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Secrets of TV news: Confessions of an anchorman
Posted By Megan Mulligan On January 15, 2010 @ 2:35 am In DC Exclusives, Editor's Picks, Middle Column, Politics, US | 35 Comments
The following was written by a well-known news anchor from a top-10, big city station:
For the last 30 years, I’ve devoted the better part of my life to frightening you, trying my best to make you believe that you are weak, vulnerable, dependent and at risk. I know what’s good for you. You don’t. I’ve tried hard for three decades to defy the laws of nature and return you to infancy, cradled in your mommy’s arm, suckling at her breast, all warm and cozy, not a care in the world. I am the tip of the spear of the liberal nanny state. I am ANCHORMAN!
Actually, I’m mostly serious. For the better part of my adult life, I’ve worked as an anchor and reporter at CBS, NBC and ABC affiliated newsrooms across the country — often complaining about the nanny-state liberalism that infects so much of news coverage. Arguably, local news is a more insidious and destructive force than the widely accepted liberal bias of networks and other national components of mainstream media. After all, study after study has demonstrated that local news is more widely watched — and, more importantly, more trusted than other forms of mainstream media. There is a case to be made that the steady drumbeat of hyped-up threats — SUV’s that roll over, kitchen-counter bacteria, road rage, swine flu, amber alerts and the stations’ willingness to enlist governments and institutions to solve those “perceived” problems, actually drives a lot of bad and unnecessary public policy.
But it’s a formula that has worked as a cash cow for your local TV station. It is no accident that most local TV stations market themselves with nanny-state slogans: “Channel 2: Working for you!” or “ABC 6: On your side!” You might say those slogans are a subtler version of, “NBC 5: Making your boo-boos all better!”
How did it get that way? Let me use one common story in local TV news as an example of the larger problem. Last month local TV newsrooms across the country, mine included, did dozens of stories about breast cancer. Dozens of them. It was after all, breast-cancer awareness month, and we, pardon the pun, milked it for all it was worth. In the words of another writer, our newscasts were all packaged in a “tight pink ribbon.” This was not an accident. Never mind the inconvenient little fact that breast cancer is not the leading killer of women — that would be heart disease. It’s not even the leading cancer killer. That would be lung cancer, followed by colorectal cancer. But why does breast cancer get coverage that is so disproportionate to its toll? Why don’t TV stations do month-long, flood-the-zone stories on, say, colon cancer? Because breast cancer is a disease tailor-made for the hype/fear factory of local TV news. In all the world’s cultures the breast has been a symbol of life and fertility. In American culture, it is a symbol of sex, too. How could your local TV station go wrong flooding the zone over this issue? Especially given the one demographic group your station desperately wants to cater to. More on that later.
It reminds me of the tidal wave of coverage of silicone breast implants controversy late in the last century. As you’ll recall, silicone breast implants (a uniquely American form of cosmetic body modification) were linked to a variety of ills, chief among them, auto-immune disorders. In a months-long media feeding frenzy, breast-implant victims were paraded before congressional hearings and press conferences, caring congressmen and compassionate trial attorneys at their side, dutiful reporters recounting their sincere stories of victimhood. Billions of dollars changed hands, law firms were enriched, legislation was passed and silicone manufacturers went bankrupt. Silicone implants were taken off the market. Thousands of people lost their jobs.
Just one small problem. The link between auto-immune disorders and silicone breast implants was ultimately disproved. That was a story you probably never saw on your local news. It didn’t fit the formula.
Here’s the formula. Highly trained Anchorman (booming authoritative, focus-group-tested voice at the ready) or better yet, Anchorwoman (compassionate voice and pouty face, furrowed brow at the ready), reads the headline, tosses to reporter. Hyperventilating reporter further frightens with victim sound bite, followed by sound bite from plaintiff attorney (”This poor victim needs to be compensated.”). Followed by politician sound bite (”I’m introducing legislation …”) followed by reporter tag, which may or may not include response from big, bad, deep-pocketed corporation. Interestingly, that last component — the response from the corporate evildoers, often becomes, in my experience, a throwaway part of many stories — something along the lines of, “The XYZ company denies any wrongdoing.” Or even, “The XYZ company was unavailable for comment at news time.”
I’ve even noted a pattern among some media-savvy trial attorneys. Often, they’ll fax or e-mail a press release of a pending lawsuit or action to newsrooms on Friday afternoons — enough time for a reporter to get a camera crew, head to the law office, get the sound bite for the evening deadline, but not enough time for the deep-pocketed corporation, with it’s multi-layered media information office, often located in a distant city, to respond before deadline time. So, the story airs, unchallenged, with the charges stewing and brewing over the weekend. The corporation is sucker-punched, feeding frenzy gains steam, politicians take note. Damage is done, forcing corporation to consider out-of-court settlement, sparing them more bad publicity, but most importantly, sparing the plaintiff attorney all of that hard work of trial preparation, but with an easy payoff .
I’ve used the example of breast implants, but the formula works for any perceived wrongdoing. And even if trial lawyers aren’t involved, victim status is — with the promise of fixing the boo-boo — “Working for you.” As one news director I worked for once said, “There are lots of things to be afraid of out there.” Indeed, cancer, household bacteria, child predators, hot weather, cold weather, tap water, electromagnetic fields, vaccinations, Chinese food, Mexican food, racism, fertilizers, homophobia, hate crimes, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.
And, who is most likely to be afraid of these threats? Well, the mainstream media machine, cynically and manipulatively, believes it’s that key demographic group, women ages 18-49. They, according to consultants and marketing executives, control the household remote and make the buying decisions. No. One. Else. Matters.
In an ultimate display of hypocritical sexism, your local liberal newsroom treats women of that coveted demographic group as if they were frightened wards of the nanny state, as if they were children incapable of weighing risk against advantage, detriment against benefit. It plies them with a daily dose of all the things one must be afraid of. And it cynically taps into those traits that evolution has bestowed women with in greater quantity than men — compassion and empathy.
Compassion and empathy were feelings that newsmen and women of a bygone era, kept a very tight rein on — lest they lose objectivity and skepticism. Skepticism in the newsroom nowadays is in short supply. It strangely gets a pass from the perky, beautiful, 20- and 30-somethings who make up the bulk of newsroom staffs. They are too often uncurious. They walk in lockstep with the liberal orthodoxy. They give a pass to questions about global warming, what Hope and Change really mean, the costs that “clean” energy would impose and an infinite number of other issues of the day.
In the story plan meetings, the old school vets with their institutional knowledge are no longer there to block the predictable cliché-ridden ideas and assumptions. Often, a creepy kind of consensus is formed through the filter of political correctness. Naysayers are branded as malcontents. Who could criticize, for example, the dull, obligatory breast-cancer awareness walk idea from the reporter who volunteered to have a mammogram on TV? Or the “Stop the Violence Rally” idea from the African-American reporter who lives in the neighborhood of last week’s murder. Or the “Take The Subway to Work Day” story, proposed by the stations “green” reporter, himself a committed environmentalist or the AIDS day story from the young openly gay reporter?
It is a very narrow row from which these young journalism sprouts have been culled. Today, many large media companies have written policies — NBC/ General Electric and Gannett to name two — whereby station managers and executives cannot be promoted unless they themselves promote minorities and women. And where do managers go to ensure their own advancement, while hiring the perfect rainbow of staffers? The NABJ. NAHJ. NLGJA. NAHJ. These are the minority journalists associations. Black, Hispanic, gay and lesbian, Native American, Asian American. And curiously, among them, objectivity seems to be secondary to their particular form of advocacy and their “progressive” mandates. Each, in furtherance of their own mission is quick to claim victim status if quotas are not met or if their ideals are not expressed through “advocacy” journalism.
Much has been written about the reception, for example, that then-candidate Obama received when speaking at the National Association of Black Journalists convention in Chicago. It was a standing ovation, and a rush to the podium, so the fawning throng could have their picture snapped with the president-to-be. His opponent, John McCain received a smattering of polite applause.
It was no surprise then, more than a year later when President Obama, appearing at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, joked to the thousands of journalists in attendance, “Most of you covered me. All of you voted for me.” The line got a laugh … and then … in an insult to journalism, thousands in the crowd clapped and cheered, in affirmation of the truth. There was no shame for them. Quite the contrary, they reveled in it. The new mainstream media was on display for all to see in one giant, embarrassing ensemble. All of them feminized, sensitized and diversified. But it was also a perfect moment in time — thousands of nanny-state warriors, before their leader, ready to go forth to women ages 18-49 and spread the fear, and propose solutions of the state. What bad public policy may result, we have only begun to see.
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