(2008-02-20) Hockenberry Tv News

John Hockenberry on the fundamental failure of TV news (Professional Journalism).

  • Finally, an NBC/GE executive responsible for "standards" shook his head and wondered about the tone in the reporter's voice. "Doesn't it seem like she has a point of view here?" he asked. There was silence in the screening room. It made me want to twitch, until I spoke up. I was on to something but uncertain I wasn't about to be handed my own head. "PointOfView? What exactly do you mean by point of view?" I asked. "That war is bad? Is that the point of view that you are detecting here?" The story never aired.

  • It had occurred to me and a number of other journalists that a core mission of NBC News would now be to explain, even belatedly, the origins and significance of these organizations (like AlQaeda). But Jeff Zucker insisted that Dateline stay focused on the firefighters. The story of firefighters trapped in the crumbling towers, Zucker said, was the Emotional Center of this whole event. Corvo enthusiastically agreed. "Maybe," said Zucker, "we ought to do a series of specials on firehouses where we just ride along with our cameras. Like the show Cops, only with firefighters."... Perhaps two of these programs ever aired; the whole project was shelved very soon after it started. Producers discovered that unlike September 11, most days featured no massive terrorist attacks that sent thousands of firefighters to their trucks and hundreds to tragic, heroic deaths. On most days nothing happened in firehouses whatsoever.

  • 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. The informational edge was perilous, it was unpredictable, and it required the news audience to be willing to learn something it did not already know. Stories from the edge were not typically reassuring about the future. In this sense they were like actual news, unpredictable flashes from the unknown. On the other hand, the coveted emotional center was reliable, it was predictable, and its story lines could be duplicated over and over. It reassured the audience by telling it what it already knew rather than challenging it to learn.

  • Entertainment programs often took on issues that would never fly on Date Line. On a Thursday night, ER could do a story line on the medically uninsured, but a night later, such a "downer policy story" was a much harder sell. In the time I was at NBC, you were more likely to hear federal agriculture policy discussed on The West Wing, or even on Jon Stewart, than you were to see it reported in any depth on Dateline... Sometimes entertainment actually drove selection of news stories. Since Dateline was the lead-in to the hit series Law & Order on Friday nights, it was understood that on Fridays we did crime. Sunday was a little looser but still a hard sell for news that wasn't obvious or close to the all-important Emotional Center.

  • Networks have so completely abandoned the mission of reporting the news that someone like entrepreneur Charles H Ferguson, who sold an Internet software company to Microsoft in 1996, can spend $2 million of his own money to make an utterly unadorned documentary about Iraq (War On Iraq) and see it become an indie hit. ¬≠Ferguson's No End In Sight simply lays out, without any emotional digressions or narrative froth, how the U.S. military missed the growing insurgency. The straightforward questions and answers posed by this film are so rare in network news today that they seem like an exotic, innovative form of cinema, although they're techniques that belong to the Murrow era. In its way, Ferguson's film is as devastating an indictment of network television as it is of the Bush administration.

  • Perhaps the biggest change to the practice of journalism in the time I was at NBC was the absorption of the news division into the pervasive and all-consuming corporate culture of GE... While Six Sigma's goal-oriented blather and obsession with measuring everything was jarring, it was also weirdly familiar, inasmuch as it was strikingly reminiscent of my college Maoism I class.

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