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...GE had long done business with the bin Ladens. In a misguided attempt at corporate synergy, I called GE headquarters...
December 31, 2007 1:31 PM   Subscribe

"You Don't Understand Our Audience" --what John Hockenberry (formerly of NBC, now at MIT Media Lab) learned about network news--good guys and bad guys, the "emotional center", synergy, facts, and why fewer and fewer watch nowadays.
posted by amberglow (65 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite

 
Very interesting article, well worth reading the whole way through (even though it's long.)
posted by jdfalk at 1:49 PM on December 31, 2007


In 2003, I was told that a story on the emergence from prison of a former member of the Weather Underground, whose son had graduated from Yale University and won a Rhodes Scholarship, would not fly unless it dovetailed with a story line on a then-struggling, soon-to-be-cancelled, and now-forgotten Sunday-night drama called American Dreams, which was set in the 1960s. I was told that the Weather Underground story might be viable if American Dreams did an episode on "protesters or something."
posted by drezdn at 1:50 PM on December 31, 2007 [2 favorites]


Wonderful read, and indeed well worth reading for the insights about Maoism and GE, and GE's connections with the Bin Laden family and how that affected NBC's news coverage. Thanks, amberglow.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:51 PM on December 31, 2007


This was one in a series of lessons I learned about how television news had lost its most basic journalistic instincts in its search for the audience-driven sweet spot, the "emotional center" of the American people. Gone was the mission of using technology to veer out onto the edge of American understanding in order to introduce something fundamentally new into the national debate.

"Gone"? This article is interesting for the anecdotes, but the author's emotional journey seems to be from "newbie fully flushed with myths about television journalism" to "veteran who sees that his myths are not true, but believes with all his heart that they once happened. Really they did."

Yes Virginia, there were once network executives who valued informed social discourse over ratings.
posted by tkolar at 1:52 PM on December 31, 2007


"veteran who sees that his myths are not true, but believes with all his heart that they once happened. Really they did."

Actually, they did, once upon a time--decades ago--see Murrow and Cronkite, and the era when News Divisions weren't folded into larger "Entertainment" or "Sports" divisions of networks, and before the consolidation/mergers/etc.

Network News actually was once a money-losing but extremely valuable public service on the public airwaves -- for the public.
posted by amberglow at 1:57 PM on December 31, 2007 [2 favorites]


Thank the sweet FSM for the internet, that's all I have to say about journalism in the 21st century.
posted by mullingitover at 2:00 PM on December 31, 2007 [2 favorites]


Yeah, er, bleh. For working in a Media Lab, he still doesn't seem to understand how the "network news entertainment" system works. I appreciate the ideals and the wanting-to-tell-the-story, but all anecdotes he gave regarding his segments being poorly reviewed by his producer -- well, er, in my old TV training, our producer would have reviewed them poorly too. While the pendulum can and has swung way too far to simple "Celebrity drama", the lessons of broadcast journalism over the past >40 years says that you cannot simply provide facts -- you must connect them to the audience. While I agree with the premise that mass media is dumbed down to reach the highest amount of eyeballs, I do not agree with the premise that his producers were asking him to dumb down his stories. They were asking him to work with their practiced archetypes and connect the story to the audience. He assumes that since he gets the horror of the inmate being restrained, everyone will get it, and that's a fallacy. The newstelling, the story telling, is about connecting you to the incident and then providing you the facts. Am I saying that an inmate being killed in an asylum is not an immediate get? Sure, you, me, maybe everyone here reading this. But thinking about the guy out there watching the TV, was the visual narrative clear? We don't know, because we didn't see the video, just his written account.

The internet is really neat. We all have a much louder voice then we used to have. Should the networks adapt? They sure should! But these anecdotes all struck me of someone too immature or resistant to learning his hired "trade", and not as much of an idealistic Murrow-junior.
posted by cavalier at 2:04 PM on December 31, 2007 [2 favorites]


And before anyone lights my teeth on fire, do I wish for an entertainment-free money losing news division? One completely cut off from the profit motive and provided simply as a public service? One that is vicious and relentless in its pursuit of the truth and justice and all that is lacking from network news?

You bet your ass I do.

I just don't like someone campaigning against "news entertainment" and saying that is why the news isn't what I wrote above. It's that nasty for-profit part...
posted by cavalier at 2:06 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


very related--FCC and the new loosening of ownership restrictions--“The law does not say we are to serve those who seek to profit by using the public airwaves … the law says we are to serve the public interest.”
posted by amberglow at 2:13 PM on December 31, 2007


Reminds me of the time two years ago when a local Philly anchor (since retired) yelled at me for putting the phrase "U.S. occupation" in the script for an Iraq story.

"Wer'e not 'occuppying' their country. We're there to save them."

Fucking jackass coward.

Of course the phrase was removed before air.

And yes, it was Marc Howard.
posted by wfc123 at 2:18 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


I worked - briefly - as a contractor at GE, and it still holds the record as the weirdest place I've ever been, professionally. His Six Sigma comments are dead on.
posted by jquinby at 2:19 PM on December 31, 2007


he still doesn't seem to understand how the "network news entertainment" system works.

Isn't that the whole point? Why is it "network news entertainment" now? Why not just "network news"? Why did it change so much and so much for the worse? Why isn't news still the public service over the public airwaves it was mandated to be? And why is that ok? Why is how it is now acceptable? And should it continue to not inform or misinform us as it is now?

It isn't "working" now at all--whether to inform or to make profit.
posted by amberglow at 2:20 PM on December 31, 2007


Actually, they did, once upon a time--decades ago--see Murrow and Cronkite, and the era when News Divisions weren't folded into larger "Entertainment" or "Sports" divisions of networks, and before the consolidation/mergers/etc.

One thing to remember, at the time broadcasters were required by the to do some "public interest". So the profit really wasn't the point. I'm sure I'm simplifying a bit.

Wonderful read, and indeed well worth reading for the insights about Maoism and GE

Heh. I have a friend who's studying "Six Sigma" right now. I'll have to share the story with her, although she'll probably get offended :P
posted by delmoi at 2:51 PM on December 31, 2007


Back in the mid-70s I worked for WNGE-TV (once WSIX and now WKRN-TV) in Nashville, as a broadcast engineer. In a union shop, I was a non-union "management" employee, on the Engineering staff, licensed to run transmitters, and taught to do most everything you can do in broadcasting, in case of union work actions or strikes. And I did it all, from working at the TV, FM and AM transmitter sites, to pushing studio cameras around, to working Master Control, to equipment maintenance, to carrying a 16mm film camera home in the evenings to be "on call" for overnight news film on the west side of Nashville, to doing community service projects like working with surrounding utility companies to reduce powerline interference to our signals.

In 1973, I had a conversation with our General Manager, Charlie Duke, about a year after GE invested a ton of money in engineering a channel swap between us and the educational station in the area (to improve our coverage in the hilly areas north of Nashville, by dropping our signal from Channel 8 to Channel 2), and changed our call letters to WNGE. We were talking about local news, and what the coming Electronic News Gathering (ENG) technology revolution would mean.

"News is a losing proposition. Always has been, and probably, always will be." said Charlie. "We do it because people expect us to, and because it's part of our license obligation, in practical terms of community service, according to the FCC."

"We'll spend a lot of money, eventually, on ENG, and we may never re-coup that expenditure, directly, much less turn a profit on it, because, soon, everybody will have to be doing ENG, to remain competitive in local news. It will become the expectation of the audience. What I worry about, given the time compression to air that ENG involves, is the effect on standards and practices."

"Here's what I mean." he continued, pausing to relight one of the 20 cigars a day his doctor forbade him. "Now, we have a 4:30 working deadline for state capital news, when the legislators are around. That's because it takes 20 minutes to drive film out from the Capitol to our studios, develop the film, and get it, wet, on the film chain for broadcast. So, any state representative with a brain, that wants the face time, has to come out on the Capitol steps by 4:00 p.m. for interviews. Generally, that's well before the end of the legislative day, and some vote he's involved in probably isn't certain. So, he smiles, and speaks in general terms, to let his constituents know he's on the job, but the flow of events doesn't make it in his interest to let his hair down."

Charlie rocked back in his leather chair and said "With ENG, all that statesmanship evaporates. At 6:15, he can dash out, breathless, for a "live" shot, straight from the committee vote. It'll be dramatic, it might even be more up to date, but will it be better news, if every Tennessee politician starts playing to the folks back home, because we let him?"

Charlie was right, I think. He foresaw that our news editors would become "news producers" and that editorial judgement would be shoved aside in favor of technological speed. And he saw that audience manipulation would result. He was unsure that audiences would become sophisticated enough, soon enough, that they'd recognize when they were having their legs pulled, but that's what he thought would happen, over time. And it was, he thought, the only counterbalance to the abdication of editorial responsibility ENG demanded. Because, as he understood, an editorial process requires time for judgement and action. You can't be an editor at faster than the speed of sober human thought. And you can really support journalism, outside of editorial process.

But what Charlie didn't see, what GE didn't see, is that TV audiences would, instead, just become cynical, and stop watching, which is what they've done. Fewer and fewer people watch TV "news" simply because it's a lot less news for the time involved, these days.

Hockenberry's revelations, GPS activated confetti cannons for empathy upgrades notwithstanding, are nothing new, as news.

No film, anymore, at 11.
posted by paulsc at 2:56 PM on December 31, 2007 [25 favorites]


Correction: "you can can't really support journalism, outside of editorial process."
posted by paulsc at 3:21 PM on December 31, 2007


Nice article. Nothing that I didn't really already know about the rotting corpse that is network news but Hockenberry is a good writer and it was a good read. The thing that I don't understand is why the networks seem to have given up on getting anyone younger than seventy to watch their programs. You can always tell who a program is aimed at by the advertising that they run and nightly news program commercials are all about Depends and restless leg syndrome. Aren't they afraid that their audience only has a few years left to live?
posted by octothorpe at 3:35 PM on December 31, 2007


The thing that I don't understand is why the networks seem to have given up on getting anyone younger than seventy to watch their programs.

Because every previous attempt has failed and all research shows younger audiences fail to indicate any interest. ... ?

I find it funny (funny strange, not funny ha-ha) that people seem to think the news was dumbed down first, audience second. As if network executives simply can't or won't do good research on what the audience wants to see and just shovels out crap in hope that something sticks.

Television (including network news) is the way it is because it's market-tested, researched and calculated within an inch of its life, and that what gets aired. It's a meritocracy, where merit = audience size and advertising dollars. It's not even a very good meritocracy, either -- witness the annual crop of canceled shows.

No amount of hand-wringing will change that. No amount of pining for the days of Murrow will change it, either, because even those days didn't exist -- even Murrow had to do a show of celebrity interviews called Person to Person to pay the bills.

That's why I thank the internets for lowering the barrier to media entry, making that meritocracy race a little more easier to join.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:04 PM on December 31, 2007 [2 favorites]


The thing that I don't understand is why the networks seem to have given up on getting anyone younger than seventy to watch their programs. You can always tell who a program is aimed at by the advertising that they run and nightly news program commercials are all about Depends and restless leg syndrome. Aren't they afraid that their audience only has a few years left to live?

Siiiiigh. It sure is tough being a 70+ yr. old mefite.
posted by notreally at 4:09 PM on December 31, 2007 [2 favorites]


I tuned out from network news way before I tuned out from networks. Great article.
posted by furtive at 4:23 PM on December 31, 2007


That's OK, notreally, you'll only be around here a few more years.

(Just kidding. I kinda wish I could get my septuagenarian mother on here but I suspect we've all seen as many Colbert Report links as we can already handle, and I'm not really sure I want to explain to her that when people tell her she "deserves a glassin'" that it's really a term of endearment. Plus I'm on the fence about wanting to learn if she has any stories of working as a stripper in Yorkshire.)
posted by maxwelton at 5:01 PM on December 31, 2007


No amount of hand-wringing will change that. No amount of pining for the days of Murrow will change it, either, because even those days didn't exist -- even Murrow had to do a show of celebrity interviews called Person to Person to pay the bills.

Except that Person to Person was not the Nightly News, nor was it See It Now--they weren't the same thing. And even Person to Person showed political and other figures often, and not just celebs. It was not the equivalent of the Barbara Walters celeb specials.

The Evening News was always separate from Celeb News, Documentaries, and Entertainment Tonight--and separate from the concerns of those other programs and genres. It was part of the network's mandate and justified their control of the still-limited airwaves.

Those who are not seniors and want news go elsewhere than both the Network News and elsewhere from Cable News too--for all their market testing and research, they're all failing and declining.
posted by amberglow at 5:05 PM on December 31, 2007


Fortunately, there are people who still make quality educational content.
posted by b1tr0t at 5:59 PM on December 31, 2007


Thanks for this. It was an insightful read in a few ways.
posted by cmgonzalez at 6:27 PM on December 31, 2007


My father often compares network news to Buicks: their customers are all dying off, and they're not even bothering to try and find newer, younger ones.
posted by Rangeboy at 6:37 PM on December 31, 2007 [2 favorites]


This was a great article. Thanks amberglow.
posted by blacklite at 8:15 PM on December 31, 2007


I thought this was a good piece. Obviously nothing new-new, but just another depressing confirmation of what we already know. If Hockenberry started in 1993, he did indeed witness a startling decline in what it means to be a newsman today, and moving from correspondent to Dateline is about as clear a shorthand for that as anything. (If you want to know where his idealism comes from, it was probably his 15 years spent with NPR before moving to NBC.)

The conversations with superiors were strikingly reminiscent of bits of The Newsroom and Broadcast News The latter is one of my favorite movies, and recently rewatching it after several years, I was struck by how dated it had suddenly become. The edgy quasi-satire it engaged in regarding the changes in TV news during the 1980s -- which were directly based on the 1984 CBS layoffs -- seemed merely descriptive of what it had become today. The film, quite interestingly, never mentions cable at all. The central moral question in the film (well, aside from the love triangle) is whether it's OK to add a reporter's emotions to the story being told (and to use camera tricks to present it). As Hockenberry's piece shows, that's professional practice now. Even straightforward news magazine pieces such as Dateline (and better) use reality-show editing to "engage" the viewer in the piece.

So maybe Hockenberry is no longer with the times in his chosen profession. I don't think he's wrong to wish for it to be something better. Are we ripping people for that now?
posted by dhartung at 8:58 PM on December 31, 2007 [2 favorites]


Those who are not seniors and want news go elsewhere than both the Network News and elsewhere from Cable News too--for all their market testing and research, they're all failing and declining.

Except that the number of seniors in the U.S. is going up, not down ...
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:18 PM on December 31, 2007


in ten years, this is going to be true of print as well. I watched network the other night, was shocked how prescient it was, and realized the picture it paints is exactly contemporary with print news. The press has been protected from the profit motive for hundreds of years. The web has changed that in five.
posted by bonaldi at 9:35 PM on December 31, 2007


What people seem to be begging for is for the networks to produce a money-losing program via an extraordinarily expensive medium -- broadcast television -- because it's a public service / "the right thing to do" / whatever. It's not going to happen. You can't force that sort of behavior.

Even if you got someone into the FCC who would really beat the networks with a stick and force them to spend loads of money on network news, nobody wants to watch it; at least, 'nobody' relative to the number of people who apparently want nothing but celeb updates and light human-interest stories. All you'd succeed in doing is driving the networks into the ground faster (which may be a good thing, in general, but it's sort of beside the point) and probably give a boost to cable TV and other media that produce programs that viewers actually want to watch.

It was feasible to force the networks to produce quality news programs when they had no competition, and the viewing public had few alternatives: it just became part of the cost of running a major network, and life went on, and the public watched it because there wasn't much else on. But I don't think it's coincidental that 'network news' has declined basically in proportion to the rise of cable TV, which is the major mass-market alternative to the broadcast networks. As soon as an alternative existed, people stopped watching network news, and its unprofitability became painfully apparent.

We can't go back to the good old days; they're done. Particularly with the Internet, even if you forced all of the broadcast and all of the cable networks to air a 'quality' news program, viewers could just ignore it in favor of something more interesting (like, say, "Dick in a Box" or cats flushing toilets).

If the last 20 years have proven anything, it's that viewers don't care about "quality" news programs in the style of the old network 'evening news,' and the market has delivered (or attempts to deliver, and does about the best that it can) exactly what most people prefer. You want celeb gossip, all the time? Fine, you've got it. You want mindless reinforcement for your political beliefs? Done and done. You want some humor to numb the cynical, rotting core of your soul? No problem.

The coming trend is more of this: the barrier to entry to deliver media to viewers is getting lower all the time, and that means more competition for the same number of eyeballs. If you're producing content that nobody wants to watch, it's not going to get watched -- it doesn't matter if you have the FCC or anybody else on your side. That sort of top-down control isn't feasible anymore.

If you want high-quality news programming in the 21st century, you have to figure out how to convince a lot of people that it's worth watching, so that it can be paid for via some revenue model or another (advertising, subscriptions, NPR-esque panhandling).* And that sort of thing isn't cheap.

Network news is a joke, and it's only going to get more ridiculous as more and more of its remaining audience dies, and the rest move off to narrowcasted media or special-interest channels. The majority of the population has no interest in sitting down together and watching a single (or one of a handful of) national news program. The only reason they ever did was because it was technologically and economically infeasible to offer the plethora of head-nodding ideological yes-men that they've always wanted. Now, technology has caught up, and we're getting everything we ever wanted.

* The only alternative that I can see would be a BBC-style outlet, funded entirely by taxes and not beholden to profit motives at all -- an absolute non-starter with the U.S. public.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:08 AM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


In some ways Six Sigma is kind of like Maoism, with all the self-examination and self-censure. Except for the motivational structure - if you were a .999998 you got shot.

Hmmm... I wonder if this somehow explains why so many of the premiers and other high-ranking officials in the Soviet Union had been engineers...
posted by XMLicious at 12:12 AM on January 1, 2008


Adam Curtis recently presented his own tongue-in-cheek take on The Rise and Fall of the TV Journalist.
posted by Olli at 4:10 AM on January 1, 2008


In some ways Six Sigma is kind of like Maoism, with all the self-examination and self-censure

The first time that I stepped into the offices of GE (over here in India), and heard about their Six Sigma Standards during the first introductory session that they hold, where every senior member of the board comes into the room and tells you how lucky you are to be a part of the GE family--I felt like I was being brainwashed or something.

Of course, the Six Sigma rating is only on the engines of their aircraft that they build; I doubt they'd ever be able to achieve that kind of standard on the call centres that they run here (but they do try their best).

On a completely different note, I did like the atmosphere that they provided--very professional, with bright young people, and the best of modern amenities--but I just couldn't reconcile myself to the fact that, this organization, which was claiming to be this wonderful, ethically responsible (charity driven) construct, was essentially involved in credit--something that I felt was only trapping people in an endless cycle of debt.
posted by hadjiboy at 4:27 AM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


Thanks for the wonderful article, amberglow!
posted by hadjiboy at 4:28 AM on January 1, 2008


viewers don't care about "quality" news programs in the style of the old network 'evening news,' and the market has delivered (or attempts to deliver, and does about the best that it can) exactly what most people prefer.

If that's true, why is no one watching? Speaking only for myself, I don't watch it because it's an infuriating mix of irrelevant celebrity pap and corporate propaganda that either completely ignores anything important, or misrepresents it.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:18 AM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


An excellent article—thanks for the post.

I came into the thread expecting a slew of snarky "Yawn, we know all this, who does he think he is, he's a sucker/idealist/hypocrite, who cares about TV news anyway," and was pleasantly surprised to see so little of it.
posted by languagehat at 5:42 AM on January 1, 2008


Dateline is hardly a paragon of news. I think anyone with even a scintilla of journalism ethics would be disgusted by that tripe.

As for tv news, you can still get the real thing on the Newshour. It doesn't reach as many eyeballs as the networks, and even they got caught up in the "war on terror" in the days after 9/11, but it's a more honest network news than anything else on broadcast tv.
posted by caddis at 6:55 AM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


Wonderful read. Thanks, Amberglow. Hockenberry has always been a favorite of mine.

Really, though, get rid of the GE-specific details and it pretty-much reads true for a lot of industries/businesses/professions today. THe great rush toward mediocrity.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:40 AM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


What people seem to be begging for is for the networks to produce a money-losing program via an extraordinarily expensive medium -- broadcast television -- because it's a public service / "the right thing to do" / whatever. It's not going to happen. You can't force that sort of behavior.
Except we're not begging, and it's actually part of their own responsibility for controlling the public airwaves. It's in the contract--explicitly. And most of remember when network news was actually full of real news. And it's not money-losing for them at all, because the morning "news" shows are extraordinarily profitable, as are most of their other shows overall, like soaps and reality garbage--and even their latenight talk shows.

They don't have the public airwaves because they deserve profit every minute or hour. Profit has nothing to do with their control of our limited airwaves. They have no reason to exist unless they have at least some programming that serves the public. At all.

And there are many regulations about programming--see kid's shows, for instance. Networks either have to play by the rules or give back the airwaves. They can't just do whatever they want. And if we fine them millions for a boob slip by Janet Jackson or for a curse on-air, they can certainly afford to actually fulfill their public mandate. They actually do show things as a public service--see their "minority" half hours in the early mornings for instance. Should those disappear too? Or be all tabloided up too?
posted by amberglow at 7:46 AM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


* The only alternative that I can see would be a BBC-style outlet, funded entirely by taxes and not beholden to profit motives at all -- an absolute non-starter with the U.S. public.

We already have that--and it's called PBS. All networks tho, have an explicit responsibility that didn't disappear when cable and satellite started.
posted by amberglow at 7:49 AM on January 1, 2008


Slight aside: someone pointed out to me recently that the CBC, despite its left-leaning bias, still consistently produces more thoughtful and informative news coverage than any other Canadian news source (CTV, Global etc.). And yes, the CBC is taxpayer-funded. If it were ever to close shop -- as Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his ilk would no doubt like to see happen -- then Canadian news coverage would drop to the standard in the U.S. Watching CNN go through that recent cycle of cheerleading for war with Iran, as if Iraq had never happened and nothing had been learned, made me very glad to have a publicly funded news source in my country.
posted by spoobnooble at 8:40 AM on January 1, 2008


"from nearly six tons of raw material and nine hundred man hours later, here are the results: some 12 ounces of pure industrial-strength calcium. This is then stored in an underground lead chamber, to provent the possibility of helvetica"

"the scientists use interrogative statements to the intelligent calcium through the REMS"

wow. Thanks b1tr0t. Thanks to you, I am reaching new heights of learning.
posted by honest knave at 9:47 AM on January 1, 2008


amberglow: "Why is it "network news entertainment" now? Why not just "network news"?"

For the same reason they call Velveeta 'pasteurized process cheese product' and not just 'cheese.' Cuz it ain't.

Honestly though, this is nothing new. This is why Orson Welles made Citizen Kane. William Randolph Hearst was running a practical monopoly of news media in America, and nothing was stopping him. Nothing could. He was too powerful. So Orson Welles played court jester to Hearst's kingdom, and got metaphorically thrown in the dungeon for it.

People have placed Murrow and Cronkite on pedestals, and perhaps that is with some legitimacy, but both gentlemen were showmen. They weren't gods. Their job was to bring the news to the public. They weren't charlatans, but they weren't heroes.

They were just very talented. They had those forceful voices and a commanding presence. Let's face it: the camera loved those guys. A lot of that had to do with how much the people behind the camera loved those guys too, and how hard they'd work at making them look so good.

Metaphor Alert: It's always been about presenting the meal moreso than insuring its nutrition value. The thing is though, until recently it was the job of news networks to be metaphorical gourmets at their craft. Master chefs with the knowledge of current events as their meat & potatoes, to serve to the masses with exquisite preparation, appropriate spice, and presentation.

Since the Telecommunications Act of 1996, it's been more like serving fast food and junk food. Heap on the sugars and fats, throw them at the dollar menu, make sure they keep coming back for more. It's marketing. It's about making this quarter's bottom line more successful than last quarter's. It's not about informing the public. That's actually an obstacle to their goal. Why would rich people want to tell poor people what they're doing to them?

They don't want the public informed. You crazy? Then we'd know what's being done to us and our rights and priviledges as civilized human beings.

We've grown soft. We take our rights for granted, and the people in power want more power. What better way to do that than take power away from those who don't even know they have it, and could care less one way or the other? Don't know what you got till it's gone, when you don't have a decent news media, aka "The Fifth Estate," telling you what you're losing.

And let's be fair. Sometimes that does get reported, but who wants a lame ass salad from McDonalds when you got burgers and shakes staring you in the face? The American people are as much to blame for all this as the powerhungry rich assholes concentrating media ownership into the possession of selective Have-Mores.

We're letting this happen. We're doing nothing to stop it. We're only getting what we deserve.
posted by ZachsMind at 10:34 AM on January 1, 2008


I just want to pop in here and apologize for being real loose with my quote marks and generally misdirecting my criticism. My issue with the article - which I'm glad to have read - is that there were two different ideals being discussed. He stated more or less that the Entertainment-News system made banal, low brow news a priority, and I agree with that and wish it to go up in smoke. But he then used personal anecdotes, and all 3 of them struck me as valid criticism of his work regardless of it being an entertainment-news system. Gah, trying again.

It's like I say to you, hey, these guys are corporate whores and want nothing to do with the real truth. Then I tell you I tried to tell the really real truth, but I left out the basic story telling premise of building a connection and a need to know with the audience. So then I tell you that they want nothing to do with the real truth. Well, maybe they don't, but my anecdote didn't tell you that, it told you that I had a hard time putting the information I wanted to put out in the format they wanted it put out in.

Like the Stone Phillips anecdote was a better item -- you immediately got the sense of a network news anchor more concerned with being solid then with utilizing the new technology to interact. And that's a valid criticism -- he's still looking for Dan Rather's job, while the author is looking for someone to utilize the new tech to interface more directly with the audience.
posted by cavalier at 10:42 AM on January 1, 2008


why is no one watching? Speaking only for myself, I don't watch it because it's an infuriating mix of irrelevant celebrity pap and corporate propaganda that either completely ignores anything important, or misrepresents it.

Here are the top twenty rated shows for this TV season through December 9. You'll notice the presence of a single news show.

One argument is that if news was just higher quality, it would compete successfully for places on this list.

Another argument is that very few people give a crap about news.

1. Dancing with the Stars (ABC)
2. CSI (CBS)
3. Desperate Housewives (ABC)
4. Grey's Anatomy (ABC)
5. Dancing with the Stars Results (ABC)
6. House, M.D. (FOX)
7. NCIS (CBS)
8. Sunday Night Football (NBC)
9. CSI: Miami (CBS)
10. Criminal Minds (CBS)
11. Without a Trace (CBS)
12. Survivor China (CBS)
13. Two and a Half Men (CBS)
14. 60 Minutes (CBS)
15. CSI: NY (CBS)
16. Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (ABC)
17. Cold Case (CBS)
18. Samantha Who? (ABC)
19. Brothers & Sisters (ABC)
20. Heroes (NBC)
posted by tkolar at 10:45 AM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


We're letting this happen. We're doing nothing to stop it. We're only getting what we deserve.

I'm MAD AS HECK!!! And I'm not going to take it anymore!!!

(ow even caps letters hurt this morning)
posted by cavalier at 10:49 AM on January 1, 2008


Oh, this was so depressing.

Cavalier, you aren't right. I personally remember a time when the news media really did news -- right in front of us -- they really took "ethics" and "significance" seriously. There was a ten-year period where the media literally stopped a war and brought down a President. That's why we're so sad that they've been prevented from ever doing that again.

The level of crassness displayed in those articles is appalling. How can these people look themselves in the face in the mirror?

On another note, the idea of using "six sigma" on broadcasting of all things is so suboptimal it's close to crazy. Six sigma is a technique developed to reduce manufacturing defects to a small number of parts per million by reducing variance and tolerances in your manufacturing processes. It only works when there are specific, relentlessly objective measurables that you're trying to continuously improve ("99.9999% of these items are 0.1m long within +/-0.01mm")-- you can't possibly use it on something like broadcasting!
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:01 PM on January 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


very few people give a crap about news.
This is the thing. People don't give a crap about news. But they do give a crap about living in a society with all the benefits of a strong and free press: oversight of politicians, the powerful and the rich, exposure of corruption, publicization of wrongs etc.

It's just like they want a livable planet, but don't give a crap about recycling, I guess. Or they want decent politicians, but don't give a crap about voting. Or they want to be thin, but don't give a crap about exercising. In the end, nobody gets what they really want.
posted by bonaldi at 2:51 PM on January 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


Cavalier, I don't think it's *possible* to leave out the basic story-telling premise of a story in which you have a mentally ill inmate killed on tape by guards. Well, maybe possible, but not by anyone who worked at that show for as long as Hockenberry did.

Take the Martin Lee Anderson boot-camp death. The video is online but it is not especially dramatic-- certainly not Rodney King dramatic. But no one would not cover that story of a bunch of white guards restraining and kicking a prone black kid while a nurse stands by and doesn't help and the kid dies. Just because the guards don't use karate kicks and the kid doesn't sit up and make an operatic shriek while dying doesn't invalidate the horror.

Hockenberry was clearly familiar enough with the formulaic storytelling tropes he needed to use for that show. The anecdote illustrates that the producer was basically telling him that viewers at home *can't possibly be made to care* about the death of a mentally ill inmate because in To Catch a Predator-land, all inmates *deserve* what they get.

And Dateline itself helped create that world and does not want to tell stories that get in the way of their good/evil narrative.

The very fact that these shows have cut and paste narratives means that the truth cannot be told on them. And it's not that the truth can't be told in video-- it's just that the networks have decided that only one particular version is acceptable.

And that's not selling any more. good! Now journalism needs to be able to make products that can reach both those who want indepth coverage and those who want just an overview which work smoothly together and yet challenge people, rather than dumbing down.

Having print reporters do crap video or having TV reporters do crap print reporting isn't the answer-- but it will take some time before new hybrids develop that work, I think.
posted by Maias at 4:08 PM on January 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


True journalism currently takes place online, at places like firedoglake.com that covered the Plame case so thoroughly that they became a source for the majors. If I wanted to be a real reporter, I'd be doing my best to work for a site like that--if I could live on peanuts/nothing, that is. Only independent non-corporate sites have the desire to do any true digging, and they've done some amazing work, partly by harnassing the power of their newshound readers who are willing to read through tons of govt. and legal docs. Which is why I laugh when I hear that "people don't care about news!" No, people know they're not getting any meat from the networks/cable biggies, so why watch? Give a lot of people a source that does ask real questions, and does real digging, and that they can have some input into, instead of bland reporting and cute puppies, and suddenly a whole lot of people seem to care.

Rather than try for a CBC/BBC style taxpayer funded agency, I'd rather see sites like that continue to flourish and be protected from censorship. TV and internet aren't going to stay separate forever, anyway, so why spend so much time trying to revive old models?

And I actually prefer reporters/groups who are upfront about their biases and report what they think is important, letting me do the deciding as to how accurate I think they are. Objectivity doesn't exist, but honest subjectivity can be very useful, so long as a diversity of opinions are heard.
posted by emjaybee at 4:58 PM on January 1, 2008



very few people give a crap about news.


No;
very few people give a crap about crappy news.

You may note that internet news sites do quite well.
posted by Cycloptichorn at 6:00 PM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


You may assume they do; you'd be wrong, although I suppose it depends on your definition of "doing well". Certainly none of the print-linked ones are washing their faces. In fact, outside the realm of tech news, nearly all of them are print-linked, because -- just like radio and TV -- they follow the agenda and stories broken by print. Which is dying.

hey, emjaybee: if these people seem to care so much about the news, why does working for one of those great real-journalism websites involve working for peanuts? Oh, wait, that's right: because nobody cares enough about news to pay for it.
posted by bonaldi at 6:10 PM on January 1, 2008


lupus_yonderboy : [Six Sigma] It only works when there are specific, relentlessly objective measurables that you're trying to continuously improve ("99.9999% of these items are 0.1m long within +/-0.01mm")-- you can't possibly use it on something like broadcasting!

The "Six Sigma" name is more of a trademark or brand name rather than a description of the methodology, though it is appealing to the success of statistical quality assurance in manufacturing. But it's a broad process-engineering quality control methodology like ISO 9000, so it really can be applied in almost any industry.

But by the nature of its approach it would certainly arrive at a definition of quality that's going to be more like satisfaction of the audience's lowest common denominator rather than a journalist's or discerning public's idea of quality journalism - too optimized and meshed into the surrounding systemic topology to fulfill journalism's role as an institution of Western civilization. The same way that biodiversity can be damaged even if it happens through success of a better-adapted, more-optimized species (like humans...) this is a crisis of institutional diversity in which journalistic institutions are being made too much like corporate institutions.
posted by XMLicious at 6:12 PM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


Six sigma is the most overhyped bit of garbage in the whole corporate speak panolapy. If you are making ten million widgets it is wonderful, but then it is still just warmed over TQM. Those morons apply it to everything, inlcuding human resources etc. It's a Dibert moment and most people having this crap rammed down their throats outside of production use it to get budget for their pet projects. I guess these statement pretty much damn me from a job at GE, but if you have to swallow that merd who cares.
posted by caddis at 7:49 PM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


In fact, outside the realm of tech news, nearly all of them are print-linked, because -- just like radio and TV -- they follow the agenda and stories broken by print.

I think you may want to broaden your sample. That's not even remotely true of the sites I rely on.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:33 AM on January 2, 2008


We both of us probably need to say more than we're doing, I think. There's a good chance that it is very true of the sites you rely on, but we won't know unless you say what sites they are, and I explain what the hell I mean!

When I talk about "news", I mean the sort of stuff that gets in news bulletins and posted here as newsfilter, not Digg or Quilt-Maker Monthly, which are both valid sorts of news, but they're not the stuff that makes people tub-thumpy for the fourth estate. Nobody gives a shit that Iran doesn't have a Free Site Covering Apple News; it matters that they don't have a free press.

It's the newsy-news stuff that is mostly sourced by newspaper journalists, and it's not because of any intrinsic worth -- it's purely because they need much, much more of it than any other medium, including the web. Your average radio news bulletin has five or six items, and they can be repeated all day if nothing else happens. A TV news programme will have about ten items, give or take, and again they can repeat all day. Even 24-hour news channels use the same stuff all day, and rarely go above 10 rolling items. News sites feel like they've got hundreds of stories, but the majority are archive: there's usually around 10-20 new things. On the other hand, a smallish run-of-the-mill quiet-day-nothing-happening newspaper needs around ninety stories, and they all have to be brand-new wasn't-in-the-paper-yesterday, and at least 15 will be more than 1000 words.

That's a lot of news, especially when nothing is happening! On top of that, in competitive news markets (like the UK's) there's a lot of pressure to have exclusive stories, and a paper will expect 10 or more of them a day. That's a shit-load of news, and needs a ton of reporters to do it. For the past 200 years, those reporters have been driven by a cycle of meeting the copy deadlines that allow production journalists to turn it into a newspaper so the presses can start late at night. That means there are a lot of news-gathers running to this clock. So the people who are interested in getting news coverage run to that clock as well -- they make sure their news announcements are all out in good time for the print reporters, and that their photo-ops are held early enough that photogs can get their images sent in time.

(As an aside, this is why the heavyweight TV news bulletins are all at 10 or 11pm: the traditional press start time for newspapers. They fit into the cycle perfectly, aiming for that. It's incredible how entrenched all this timing has become into our way of life, purely because of the press's longevity. It has evolved slightly, as paulsc notes above, but not that much. )

The next morning, all these papers are published, with a good chunk of exclusive stories each, and these exclusives set the agenda for the day because if one of them has a big splash about some scandal or other, the TV and radio reports will follow it up for the rest of the day. They'll also sift through the other stories, picking up the gems and running with them. This is what I mean about following the print papers' lead.

Of course, in the last five years, this is starting to change somewhat: copy is going up on papers' websites as soon as it is filed, and hundreds of thousands of small disparate sites are feeding their own original news into the mix. But nobody really minds if a news site sits with the same splash for two days running (I've seen it on news.bbc.co.uk more than once). The press, however, needs 90 new stories at 11pm each night, every night.

Filling that press is really hard, and you wouldn't do it unless you had to. This is why they set the agenda -- they're the ones finding out all the news out of sheer desperation -- and it's why everybody else follows their leads: they're doing the grunt work, and you can ride along. You get far, far more new news in a newspaper than on a news website, backwards as that intuitively feels.
posted by bonaldi at 9:51 AM on January 2, 2008


I buy that you get more news items in a paper. I do not believe that all the important stories come from newspaper reporting. Noted above is Firedoglake. See also Talking Points Memo. While both have some content originating in papers, both also generate and pursue stories that never get into a paper until much later, if at all.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 10:14 AM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


No, of course newspapers don't get all the important stories. TV breaks stories as well, for instance. But the majority of stuff comes from newspapers, purely because of sheer volume. For instance, Firedoglake is noted above for all its work on Valerie Plame ... and where did that story begin? In the pages of the NY Times and the Washington Post.
posted by bonaldi at 10:28 AM on January 2, 2008


related-- Economist: Mao and the art of management

And more -- Has Mao Become A Role Model For Our Media? -- ... The crisis may now be on the radar screen of big media but the reporting remains superficial and managed. How different is all this from the way China's CCTV covers scandals involving their government? ...
posted by amberglow at 7:39 PM on January 2, 2008


The basic problem is that we still rely on the news--whether print or tv or online--and need them for a functioning democracy. They've all been letting us down continually since the 90s if not before, and it's hurting us all. Just the other day the NYTimes ran a lead editorial listing all the crimes this administration has committed -- without a single line of what remedy should be or even is possible, and without a word of their own abetting and excusing and normalizing of these crimes -- only one line about how the next president will have to uncover and right all these wrongs in some wholly unmentioned way.

Our major media (both print and tv) have been more than just pushing lies and being happily manipulated--they've been minimizing and excusing blatant administration crimes and scandals, and attacking all those who want functioning checks and balances (and attacking all who criticize their own reporting).
posted by amberglow at 7:50 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


What's even worse is how much is actually completely off-limits for discussion now or not reported until it's unavoidable, as opposed to other times--impeachment, investigation of all corporate malfeasance, all scandal and corruption and crimes involving voting and elections, honest reporting on economics and standards of living, the growing millions of poverty-stricken Americans, the growing millions of those without Health Care, the infamous Friday document dumps by the administration, everything that Cheney does everyday, everything about the DOJ, ...

That "reputable" organizations like the NYT sit on stories like the wiretapping thing for over a year (and do so explicitly because it would have adversely affected the GOP and election) is just one glaring instance of many many---while they immediately run front page stories on Hillary and Bill's sex life and cleavage and laugh and Edwards' haircut.

It's disappointing -- and damaging. Many of us are disappointed in the media more than anything else because they let us down so--and with the net we're more aware of it than ever and it's more glaringly obvious.
posted by amberglow at 8:02 PM on January 2, 2008


ZachsMind writes "We're letting this happen. We're doing nothing to stop it. We're only getting what we deserve."

That's a bit extreme, bordering the assertion that the victim deserves the treatement because he can't escape a baited trap. Yet how can we demand a less developed individual to be able to escape a rather sophisticated 'trap' designed by a number of people hand picked and systematically financed to do exactly the job of "captivating audience" ? It's a bit like asking the soldier to understand how to escape the conditioning that led him to obey the officiers, it requires a significant personality evolution/change and an alternative opportunity.

Yet why should we bother ourselves with the task of promoting such change, if we already have developed a partial immunity to what is understood to be a disappointing system ?

First I think we shouldn't personalize and let our own disappointment with the system motivate us : just because we no longer are entertained (and are therefore more pissed) that doesn't imply the eyeballs will move, when all they are used to see is perfectly fine with them. Yet they probably ought to move, as "more of the same, with slightly different sauce" is enough to feed, but not enough to be tought provoking.

Second, in order not to fight against windmills, one should have the very same media/tv notice that their very existence is endangered by their own behavior. Indeed what is the point of having private productions, politically a lot more difficult to deal with, when I can run the show with some nationalized TV systems providing all-you-can-eat buffets 24h a day ? Chavez, anybody ? Oh wait, Putin anybody ?

One would think that some countries are immune from this kind of threat by virtue of the number of outlets that can provide a different point of view, but maybe you have missed the fusions and buyouts by increasingly concentrated entities, such as News Corp , just to name the elephant ? Maybe the fact that it's a lot harder to bite the hands that feed you, even if you'd like to kill them, is lost to the mind of some people ?

Not mentioning that slightly different uniformity, imposed or proposed and accepted, could lead to naturally occourring fear of diversity, because when one is fed shit for all his life even caviar doesn't taste that good , and who are you with that caviar stuff anyway ? You must be a weirdo who eats stuff that looks like shit ! DO NOT WANT !
posted by elpapacito at 2:24 AM on January 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


How different is all this from the way China's CCTV covers scandals involving their government? ...

It really isn't very different at all. When People showed up at the U.S. embassy in Beijing to protest and throw rocks because we had bombed one of their embassies, there was no mention of the demonstration in the Chinese press. The only reason I know that it happened is because an in-law happened to see it. The Chinese authorities apparently didn't do a lot to discourage the protest, but they didn't allow it to be reported, either. Remember all those peace demonstrations and how our press ignored them?

One of the forces supporting the emasculation of the press is readers and viewers who get tired of hearing bad news. A friend tells me he was glad when Nixon was pardoned, because he wouldn't have to hear any more about Watergate. He claims he wasn't a Nixon fan. How many others are there who don't want to hear about any government malfeasance for more than one day, if at all? I think most of the people who still watch TV news are in that group.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:34 AM on January 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


One of the forces supporting the emasculation of the press is readers and viewers who get tired of hearing bad news. A friend tells me he was glad when Nixon was pardoned, because he wouldn't have to hear any more about Watergate. He claims he wasn't a Nixon fan.
The reason he was glad he wouldn't have to hear more was exactly because of the thorough coverage and the fact that the news didn't ignore it or drop it or minimize or excuse it, no? Compare and contrast to nowadays, when hearings and crimes and scandals are usually not covered at all, and certainly not in the depth and extent previous things like Watergate and Iran-Contra were.

related new poll from ABC: ...Seventy-three percent of adults now go online, the most in polls since the dawn of the Internet age. Forty percent use the Internet specifically for news and information about politics and the election, surpassing the previous high, 35 percent in a 2004 survey.

Television remains predominant; 70 percent say it's one of their top two election news sources. But while still far ahead, that's down by 8 points since 2004 and by 15 points since 1996 in Pew polls. Newspapers follow, named by 26 percent as a top election news source — vastly down from 60 percent in 1996. Catching up with newspapers, 23 percent now cite the Internet as a main source of election news — twice the level seven years ago. ...

posted by amberglow at 2:49 PM on January 3, 2008


The reason he was glad he wouldn't have to hear more was exactly because of the thorough coverage and the fact that the news didn't ignore it or drop it or minimize or excuse it, no?

But yes! Those were the days. Since then, people like my fiend have seemingly gotten what they wanted: broadcast news that's loath to talk about anything two days in a row, unless it's celebrity-related.

Interesting that you mention Iran-Contra. What's that criminal Ollie North up to these days? Hey - there's a coincidence!
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:36 PM on January 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


i thought of North on FOX and Liddy and all of them.... -- there's absolutely no crime a Republican can commit, or insanity or hate they can spout, etc, that would make any of them unsuitable for airtime.

and most importantly--acting as sole Editor-in-chief for both print media and tv: ... Mark Halperin and John Harris write "Matt Drudge rules our world." They say, "With the exception of the ASSOCIATED PRESS, there is no outlet other than the DRUDGE REPORT whose dispatches instantly can command the attention and energies of the most established newspapers and television newscasts."
posted by amberglow at 5:31 PM on January 3, 2008


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