• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Monday, December 15, 2008

2008: JOURNALISM's DARK YEAR

Six minutes into the NBC Nightly News on Monday, Dec. 8, anchor and managing editor Brian Williams looked past the economy, war, terrorism, presidential transition and the rest of the real news. What was so important as to merit a before-the-first-commercial-break position?

An "interview" with David Gregory, named the day before as new moderator of Meet the Press.

Yes, you are understanding me. Williams, who I have long felt craftily uses his NASCAR fan status (no matter how sincere) -- and his acquaintanceship with the late Dale Earnhardt -- as an audience-building PR device, presented what essentially was a three-minute infomercial for Gregory and MTP. Not a word of "news" was offered. Something similar happened again Friday night. I was reminded of when Gregory took some press flack for doing pushups and dancing with Katie Couric on the Today show. This serious White House journalist brushed off the criticism by saying, "I think people like to see different aspects of my personality."

You betcha. That's just what we want.

Just a few minutes later, CNN opted out of news coverage on Campbell Brown's careening-toward-the-edge-of-the-cliff show (Paula Zahn was dumped for this?) to explain the network's logo was appearing in green rather than the traditional red in order to promote upcoming environmental programming.

Sunday a week earlier, Tom Brokaw steered MTP to an all-time low by inviting his buddy-buddy, Ted Turner, to sing Home on the Range. Naturally, MSNBC thought this to be sufficiently newsworthy to replay. And replay.

Meanwhile, various hosts across the cable universe were wasting time on trumped-up "issues" and, continuing their favorite ego/ratings ploy, spotlighting criticisms made of them by competitors. They play the victim role for all it's worth.

This is my last scheduled blog of 2008, and what I sadly take away from a turbulent year is the near-death of true, legitimate journalism. I believe this, deep in my soul, as an honors J school grad and reader of newspapers since I could read and watcher of TV news since Dwight Eisenhower was president: This deliberate dumbing-down of time-honored journalistic standards has as much to do with the decline of traditional news media outlets as the Internet and bad economic times.

We've gone from an era when Walter Cronkite was considered the "most trusted man in America" to MSNBC's version of Network and Howard Beale five-nights-a-week at 8 p.m.

In the matter of cable TV, here's what we used to call a "true fact": Rant has replaced reporting. Opinion outweighs objectivity. Shouting is better showbiz than speech. Accusing has taken the place of asking. Pretty pictures are more important than purposeful perspective. Outrageous tops overview. Antics above awakening.

Lunacy lords above logic.

Entertainment above information.

Is it any wonder the quantifiable educational achievement scores of American schoolchildren, in math and science, are far below those in other countries?

Cause and effect? YES!

For the benefit of those who never saw Network: One reviewer best described Paddy Chayefsky's 1970s classic as a "black, prophetic, satirical commentary/criticism of corporate evil (in the tabloid-tainted television industry)." It forecast a time when TV "journalism" would devolve into a format of shouting-lunacy-entertainment rather than responsible-civilized-information.

When the news program anchored by Beale (Peter Finch posthumously won the Academy Award as best actor) is canceled due to bad ratings, Beale announces on-air that he will kill himself on his last show. This causes the ratings to spike, and management puts Beale back on the air. In his most famous rant, Beale famously screams, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it any more."

Journalism school grads, like me, laughed. It was funny because, to us, it was something that could never happen.

We were wrong.

Journalism 2008 set one low after after:

NBC continued with Lee Cowan as its Main Man with Barack Obama even after he enthused, "When NBC News first assigned me to the Barack Obama campaign, I must confess my knees quaked a bit." Cowan admitted to Williams it was "almost hard to remain objective" when covering the "infectious" energy surrounding the Democrat. Pro-Obama, anti-Hillary, Bush-Cheney despisers Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann were positioned as anchors on primary election news coverage, an arrangement so offensive that management eventually was forced to insert Gregory instead. Matthews infamously talked of the "tingle up my leg" he got from Obama. Now, according to multiple media reports, Matthews has done straight-up interviews with Democrat Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell -- whose support would be key -- even while holding private meetings with party officials about running for the U.S. senate from the Keystone state. Earlier today, CNN's Michael Ware criticized President Bush's news conference in Iraq as a "dog and pony show" and used that to excuse the shoe-thrower: "You can understand why he did that."

The United States would have been better served had the legions of journos who invaded Alaska to investigate whether or not Sarah Palin actually was the mother of her baby had been looking into sub-prime mortgages, Wall Street and the auto industry. Or Chicago politics.

I think opinion shows and commentary segments are great: BUT NOT IN A NEWS REPORT!

Don't think sports wasn't infected. Just as Williams lends his credibility by appearing on the same shows as Olbermann, so does Bob Costas on Sunday Night Football. NBC left the inescapable conclusion that protecting parent company GE's business interests in China was paramount over journalism by downplaying or ignoring stories out of the Summer Olympics like underage athletes, citizens detained for requesting protest permits, and the child singer whose lovely voice was lip-synched by a more physically attractive girl. (The worst China gusher was Matt Lauer, who is in love with glitz and celebrity, not surprising since one of his earliest gigs was Robin Leach's Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.) I don't know what actually happened with ESPN Classic's "live" coverage of the NASCAR Sprint Cup awards, but as far as I know, there's been no denial or explanation. (Maybe "Digger" knows.) As for credibility-destroying embarrassment, one need have seen nothing more than SPEED's Halloween Texas Truck pre-race show . . .


Regular readers, forgive me for repeating this, but Paul Newman's great lesson to me was to "know your audience." As I have personally observed, far too often, journos think their audience is not us out there in the public, but each other. This year, in the media centers at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Phoenix International Raceway and elsewhere, I've witnessed journos promoting their "clever" leads in an attempt to impress colleagues. Too often, the mission seems to be one-uping each other with one liners or increasingly outrageous opinions, not presenting factual news or carefully considered viewpoints to the real audience.

This is not a matter of the political left or right. (For the record: I did not vote for John McCain.) It is an issue of professional news standards. Or, I should say, the lack thereof. As dictated by bottom-line executives, accepted by journalists, showcased by a lengthening line of lightweights everywhere from behind the desk, in the field, and on pit lane.

The message counts far less than how the message is presented.

It's now common practice for journalists to get the news by interviewing other journalists, instead of the actual newsmakers. On August 11, on Around The Horn, Michael Smith said: "I go to (fellow ESPN panelist) Tim Cowlishaw for my NASCAR information." No matter that, relatively speaking, Cowlishaw discovered NASCAR about 15 minutes ago.

Shoe leather -- honest reporting -- has been replaced by an entertainment-driven, murky, co-mingling of opinion and fact. Let me translate for you two words which too often appear in "news" stories: Speculation = guessing. Rumor = gossip.

The very fabric of our society has been undercut because, honestly, we aren't sure who to believe. Too often, that includes the media. That sad reality is bad news whether your own focus is on Washington or New York, Indianapolis or Daytona.

God help us, that must change in 2009. Or the news business will completely come apart, like Goodyears at the Brickyard.
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Here's a link to my December "All Business" column on Drag Racing Online. It's posted on two pages, so be sure to click the "next page" arrow at the bottom of the first page. http://dragracingonline.com/columns/knight/x_12-1.html
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Every day brings dark news from the Business of Racing front. I'll just mention two here: Karen Holschlag, a 26-year veteran of Anheuser-Busch's legendary sports marketing department, left the company Dec. 15 as part of new owner InBev's reorganization. Karen managed the Kenny Bernstein sponsorship (30 consecutive years in 2009) and was a great friend of AARWBA . . . The Winston Salem-Journal has made it official, ending full-time staff coverage of NASCAR. Mike Mulhern, who covered NASCAR for the paper for 34 years, has been laid off. Mike says he'll be back, on the web.
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REMINDER: The 39th AARWBA All-America Team ceremony, presented by A1GP World Cup of Motorsport, will be Saturday, January 10 at the Hilton in Ontario, Calif. See AARWBA link at the right for ticket information. The 2008 recipient of the Jim Chapman Award, for excellence in motorsports public relations, will be announced that evening.

[ more Tuesday, January 6, unless circumstances demand otherwise . . .]