Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The “dumbing-down” of television news

In many ways Don Henley's 1982 hit "Dirty Laundry" was too kind to my former profession.

We can do the innuendo
We can dance and sing
When it's said and done we haven't told you a thing
We all know that crap is king
Give us dirty laundry!

Gina Cobb offers a very thoughtful essay on the topic under the title "Most Newsreaders Are Like Katie Couric" in which she observes just how little thought, introspection, and analysis goes into the stories that are cranked out like sausage for the 24/7 TV news cycle.

I have done hundreds of media interviews, and met many reporters and newsreaders. Honestly, most of them are like Katie Couric.

If it seems that they know little about their subject matter, or they are superficial, it's because they are. They don't have to know anything in great depth. Mainly they have to be very engaging on camera.

They only have to know a little more than the average person, and they must be extremely articulate and smooth in delivery. They have very little airtime. When you subtract the time they spend reading straight from tele-prompters, cut-aways to other reporters, and commercial breaks, the newsreader spends very little time in substantive discussions where they have to think about the topic at hand.

An interesting thing about the depth of knowledge is that it diminishes with each step up the food chain. The anchors who read the stories usually have little or nothing to do with the content except to read the final copy in front of a camera. The street reporters (local) or producers (network) who actually gather, write, and edit the video and audio do not have the time (even if they have the inclination) to learn more than absolutely necessary about the topic du jour. When I worked as a street reporter in the 1980s and '90s, I was often able to spend a whole day on one or two stories. That allowed time to gather additional background information that I found useful in providing context as I put together a story for the evening news. Even so, one can only tell so much in a minute and a half.

Near the end of my broadcast career, the story count increased to five or six stories a day, as well as rewrites for the growing number of newscasts, making it difficult to conduct any kind of background research. The increased work load was no picnic, but the final straw that resulted in my changing careers was the comment by a new station manager who called the entire news staff together and announced, "It's not news, it's entertainment." And he meant it. More regrettably, he was right about the fate of an industry I once loved.

On that note, here's a clip of the former Eagle singing his first solo hit during a 1989 concert: