Thursday, July 28, 2011

22 Minutes of Your Life You’ll Never Get Back. Nightly.

Prior to founding my own firm, I used to travel frequently on business. Each morning in the hotel room, I’d turn on the TV to catch the local news. I was appalled. Not only was I trapped in look-alike airports and look-alike hotel rooms, the local news programs were also look-alike/sound-alike. Dallas. Cleveland. Minneapolis. Perky airheads gleefully bringing us the latest murders, uncritically reporting on whatever some local politician said, making sure the reporters’ faces were on camera as much as the persons being interviewed. With that description, I am compelled to add Indianapolis to the list.

Soon, I had to give it up. I wanted to be a good sport and learn something about the city I was in. But, after trying to scream and brush my teeth at the same time. I had to skip Trixie and Skippy on Local News Watch (not exactly) and turn on CNN when, in its pre-Nancy Grease-Lou Dobbs-Glenn Beck days, it provided at least a modicum of real news.

Being old enough to remember decades’ worth of people, events, and causes and effects could be considered good news/bad news. It’s good in that it earns one perspective; it’s bad news in that it is even more reason to yell at TV reporters and anchors who do not share my passions: a sense of history and a sense of perspective.

Local TV news wasn’t always bad. It’s only been that way for the past 40 years.

While, to be fair, I can recall the incredibly rare reporter or anchor who startled you with his/her adherence to news coverage, I am more likely to remember the 15-minute nightly TV news shows on the Ft. Wayne stations that featured people who were not selected for their perfect haircuts or Botoxed smiles. The old guys (and they were all guys) not only read the news, sometimes looking down at the typewritten pages in front of them, they actually understood the content of what they were reading and could have, if asked, been able to hold a lengthy discussion on where that particular news story fit into the spectrum of events. We shared a passion for news.

They understood that history and the reporting of it (after all, “breaking news” is merely today’s tiny footnote to “history”) is on a continuum. The story of the night might well be part of a trend, the effect of some causes from days or decades or ages ago, and the same stories were likely to come around again and again before their careers were over. And the newscasters understood that.

Often, there were editorials, where one of the staff read a statement, giving the TV station’s opinion on a topic of local, state, national, or even international interest. Sometimes, the station lost advertisers. It wasn’t necessarily bold or brave, but it did take a stand, after an investigation of the facts. And, I don’t ever recall seeing a retraction. It had been investigated, it was determined that this would be the side chosen, and on the air it went.

While murders, fires, accidents, and other human tragedies were reported, they did not consume the news. Other more important stories and their impact on us all – actual news – lead off most broadcasts.

Today, those old newscasters would not recognize the local news. First of all, nobody loves a murder like a TV reporter, anchor, or news director. Easy reporting. Nothing incisive, nothing investigative, just standing breathlessly at the edge of the police tape, interviewing those who want their 15 seconds of fame, unable to resist the vulgar, “How does that make you feel?” If I walk into the room when the newscast has already begun on one of our local stations, I know it’s some delicious tragedy, by the stance of a particular reporter. Bent over, his shoulders curved inwards, his hands held reverently, barely able to grasp his microphone, he assumes the position of a supplicant returning to his pew from the communion rail.

One huge elephant in the room, as we like to say these days: Guns. No one questions the use of guns, even though guns made the murders possible. No one asks “Why?” It’s as if guns were some benign, some innocent catalyst in the process, not at all aiding and abetting the killing of family members or random multiple murders at a public place.

No time for such analysis, but too frequently on the short newscast we get the banal, scripted, and rehearsed “ad lib” comments between anchors, weather reporters, and sports reporters. And the head shaking and unwanted, unnecessary comments by the anchor after the bloody story has been reported. (“What a tragedy” or “Terrible, isn’t it, Skippy”) Just once, as long as we’re getting their opinion, could we hear, “We gotta get rid of guns.”

We need TV reporters, editors, newscasters, and anchors who are educated. They need to know history. Trends. What causes effects. Basic stuff. Critical stuff. Then, they need to be objective, determined to bring us real news, digging into a story to find out what really happened, not use only a politician’s press release or be carried away by a horrible vehicle accident or shooting, feeding on misery, giving over most of every broadcast to a litany of tragedies, avoiding the job of covering the need-to-know, unreported stuff that is – drum roll here -- news.

When an elected or appointed official makes a statement, wouldn’t it be nice if the news team would put it in perspective, report on what’s bound to happen, based on what’s happened in the past, along with a healthy dose of common sense. The anchors should read copy that is the result of the reporter asking a lot of hard questions. And follow-up questions. And, if the question was ignored, the reporter would have said, “Let me ask you that again, since you didn’t answer it.” Explore, learn, and then share with us the underlying causes, not the veneer that does not inform.

I want the TV anchors and other on-air “personalities” to stop being personalities. I want them to stop being cover stories in local publications, emcees at community events, guests of honor. They think they are the story. Their predecessors knew they were the messengers. We didn’t cover this in my Journalism and Ethics class. Because, with barely an exception, it didn’t exist.

On the other hand, have you ever seen a local TV newscaster appear on a public panel to discuss important issues of the day? That’s what we want. But, I’m afraid it won’t happen, as they don’t know the background, those cause-and-effect factors, the history. Speaking about complex economic, political, social issues is so damned hard. Murders, fires, car wrecks? Not so much.

Trying to get coverage for a deserving event a few years ago, I asked the TV assignment editor, “Do you want a body?” He laughed. I didn't. I went on, “Well, I know if I could guarantee you a body, you’d send someone.” Of course, no one came. But, I’m sure blood and guts from somewhere else in Indy flew off the Teleprompter that night.

If I were in charge, I’d hire majors in history, psychology, human behavior, geography, political science. And take them on a rugged training course in investigating, doggedly pursuing the story, putting it in perspective, resulting in an objective reporting of events. Then, in the remainder of that 22 minutes or so, subtracting time for we’re-all-going-to-die! weather reporting and much more sports than necessary, I’d squeeze in a recitation of the latest tragedies, if they could be somehow proven newsworthy, followed by an announcement of that day’s body count in Indianapolis from guns and the total, to date, for the year. Then, most nights, an editorial on something not necessarily related to that day’s coverage.

And they wouldn’t come on the air two or three times earlier in the evening, teasing us with some top stories, but not telling us what the story is – “Learn what top state official has been fired by the governor. And why. Stayed tuned for the eleven o’clock news.” No! Give me the name now. Will learning the name at 9 p.m. mean I won’t bother to watch at 11?

Let it start in Indianapolis. And let it spread across the land. And, business travelers and tourists can, once again, turn on the local TV news and brush their teeth at the same time.

News. A great concept. It could, once again, be a great practice.

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