and give them what they need, not just what we think will hold their attention past the quarter hour.

Here are some ideas for doing that. Things that can be implemented right now.

Make The Daily Commitment: This must be the first step. Simply make the decision that your news operation will produce something meaningful about the campaign, at least once a day. It could be as quick and simple as a 30-second explainer, or a more elaborate piece. The important thing is to set the tone and change the atmosphere in your newsroom, and to stick to it.

Create A Franchise: Grab your best reporter and put him or her on the political beat. Then come up with a catchy name (the consultants can help you here) for a regularly-scheduled, heavily promoted piece on candidates issues. Sell the daylights out of it. Tell the viewers why they should care.

Make The Dull, Un-Dull: A story that just lays out a candidate’s health care plan sounds boring. But what if you found people in your community whose lives would be impacted, positively or negatively, by that plan? A politician’s platitudes about Iraq are one thing. Suppose you ran them past parents who have kids serving in the Gulf? Visit a senior center and show them what could happen to Social Security depending on who gets elected. Watch their reactions!

Become A Resource: Stuff your station’s website with information on every candidate. Cross promote like crazy, just as you would for a sweeps piece or a celebrity interview. If your reporter lands an interview with Hillary Clinton and 1:30 of it makes air, send your viewers to the website to watch the other 20 minutes.

Care! A long time ago I learned I couldn’t get viewers excited about a story unless it got me excited first. Nowhere is this more true, or more crucial, than a presidential election. The stakes could not be higher. Choosing the leader of the free world. But the potential for boredom could not be greater. People hate politics. So help them feel differently. Find the aspects that get your juices going, and communicate that enthusiasm to your audience.

I’m very aware that a handful of visionary stations out there already do many of these things, and do them quite well. Whether it’s a “Reality Check” of a candidate’s speech or a personalization of a complex issue, a bunch of good reporters backed by equally good producers and news directors are showing the way for the rest of us. I applaud them, and I hope more of us follow their example.

One more incentive for getting serious about this. Another recent poll shows a steady, across-the-board decline in the public’s opinion of the news media over the last 20 years. All that marketing, promoting, hyping and selling we’ve done… and we’re losing people!

What are you going to do about it?

 

 

 No More Debates. Maybe

When the seemingly non-stop debates of the 2008 primary campaign began to take on a circus atmosphere, culminating in a rally-like back-and-forth at the Kodak (now Dolby) Theater in Los Angeles, many criticized the entire process. I was reminded of previous debate seasons, and the isolated bits of nonsense we tend to remember of them.

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There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe…”

“There you go again!”

“Where’s the beef?”

“Let me help you with the difference, Mrs. Ferraro…”

“Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

“Who am I? Why am I here?”

“Maybe we should ask Barack if he’s comfortable and needs another pillow.’’

 

Recognize them?

Unfortunately, you probably do. They are the “gotcha” lines that stick in our minds after three decades of Presidential and Vice Presidential debates. For many of us, this is the sum total of our debate knowledge and memory. Cute zingers and stupid gaffes.

Since 1976 when Jimmy Carter debated Gerald Ford under the auspices of the League of Women Voters, televised debates have slowly morphed into video spectacles, where the one-liner matters more than a carefully thought out answer, where catching someone in an awkward moment makes a bigger impression than a candidate’s position on an important issue.

Sometimes we don’t even remember the words, but the non-verbal stuff. The sound cutting out during the first Ford-Carter debate. George H.W. Bush looking at his watch. Al Gore sighing, rolling his eyes, and sneaking up behind George W. Bush, and Bush nodding indifference.

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Is this any way to pick a president?

Actually, it began in 1960 with the Kennedy-Nixon TV shows. And I’m choosing my words carefully here. I say “TV shows” rather than “debates.” Don Hewitt produced them to be good television. The overwhelming presence of cameras and lights dominated the proceedings. And while radio listeners heard two candidates discussing substance (and most thought Nixon had won), TV viewers were distracted by Nixon’s pallor (he had the flu), his light-colored jacket blending into the backdrop, and of course, those beads of sweat and those shifting eyes. By contrast, they saw Kennedy in his crisp blue suit, looking tanned, healthy and youthful (in fact there was only five years difference between them, and it turns out Kennedy was a lot sicker than we thought). How many people remember anything substantive said by either man?

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This all came back to me, and has been gnawing at me, throughout this year’s presidential campaign, starting with those ridiculous 10-or-12-person debates in the early going, on through to the last of the 21 (21!) Obama-Clinton confrontations. Sure, some of it has been powerful television, a ratings windfall for the cable networks, and fuel for the pundits who endlessly pick it all apart.

But have we truly learned anything?

Has television, by bringing us all these debates, increased our knowledge of the candidates, or just made sure we never see and hear anything more than consultant-crafted soundbites and annoyingly superficial irrelevant nonsense? Are we now better equipped to choose the next leader of the free world because television showed us one candidate complaining about always getting the first question and another candidate squirming under a relentless battery of questions about a preacher, and words like “elitist?”

Let me be clear. I have my preferences, but I have not yet chosen a candidate and would be satisfied, more or less, no matter who gets elected. So this is not simply a defense of Barack Obama when I say it was shameful the way ABC’s anchors wasted nearly half of their Philadelphia debate with trivialities, when we are fighting two wars, our economy is taking a nosedive, much of the world looks at us with contempt, our environment is getting a potentially irreversible beating, our public schools are a disgrace, Social Security is heading for a cliff and our health care system needs intensive care.

A year and a half into the process, I believe the typical voter and viewer still doesn’t really know where the candidates stand on critical issues. And we in the TV business are to blame. We created the showbiz atmosphere, the candidates adapted to it, and the viewers are stuck with it.

So let’s fix it.

Step One: Stop the debates, at least for now. So long as we’re incapable of running a debate that deals in substance, we do a disservice to the public by staging superficial spectacles which mislead voters into thinking they’re watching something important.

Step Two: Copy what works, and ratings be damned. Remember CNN’s “Compassion Forum?” Terrible title. Questionable choice of subject matter. But on several levels, the cable network is onto something. Each candidate got a big chunk of time to talk about one subject, without the other candidate getting in the way. And they didn’t just spout platitudes. They had to respond to pointed questions from experts in the audience… in this case, religious leaders asking about issues of faith. Imagine what could be done with, say, health care, with doctors asking the questions. Or the economy, with questions from small business owners or families facing foreclosure. Or Social Security, with questions from seniors worried about their benefits, and their grandchildren worried about paying for them.

If we commit to forcing the candidates to address serious issues in a serious way, they will adapt again, just as they did when we got careless and pointless. Hey, they’ve got no place else to go!

I don’t expect these forums will grab the kind of ratings racked up by that silly farce in Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre, for example. Nevertheless, millions will watch. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll learn.

 

 

 

UnConventional Memories

The Democrats held their 2008 convention at the Pepsi Center in Denver, but moved to the larger, outdoor Invesco Center – a football stadium – for the final night and the acceptance speech by Barack Obama. It was a spectacle that brought back memories of other noteworthy conventions.

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I love political conventions. The bigness. The screaming crowds. The over-the-top speeches. Even the balloons and funny hats. I find it all very exciting and, as a newswriter, convention time is one of my favorite seasons.

I’ve been watching conventions on TV since 1968 when I was a kid. I’ve been writing about them for TV since 1984 in my first newsroom job. I’ve seen three of them in person.

I also have the kind of weird memory that holds onto obscure details, like a line from a speech nobody else paid attention to, or a picture most people didn’t notice. Of course, like everyone else, I also cherish the “big” moments which get repeated endlessly and often become anchors in our history.

Watching the Democrats in Denver and the Republicans in St. Paul brought back a lot of those big and small memories, which I’d like to share, going back as far as I’m able to recall. Memory being the imperfect tool that it is, I make no claim to absolute accuracy. If you spot an error, shoot me an email… one more opportunity to reminisce, right?

So here goes…

 

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1968: The Republicans were in Miami and Richard Nixon got the nomination (“It’s All Nixon!” screamed the newspaper headlines). Nixon comes out to give his speech, and does that thing with his arms way up in the air. I’m 12 years old and it’s the first time I’ve ever seen him, or anyone else, do that. Walking around on the podium, waving his arms, again, and again, smiling that broad Nixon smile. Maybe I’m just a cynic, or the product of Democratic parents, but watching this scene on TV I keep thinking, ““his looks so fake!” And how did this guy everybody said was washed up, come out of nowhere and pull this off?

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The Democratic debacle in Chicago. Mayor Daley cussing at Senator Ribicoff for referring to the “Gestapo” tactics of the Chicago police. Protestors roughed up by cops but managing to shout, “The whole world is watching!”

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For an adolescent still figuring out his loyalties and emotions, there was an overwhelming sense of letdown. Eugene McCarthy had fizzled. Bobby Kennedy was dead. And we get… Humphrey? He’s going to end the Vietnam war he’s helped perpetuate with Lyndon Johnson?

 

The gear. The networks outfitted their floor reporters with mobile equipment that made them look like men from outer space. Big headphones. Bigger antennas coming out of their ears. Enormous backpacks. Wires everywhere. Poor Edwin Newman looked like a beast of burden buckling under the load. And I’m thinking, “Cool! Looks like fun!” I’m starting to think I’d like to do this. I’m very curious about everything going on inside those network “skyboxes” with their big logos plastered across the top, ringing the upper rim of the convention hall.

 

1972: Both conventions are in Miami (they must really like that Fontainebleu hotel!)

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The Republican gathering is basically a Nixon coronation. But the Democrats can’t seem to do anything without drama. Gravel-voiced Jean Westwood trying, and failing to bring the delegates to order. The Illinois delegation getting kicked out. Network reporters on the floor interviewing Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin (“Last time we were outside protesting. Now we’re inside, man!”) George McGovern’s 3:00 AM speech which no one heard.

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But I remember a different McGovern moment, at the hotel, when he’s confronted by rabid antiwar protestors who’ve heard a rumor that McGovern may keep a handful of troops in Vietnam.

The protestors ambush McGovern at his door and demand, demand that he pull out every last soldier. McGovern, tired, haggard, using a megaphone to be heard over the angry mob, promises he will. The mob cheers. McGovern appears to be a prisoner of his own supporters.

 

1976: Jimmy Carter comes to Madison Square Garden! Barbara Jordan keynotes.

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Wow! I lived in New York, and boy did I wish I could get inside. Closest I got was a block away, where all the media trucks were camped out, their cables running through the streets, snaking up the walls of the Garden, going through holes in the walls cut out especially for the occasion.

 

Republicans in Kansas City fought a battle between President Ford who wanted his first full term, and Ronald Reagan, determined to take it for himself.

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Ford’s narrow win only accentuated his weakness as an unelected, uncharismatic president. The crowd is wowed by Reagan’s concession remarks. But then Ford speaks. And Mister Plodder turns into Mister Orator! What a surprise! Sure, not a masterful speech, but no question the best one he’s ever given in his life, and the crowd goes nuts!

 

1980: Donny and Marie (“We’ve got a winning combination, a winning combination, oh yeah!”) performing for the Republicans at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, on a podium ringed with potted plants (I told you I have a weird memory). Speaker after apocalyptic speaker saying this could be “the last political convention.” (The Soviets were in Afghanistan, Americans were held hostage in Iran… doomsday stuff). No real drama about the nominee, so manufactured drama takes its place: Will Reagan really take Ford as his running mate? Nah. But maybe? Nah. Of course not.

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Carter and the Democrats come back to New York and guess who gets inside! Finally! A friend with a well-connected father gets us tickets for the upper row. Amazing view. Terrible sound. Nothing but echo. But I brought along a tiny tape recorder. I still have my echo-chamber cassette recording of Senator Ted Kennedy’s amazing speech.

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Every time I watch American Experience on PBS and hear Kennedy’s line, “The hope still lives, and the dream shall never die,” I remember that night.

 

 

1984: I’ve begun my news career, so now I get to watch the conventions from our New York newsroom, instead of my New York living room. The Republicans meet in Dallas to re-nominate Reagan. Our studio anchor in New York asks our convention anchor in Texas (off the air but on camera), “So how’s Dallas?” She replies, “It’s 110 degrees and the bars close at 2:00!”

 

When the Democrats pick Walter Mondale in San Francisco I blow the most important part of my assignment. I can’t find Mondale’s quote on taxes on the tape: “Mister Reagan will raise taxes. And so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.” I resolve to take better notes from now on.

 

1988: The Democrats dress up the Atlanta convention center in pastels, thinking it’ll look better on TV.They get lambasted by critics for replacing the Red, White and Blue with Salmon, Azure and Eggshell.

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Michael Dukakis arrives at the podium to Neil Diamond’s Coming To America. He chokes up when talking about his Greek immigrant father. “He’d be very proud of his son.” He then proclaims, “This election isn’t about ideology. It’s about competence.” Republicans make it about flag-burning and Willie Horton. But only after George Bush promises a “kinder, gentler America,” challenges us to “Read my lips,” and aspires to a “thousand points of light,” providing Saturday Night Live with about ten thousand punchlines.

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1992: Bill Clinton brings the convention back to Madison Square Garden, where, for the first time, I’m inside as a member of the media. Our work area, just behind the upper seats, is dominated by a high-strung producer we called (behind his back) Guns ‘N Roses because, 1) He carried a pistol and, 2) He stole flowers from a secretary’s desk to decorate his office. He spent most of the convention screaming at people over the phone. I spent part of my time trying to calm him down, the rest of the time staying away from him. I field-produced quirky, offbeat stories, like a profile of the head chef at the Garden, and the schoolkids covering the convention for a local paper. My favorite image (sorry, looked high and low but couldn’t find a photo) was Senator Bill Bradley at the podium, directly beneath his retired New York Knicks jersey (No. 24) hanging from the rafters.

 

Houston hosted the Republicans, and their anger. Pat Buchanan invoking a “religious war” in America. Dan Quayle taking on the so-called Hollywood Elite (“And we will not back down!!”). Marilyn Quayle warning us not to “turn away from the values that brought us here.”

 

1996: Back to Chicago, peaceful this time. President Clinton wants to build a “Bridge to the 21st Century.” Bob Dole’s in San Diego, thinking more about Clinton’s past. He wails, “Where’s the outrage?” Dole is introduced by his wife Elizabeth who walks through the crowd with a handheld mike, delivering a speech that resembles a TV talk show monologue.

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2000: George W. Bush promises to be a “compassionate conservative” and says his critics “don’t know my heart.” Al Gore promises to be “my own man.”

 

I’ve moved to Los Angeles, and so have the Dems, taking over the brand new Staples Center. Like most of the media, I’m in a trailer in the parking lot. But when VP nominee Joe Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew like me, gives his speech, I’m right there on the convention floor, thanks to an understanding boss who got me a pass.

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2004: As you probably know, newspeople get to see advance copies of candidates’ speeches. Addressing his hometown crowd in Boston, John Kerry was supposed to open by saying, “I’m John Kerry and I love this country.” But for four days, the Democrats had been playing up Kerry’s military background, hoping, just this once, that the Republicans wouldn’t monopolize the flags and the guns. So instead he salutes and says, “I’m John Kerry and I’m reporting for duty!” The place explodes. The Swift Boaters take notes.

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President Bush leads his party into Enemy Territory. Heavily Democratic New York, at the very same Madison Square Garden. Thousands protest outside. They’re mocked by everyone inside. The RNC builds a huge round podium in the center of the floor for Bush’s speech. And that lectern doesn’t really have a cross on it, does it?

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2008: Someday, people will write about how the Democrats filled a football stadium and the Republicans plucked a star from Alaska. Me, I just had a blast watching it all. I always do!

 

What Sports Is. And What It’s Not

In March of 2007, St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa was arrested on a drunken driving charge after police said they found him asleep inside his running sport utility vehicle at a stop light. La Russa pleaded guilty in November of that year. He continued to manage the Cardinals until his retirement following the 2011 season.

Jerry Girard spent 21 years as sports anchor on WPIX-TV in New York City. He died on March 25, 2007, at the age of 74.

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When the Mets got into the 1986 World Series, Tom Brokaw anchored from Shea Stadium. When the Red Sox won the 2004 Series, it was the lead story on local newscasts across the country. Whenever a popular pro or college coach is hired or fired, AP runs an URGENT that BEEEEPs newsroom computers from coast to coast. And when a big name player of any sport gets into some kind of legal trouble, you’ll see it on Page One, not just in the sports section.

Yep, we Americans have always loved our sports, and our sports figures. And since newsroom staffs have always had generous helpings of supercharged sports fans, it’s only natural that the Big Game… or the Big Move… or the Big Player’s Big Blunder will get Big Coverage… perhaps even Excessive Coverage, but hey, we may be journalists, but we’re also human, we’re fans, we’re entitled to our occasional excesses, and we usually get our perspective back in balance fairly quickly.

And sometimes we don’t.

Tony La Russa, the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals was recently arrested for drunk driving. Certainly a dumb move on his part, and one would expect some media coverage to jump past the sports pages and bleed into the A block. Especially if it’s a slow news day.

Only it wasn’t.

On that same day, the public schools of St. Louis lost their accreditation. A state takeover loomed, and thousands of children… not to mention their parents, their parents’ property values, the city’s image and most likely its bond rating… would all be negatively impacted. A huge embarrassment and a huge story. Just not sexy.

That night, three St. Louis television stations led their newscasts with La Russa’s indiscretion.

We heard the usual justifications. News directors said yes, the school story was much more important and affected many more people (it’s not clear who is affected by the La Russa story… perhaps his bartender), but the La Russa story was what most viewers were interested in hearing about. Statistics from newspaper websites appear to bear that out. The La Russa story was read ten times more often than the schools story, even on sites where the schools story was the lead.

Look, this is not another bleat from an old-timer who wants to go back to the fictitious good old days when newscasts broadcast only what viewers need to know, as opposed to what they want to know (never happened). Nor is it a plea to turn every local newscast into PBS or C-SPAN.

But newspeople get paid to use judgment. Not just to take polls.

The local media latched onto La Russa the way the rest of us latch onto Paris Hilton. They turned a piece of gossip about an individual’s stupid mistake into World War III, and the real news of the day suffered for it.

Whether or not that’s the current news climate, it is still bad news judgment and wrongheaded priorities.

Ironically, a St. Louis sports guy got it right:

“You’d think the president had been assassinated, the banks had been robbed,” says Kevin Slaten, a sportstalk host on KFNS Radio. “Is it a big story? Absolutely not! We live in an ‘Entertainment Tonight’ society.”

Sanity from the sports department!

Indeed, a perfect segue to a few personal thoughts about a man who personified that kind of levelheadedness. Jerry Girard, who recently passed away.

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Jerry did sports at WPIX-TV in New York City. I worked in that newsroom for two years, and I was privileged to watch Jerry work and get to know him.

Jerry was a nice man, quiet and self-effacing, but with a razor sharp wit that could send you falling to the floor laughing with just a couple of words… on or off the air. He knew his sports cold. He approached the job as a fan (for my money the best sportscasters do that) and as a writer (his previous gig before getting his on-camera break). That combination of qualities made him a unique talent, and a star for 21 years in a city that’s famous for unceremoniously casting out less-than-authentic sportscasters.

With all that, Jerry also stayed grounded in reality. He handled sports as it should be handled… as fun and games, not the Apocalypse.

I think Jerry would shake his head in disbelief over the La Russa coverage. He’d probably unleash an appropriately pithy remark that would crack us up, and pull us back to our better selves. He’ll be missed.

 

New House. Old Rules

Democrats gained control of the House and Senate in the November 2006 elections. California representative Nancy Pelosi became Speaker of the House. C-SPAN has been airing gavel-to-gavel coverage of the House since the network began operations in 1979. The feed is provided by the House and controlled by the Speaker. C-SPAN asked Pelosi to change that policy, and was refused. When Republican John Boehner succeeded Pelosi as Speaker, he also refused to give C-SPAN greater control.

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has rejected a request by C-SPAN to take control of the House TV cameras.

Since 1979 when the system was installed, those cameras have been under sole control of the Speaker (Tip O’Neill at the time) and the rules have permitted only head-on wide and close-up shots of the proceedings.

C-SPAN, which has carried House and Senate sessions for decades now, wanted the ability to pan the House chamber, take reaction shots, and give a more complete and thorough sense of what’s taking place on the floor. C-SPAN chief Brian Lamb made the same request of the Republican leadership in 1980 and was also turned down.

C-SPAN had clearly hoped that a change in leadership and direction in Congress would translate into a more open atmosphere regarding TV coverage, but apparently this is not the case, and it’s not hard to figure out why.

In a word, power.

No politician who achieves power is apt to give it up voluntarily. Control of the camera is awesome power. The Speaker can make sure the public never sees that angry exchange between two Members off in the corner. Or Republican and Democratic representatives laughing and chatting with each other when a supposedly “bitter” House debate is taking place. In short, the facade is kept in place.

In rare cases, that power of the camera can be wielded in an act of partisan vengeance, as Speaker O’Neill did in 1984, when he wanted to show how Republicans were making Special Orders speeches before an empty chamber. O’Neill violated the very rules he had set up, and ordered the cameras to pan all the vacant seats.

Awesome power. So why should Speaker Pelosi give it up?

Because this is America, the work of the Congress is the people’s business, and the people have a right to see it. All of it. Not just the parts the politicians care to show us.

The argument against C-SPAN’s request warns against TV broadcasters, with their thirst for “drama” and “conflict”, going too far, abusing their new privilege, and hyping the coverage with exaggerated shots, out-of-context moves, and who knows what else. The fear is that the completeness of the record and the dignity of the House will be compromised.

Please.

This is C-SPAN we’re talking about! The guys who salivate at the chance to televise four-hour subcommittee hearings, onerous think-tank presentations, and endless news conferences in their oppressive entirety, with all the “drama” of watching grass grow. Nobody plays it straighter. Or duller, frankly, but in this case, dull is a good thing.

C-SPAN can be relied upon to bring us the House as it really is. C-SPAN is independent, non-partisan, non-profit, and not concerned with ratings or dollars.

I also suspect the public trusts C-SPAN a lot more than any politician of any party.

Speaker Pelosi, I urge you to reconsider. Show us it really is a new day on Capitol Hill.

 

Caretaker?

 

Gerald Ford, a Republican Congressman from Grand Rapids, Michigan was House Minority Leader when President Richard Nixon chose him in 1973 to replace Vice President Spiro Agnew who had resigned in a bribery scandal. Ford became the 38th President of the United States in 1974 when Nixon resigned as a result of the Watergate scandal. Ford, the first un-elected VP and President, failed to win a term in his own right, losing to Jimmy Carter in 1976. Ford died on December 26, 2006. He was 93.

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Please don’t call him the “caretaker” President.

“Caretaker” conjures up an image of some mindless clockwatcher who shuffles through his daily chores and turns out the lights when he leaves.

This website has always been about words used by journalists, and, in my opinion, too many newspeople are playing follow-the-leader and putting the “caretaker” label on President Ford.

Sure, he wasn’t elected. He never even wanted the job. Maybe his administration had less than monumental achievements. But Gerald Ford did achieve something few U.S. Presidents have been able to do.

He took away the hurt.

I’m a lifelong Democrat. I voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976. But I was a fan of Gerald Ford, and I always will be.

Ford took office at the end of almost a decade of painful turmoil in this country that ripped us apart. Vietnam. Watergate. If you’re old enough to remember, you know exactly how it felt. If you’re a little younger, let me tell you. It was excruciating. Watching the daily news reports tracking the destruction and body counts from a war no one supported. Then the slow twisting of the Watergate knife, as the country came to the realization that its chief executive and many of the people around him were criminals besmirching the Presidency. The inexorable closing in, the committees, the Saturday Night Massacre, the Tapes, the Expletives Deleted, the Articles of Impeachment, the uncertainty… would he or won’t he?

And then he was gone. And Gerald Ford took the oath and said, “We’ve got a lot of work to do. Let’s get on with it.”

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You could almost hear the nation exhale. The long national nightmare was over!

All of a sudden, Mr. I-Am-Not-A-Crook gave way to the Anti-Crook. The Imperial Presidency dissolved. The Down-To-Earth President was here. The conniving Enemies List compiler was gone, replaced by a man who, in Bob Dole’s words, didn’t have any enemies!

Before he carried out a single Presidential act, people liked Gerald Ford. Not because of anything he’d done. Because of all the things we knew he would not do. That was enough. Decency had returned to the White House. And it felt good.

Sure, he pardoned Nixon, and some folks still can’t forgive him for that. I can. And I give him extra decency points for going up to Capitol Hill, and letting Congress grill him over that pardon. Can you imagine our current White House occupant doing that? Can you imagine the last White House occupant doing that, without a battery of lawyers advising him what “is”, is?

I have other memories. Watching him good-naturedly doing a bit on Saturday Night Live, the show that relentlessly ridiculed him. Or hearing him repeat the one line he maintained, all the years of his life, whenever the question was asked of him: “Betty and I have always been pro-choice.” He knew where his party stood. He didn’t care. The man was fearless and he told the truth. And then there was The Speech. Not the inaugural address everyone remembers. The acceptance speech at the 1976 Republican Convention, after fighting off a challenge by Mr. Charisma, Ronald Reagan. What a pleasant surprise! The guy dismissed as a plodding, flat speaker, coming out on top, and then giving ‘em rhetorical Hell (well, Heck, maybe) and the crowd loving it.

A couple more votes and he would have won in November, too.

He was a moral man who didn’t moralize. He didn’t preach at us, talk down to us, or ignore us. He never got high and mighty, and he stayed the same until the day he died.

And he respected the press.

Much more than a caretaker, Mr. Ford could be better compared to a first responder. The guy who sees you lying there, battered and bleeding, and tells you reassuringly, “Don’t worry. You’re going to be just fine.”

Rest in peace, sir. And thank you.

 

Chasing Cars: L.A.’s Love-Hate Relationship With Police Pursuits

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I work in a TV newsroom in Los Angeles. When our assignment desk gets word of a police pursuit, it’s as if a signal has been given to go into battle mode. The desk orders our helicopter to launch, while as many ground crews as possible scramble to track the pursuit and anticipate where it may end. Each time the pursuit suspect changes course, turns a corner, or circles back, the assignment editors bark out instructions to move the crews accordingly. In the next room, several recording decks begin taping the chase as soon as pictures are available.

We often break into normal programming to cover pursuits live, complete with special graphics, a police expert on the phone, and a general sense of urgency. If the chase happens to begin during a newscast, all previously written stories get thrown out, as coverage is focused on the pursuit, and nothing else.

Once the pursuit concludes, video of its final moments is replayed several times. L.A. stations also do a kind of macho dance with each other. None wants to be the last one to leave the chase, so usually, all of them stay on too long.

While all this goes on, two other things happen. Viewers bombard the assignment desk with phone calls, complaining (newswriters, PA’s and others are frequently pressed into service to handle the phones). And ratings skyrocket.

Obviously, ratings are why stations work so hard and spend so much money to cover chases. Live police pursuits are potentially powerful, even gripping television, played out on turf familiar to most Angelenos… our many miles of freeways. People relate to pursuits. They tune in. They call each other. They log onto special websites devoted to tracking chases and notifying subscribers when they happen. Pursuits get big numbers.

If only they were legitimate news.

With a few rare exceptions, there’s absolutely nothing newsworthy about a typical police pursuit of some yutz who steals a car, or who may be drunk, or who has an expired tag and failed to pull over. Viewers learn nothing and the story does not even remotely affect their lives. But since it’s live, and since it’s action, and since we have the technology, we put it on the air, and let folks watch it the way they watch NASCAR, hoping for a wreck. Meantime all the truly important stories of the day disappear, along with all the hard work (especially by us writers!) that went into them.

Now and then, some brave station managers have dared to set limits on chase coverage, or even banned pursuits entirely. But it never sticks. The ratings are too tempting.

Also, I’m afraid to say, there’s a new generation of producers out there who ignore the “News” part of “Breaking News.” As long as it’s happening right now, that’s good enough for them, whether it’s a chase, a war, or a party at the Playboy mansion.

The LAPD is gradually learning new tactics for cutting pursuits short. That will help somewhat. But the only real way to get pursuits off the air is to use the same weapon that got them on the air:

The ratings.

Station managers examine those numbers in obsessive detail, minute by minute. The moment they see ratings trend downward during chases, they will stop covering them.

So, bottom line, it’s up to all of us viewers. If we keep watching, that’s a guarantee of more of the same in the future.