Sunday, December 25, 2011

TV: News on the 'news'

Last week, US President Barack Obama swore out an arrest warrant for Vice President Joe Biden on charges of terrorism. Did you see it on TV?


Actually, it wasn't Barack and Joe, it was Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki swearing out the arrest warrant on Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi on charges of terrorism. A political crisis is taking place in Iraq with Iraqiya members al-Hashemi, Saleh al-Mutlaq (Deputy Prime Minister) and Rafie al-Issawi (Minister of Finance). In the 2010 elections, Iraqiya won more votes than did Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law. With US backing, Nouri was able to circumvent the will of the people (expressed at the ballot box), the Constitution and the rule of law to remain prime minister when, by law and will of the people, Ayad Allawi, head of Iraqiya, should have been given first crack at the position of prime minister.

So Nouri is targeting his political rivals and doing so with the commercial, broadcast networks ignoring it. All last week, they ignored it.

Some might argue that ABC World News with Diane Sawyer, NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams and the CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley, had more pressing topics to address?

Not news topics.

And last week was about demonstrating just what garbage the network news had become. Timid, dull and dying.

These cheaply made broadcasts do little to inform but use a lot of B-roll.

Kim Jong-Il was revealed to have died last week, ruler of North Korea, and how the networks did obsess over stock footage they've had in the vaults forever. They obsessed over whether tears for the ruler were genuine. They obsessed over every detail. Because it's cheap and offers nothing of value. Empty calories.

They obsessed over why the US government didn't know Kim Jong-Il was dead until two days after when a statement was made. They didn't obsess once over why they themselves didn't know. We could really care less whether we learn of the death of a foreign leader on the day of or two days later. But if you are going to make that a 'hook' for your gossip broadcast, you might want to grasp that it is the news media that is supposed to provide "scoops," not the government.

But TV news rarely self-checks. Instead, it's B-roll, B-roll, camera set-up, camera set-up, pretend they did something.

Watching the broadcast news in 2011 was learning that it just gets worse with each year. Investigative journalism is largely dead (unless a network can pair up with Pro-Publica or some other partner to carry at least half the expenses). But so is reporting. Going out and finding an actual story rarely happens in the network news.

Instead, it's "Snow in DC! Get some footage!" So you shoot a personality in front of the snow telling viewers that it's snowing (wow!) and then, "Back to you, Scott - George - Brian." Or stand in front of the White House and quote on camera what Jay Carney said at the day's briefing or what Barack said or in front of the Pentagon with what Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said.

No one hunts down stories, they just read press releases on camera.

Katie Couric left the anchor chair at CBS mid-year. Apparently she took with her breaking news. Where she and others at CBS had been all over various VA scandals, her replacement (Scott Pelley) only cared about veterans in terms of happy-smiley faces.

In fact, the news -- or what passed for it -- got a lot lighter after Katie left CBS. Like his annoying Al Gore speaking manner, it was immediately apparent just how non-news Scott was. But as week after week demonstrated he was more interested in posing for the camera than delivering news, it became apparent that Pelley was completely unqualified for the post.

A lot of people point to Scott Pelley as a "success" -- especially a lot of people at CBS. The newscast is higher rated, they note, now than when Katie hosted.

Katie had solid ratings. That were damaged with one attack after another, over and over. And not just from rivals at other networks. Walter Cronkite's age made many avoid calling him out for his sexist remarks about Couric. Dan Rather also trashed her.

It was a never-ending onslaught. This despite the fact that she delivered the interview of 2008: the Sarah Palin interview. ABC didn't have it (though Charlie Gibson had done a mutli-episode interview with Palin) and NBC didn't have it.

When she did what an anchor was supposed to do, she still didn't credit.

When Scott Pelley faces one month of what Katie Couric endured for years, then we'll be impressed with him. Truth be told, he'd be crying back in Connecticut if he had to put up with that for even two weeks.

Instead, Pelley's gotten a soft and easy ride. And despite that, the CBS Evening News remains in their place. And this despite the fact that CBS continues to dominate in the prime time line up. By contrast, NBC is practically standing on the street corners begging for viewers but Brian Williams manages to dominate the ratings with Diane Sawyer on his heels. Distant third is Scott Pelley.

This month brought the news that Christiane Amanpour would be bounced as host of ABC's This Week. The Sunday chat & chew was no longer competative and in third place. For that, it was time for the only woman hosting a network chat & chew to take her leave.

But Scott Pelley's failure to move the CBS Evening News out of third place is no reason to be concerned?

A CBS News employee explained to us that Pelley was interested in proving himself his first weeks out of fear that the pile on Couric suffered from would also glom on him. Too bad it didn't happen. If it had, he might have continued to worry.

Instead, he went soft and soggy. And eager to give you not just the embarrassing two minutes of silly at the end of the broadcast that the networks had come to rely on but instead seven minutes of non-news that would tug at your heart strings.

Pelley doesn't know from news. He comes from a news magazine (60 Minutes II) mainly and local news. If he had to be anchor, he should have had the brains to know he wasn't suited for managing editor.

While CBS flounders, Brian Williams dominates for one reason only: He has a point of view. If Frank Capra made network news, it would be Nightly News. Williams is bound and determined to put the news into a prism of America. How does it effect you? At its best, it comes off folksy. At its worst, it comes off patronizing. Williams may well be the last great anchor in the sense of allowing a personality to dominate a newscast. And those who don't care for such domination probably explain the high ratings for ABC World News. When Diane anchors, whatever else her faults, the show does live up to the title.

When Diane's on vacation, the children come out to play. Such as human fur ball George Stephanopolous. Among the most jaw-dropping moments last week would have to be George on the economy Thursday. To watch that broadcast, was to be told the economy had recovered and things were wonderful and amazing. Yet, same night, on CBS, you were being told that middle class families were now depending on food banks in record numbers. Which was it?

As usual, with George, reality gets put on hold so he can advance the White House line now that a Democrat is president. And that bias is not an obsevation we're the first to make. It's long been known. But to see him acting as economic cheerleader when he was supposed to be anchoring a news broadcast Thursday was to see the debate on his bias settled once and for all. On Friday, a trained journalist (Josh Elliott) would replace George as anchor of World News, note the slashed prices many stores were offering and wonder,"Is it enough to lift the fragile economy?"

George, like too many in TV news, has no background in news. He wasn't educated in it and he didn't come up in the trenches of journalism. He was a flack for the Clinton White House and, though he would later fret about the toll that took on his skin, he still firmly believes that 'news' is what officials say. (Whether it's true or not is of no concern to George.)

Which makes him a perfect fit for today's network news. What US officials say was never examined this year with regards to the Libyan War. Instead, it was taken as gospel and the coverage ordered to match it. That's still the policy as evidenced Friday by CBS News' report on the 'Free Syria Army.' CBS News goes to talk to rebels . . . when the rebels are backed by the US government. When they're not, say in the Iraq War, CBS makes no effort to sound them out, travel with them, explore their hopes and dreams.

Steph is replacing Amanpour as the host of This Week and the reason for the show's ratings decline is supposedly due to Amanpour focusing on international issues. Possibly that little 'lesson' explains why Steph hosted World News last week, Monday through Thursday, and largely avoided anything outside of the US?

When he tackled Iraq on Thursday, it was due to a series of bombings in Baghdad that left over 200 injured and over 70 dead. In that report, viewers never learned about the political crisis. The same was true on Nightly News where Regular Guy Bri chewed the fat with Richard Engel. They avoided the political crisis as well. On CBS, Scott Pelley ditched any report or reporters and instead attempted to pose for the camera in his best Herb LaCrue fashion while reciting a few factoids about the bombing.

And all three ended the year with the same message they started 2011 with: We are the foot soldiers of the White House, we go where we are told and say what we are told.

That's how you get them pimping "payroll tax cut" without ever exploring what it means for Social Security, that's how you get silence on Iraq's political crisis when all the White House wants is Happy Talk. TV news on the three commercial, broadcast networks is non-existent. It's 21 minutes featuring 7 feel-good minutes, a lot of chatter and camera set ups and the reciting of government talking points. It's just not news.
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