Thursday, September 30, 2010

Don't Kill the Messenger -or- We miss you Walter Cronkite

      Talk about a love/hate relationship!  PR types LOVE the media when the stories they pitch get on the news.  I'll bet many of those same PR people HATE the media when their stories get ignored.  And these days, when it comes to hating the media, it seems that nearly everybody is doing it.  A new poll from Gallup reports that 57% of Americans have little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly.  And that, my friends, is an all-time record high.
     How did we ever reach this sorry (Fourth) Estate of affairs?  When I worked at CBS my mailbox was next to Walter Cronkite's.  What a thrill! (Okay, since we're talking about credibility here, Walter was long retired and I never even met him)  Anyway, Walter Cronkite was once considered the most-trusted man in America.  So what happened?
     Having spent a few years in the journalistic trenches I think I know what's going on.  Oh sure, social media is growing rapidly with anonymous people blogging anything they want- true or not.  But since most of us still get our news from television I think TV News is probably spawning the most media haters. The cable channel blowhards do a good job of polarizing our country.  Think O'Reilly vs Olbermann.  But as they say on TV: more on this story in a moment.  Here are some of the things people hate about TV News.  Trust me, people working in TV News know about this- but they can't stop themselves.

1) You watch an hour-long news program and they tease a story over and over.  Then the story comes up at the very end of the show and (don't blink) bam- it's over in 20 seconds.  The story is nothing.  No story should be shorter than the teases!  This really makes people mad.

2) Breaking News.  This just in: TV News viewers HATE it when you do Breaking News lead-ins to stories that happened hours ago.  You can always tell when you're watching faux breaking news because the report will include graphics, maps, and multiple live reporters.  It took them hours to get all this ready for air and viewers know it's not really breaking news.  If the accident wreckage is gone it is NOT breaking news.

3) Exclusive Reports.  How many times have you watched an EXCLUSIVE interview with the President on one network.  Twenty minutes later, the President is doing an interview on a different network: Yep, it's EXCLUSIVE! Please.

4) Fox News vs MSNBC: Just like the politicians, these two operations cater to their constituents.  Fox shills for conservatives.  MSNBC leans mightily to the left.  This isn't news.  It's entertainment. (see O'Reilly vs. Olbermann)  But the heat generated by all of the yelling has many Americans believing that you can't believe what anyone's saying.

5) Don't Kill The Messenger: Why some of this is YOUR FAULT.  You know when there's a big storm and the TV stations go wall-to-wall with non-stop weather coverage?

Anchor: Walt, is it still snowing there in Stormstown?

Walt: Yes, Roger, it's really coming down.  Let me get out my ruler and show you.  Three inches so far.  Let's check with my colleague, Ann WetFeet.  Ann, are you seeing snow there in Outyonder?

Ann: I lost my ruler but chief meteorologist Amy Sleetfinder tells me we have three AND a half inches in Outyonder!  Let's go back to Amy in the studio for the latest Stormchucker Radar Schtick!

Amy: Thanks Ann.  Nothing has changed in the past four hours.  But if you don't have to be out on the roads, for goodness sakes, stay home.....

      Yeah, we've all been there.
     What you don't see: In the newsroom the phones are ringing off the hoooook!  Angry viewers are calling in- demanding that we return to regular programming.  "I need Oprah NOW!!" 

      What you really don't see:  The next day we get our ratings report.  And the ratings are HUGE!- three times higher than anything Oprah can pull.  That's why it's YOUR FAULT.  If you stopped watching these endless weather reports the TV News guys would stop doing them.
     Most journalists try very hard to be objective, fair and accurate.  But in any line of work there are always some bad apples.  I was once assigned to work with a reporter who handed me a completed script before we even left the studio.  It included "responses" to interviews that hadn't taken place.  He planned to ask people to repeat what he'd written!  I killed the story and that reporter soon lost his job.  Kids, that's what really happens in journalism when you don't play by the rules.
    Believe it or not, I have never been asked to slant a story to reflect a specific viewpoint and I don't know of anyone who has.  Does it happen?  I'm sure it does.  But I certainly don't believe there's some big conspiracy.
     The media has a lot of faults- many self-inflicted.  So, how do we make people believe in the media again?  Maybe we need to ask ourselves- WWWD?  What would Walter Do?

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