Sunday, April 25, 2010

TV: Network News for Dummies

Years ago, a PSA on seat belts insisted, "You can learn a lot from a dummy." If only that were true the news divisions at the three broadcast, commercial networks would be in a state of perpetual and heightened ecstasy. Instead, they cower at New Media and fail to inform.


How's that? Glad you asked.

Last week, the deaths of 3 US service members and 1 Defense Department worker in Iraq were reported. Nouri al-Maliki stomped his feet long enough and was granted a selective recount in Baghdad. A lot of claims were made about 2 alleged al Qaeda leaders being killed (in an operation in which 1 US service member died -- though the press was loathe to go into that) and Nouri was soon boasting a third kill and then that he had the leader of last fall's bombing campaign imprisoned -- imprisoned, said Nouri, since before the March 7th elections.

Some idiots were insisting that it was all over for whomever was doing the bombings -- bombings which, rightly or wrongly, are being pinned (unquestioningly) on al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.

Friday, 8 people died in bombings in Anbar Province and (remember the time difference) in the US that's what people were waking up to discover; however, the eight dead quickly became a sub-story in Iraq coverage and, in some reports, were dropped out. Why? Multiple bombings in Baghdad resulted in multiple deaths. Reports varied on the death toll, with some going with 56 and others going as high as 69 depending on their sourcing.

Nouri al-Maliki and others -- including US Vice President Joe Biden -- made real fools of themselves as they aped the worst of the Bush years and claimed that a corner had been turned and that the insurgency (resistance) was dismantled.

A few print reporters maintained healthy skepticism -- Jane Arraf of The Christian Science Monitor and Sahar Issa and Mohammad al Dulaimi of McClatchy Newspapers to name three -- but they were generally in the minority as reporters rushed to ride the latest wave in Operation Happy Talk.

Fairness dictates that we also note the centrist organization Brookings Institution's Bruce Riedel cautioned that the claims didn't amount to what some were making of them.

Then came the cold slap to the face for so many that was Friday, what Rebecca Santana (AP) called "the bloodiest day of the year in Iraq" and Santana made that call well before any of the network evening news programs began airing.

So how did they handle it and what did viewers learn?

The answer to that was not much. Not much on Iraq, not much on anything at all.

Brian Williams reduced it to a headline on NBC's Nightly News with Brian Williams, "In Iraq today, in Baghdad and elsewhere, a wave of bombings. 58 people are dead. The attacks targeted mainly Shi'ites. They may have been in retaliation for that joint Iraqi-American raid that killed the top two leaders of al Qaeda in Iraq. That happened earlier this week." Over at ABC, on World News with Diane Sawyer, Sawyer also reduced it to headline but a randomly worded one which sounded more like some Haiku hybrid or maybe just a bad fortune cookie, "Overseas in Iraq today, a coordinated series of explosions -- aimed primarily at Shi'ite worshippers --rippling across the country, mangled cars, buses clogging the streets outside two mosques, party headquarters and a market. At least 58 people were killed and nearly 200 were injured. The country's political turmoil continues to deepen. No clear outcome still in the recent elections."

Mangled cars, buses clogging the streets . . .

Diane, what you're looking for in that random phrasing is a conjunction. Might we suggest "and"?

We would love to now tell you about how the one time "Tiffany network" CBS showed the other two how the news was really done; however, Tiffany long ago stopped bringing to mind a high end jewelry store and now the name just conjures up a tired hookers and cranky toddlers. Either way, it's nothing to strive for.

CBS Evening News with Katie Couric managed to miss Iraq completely. An amazing feat in what was the bloodiest day of the year. Three networks, two minor headlines.

But rest assured, what really matters was covered: amatuer video of a twister! And a barking dog!

Both made all three network broadcasts.

Diane handled the barking dog story best. She didn't blather on about Lassie (that would be Brian Williams) or Rin Tin Tin (Katie Couric). But where she failed, where they all did, was in not asking an obvious question.

The minor story (from Alaska) was about a dog who led a lost police officer to a fire. Do they not have firefighters in Alaska? The police officer, we were told in all the stories, got lost on his way to the fire. Where was the fire department? For the story to be worth anything, the police officer would have to be the first on the scene. So where was the fire department?

When you've got squad car video footage of a barking dog leading the way to a fire, you apparently don't ask questions, just rehearse your that-is-so-cute facial expression.

Then there was the twister and this was actually informative to any viewers who paid attention. Not because the video would impress anyone (no destruction in the video). Not because there had only been 19 reported tornadoes reported this month and not, Katie Couric informed, the usual 200. And not because Brian Williams told you that "reports of severe weather are about a third of what they usually are, tonight that could change" -- well, yes, Brian, at any given hour, at any given minute, things could change. Such is the nature of life. Are you just discovering that?

No it was informative because it was not credited. No person apparently filmed the twister. Which is the way Old Media loves to behave. David Remnick has a really bad book about US President Barack Obama that's just come out. If you've seen any print coverage, you've probably seen the only known photo of Barack Obamas Senior and Junior together (at the airport in Hawaii). And if you've seen that photo, you've no doubt noticed the credit: "AP." Really? AP was present when that photo was taken? No, they obtained a copy and stamped AP on it the way they always do. (And then they want to whine that other people rip them off. They usually don't pay for these photos they 'obtain.' They didn't pay for the Steven D. Green photo they slapped AP on, nor did they properly credit it.)

In and of itself, that's not news because that's how Big Media's always behaved. But now that it's Old Media (or fears it is) watch it suck up to New Media. Diane used a few seconds of Google Earth to show where Paris was (because Americans have never heard of Europe?). And not only
was it used, Google got credited for it. And goodness if YouTube wasn't a big story -- it's anniversary. In fact, Couric turned over the closing minutes of her program to what, as she put it, was "Happy Birthday YouTube."

If you watched all three newscasts you might have asked the question serious viewers generally ask in the last year: Is NBC doctoring the Barack Obama footage and photos? The pink lipstick? Okay, that's most likely Barack himself. But the way his gray hair disappears on NBC and not on ABC and CBS?

We learned about crime and non-punishment. Golly, we thought the envelope said failure to fill out the census was breaking the law. But Brian Williams informed us that the 28% of American households who did not return their census forms could expect a visit . . . from census workers. Not the police, mind you, census workers. (He also informed that the 72% who did return it was "the exact same percentage as ten years ago.") That we could at least follow.

But on larger potential crimes, how could we be led when our guides were themselves lost? Arizona's state legislature passed a law which the governor signed. It's on immigration and what does it mean? Jan Crawford showed up at CBS to explain it . . .

Or so she thought. Us? We don't confuse the Supreme Court with the US Constitution. One is a document and the law of the land while the other is the highest judiciary body we have. A Supreme Court ruling is not a Constitutional amendment. If it were, for example, Roe v. Wade would not constantly be under threat.

Crawford failed to grasp that and repeatedly insisted to Katie Couric that "there are Constitutional issues" but she never once referred to the Constitution itself and instead cited two Supreme Court rulings.

Over at ABC, Diane referred the matter to "chief legal correspondent" Terry Moran and he handled it much better than Crawford, "The Constitution gives to Congress exclusive authority to determine who is in this country legally and who isn't." Only Congress, according to Moran, not states, have the power to legislate on this issue.

Brian Williams had little time for immigration when he was so busy with Veggie Tales for adults -- or at least pre-teens -- and, in the process, came off like Bruce Willis in Death Becomes Her, running around wildly, exclaiming "It's a miracle!" He was eager to give time to an alleged Christian miracle and also to the trials and tribulations of our modern day Ananias, Brother Franklin Graham.

For the block, CBS went with "things of the flesh" and served up a lengthy report by Nancy Cordes on SEC workers . . . looking at porn online at work. But it's not just them, warned Nancy, "In March alone, 29% of Americans with work computers used them to access adult web sites."

It didn't get better for CBS. Anchor Katie Couric shared, "In a letter to Congressional leaders today, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said the final bill to tax payers could be as low as $87 billion. A year ago, that estimate was half-a-trillion. And there's more good news . . ." That was good news? US tax payers on the hook for $87 billion is good news? On PBS' Washington Week (which began airing Friday on most PBS stations), David Shepardson (Detroit News) showed how you talked tax payer money, "But, as you point out, there's still another $43 billion that the tax payers won't know if they're going to get back until the government goes to sell off that 61% majority stake in GM."

In fairness to Katie, she was the only anchor who filed a report, a lengthy one (approximately six minutes and thirty-eight seconds, including the facts in her intro behind the anchor desk) on a critical care facility in Haiti.

Reality for Katie, her happy talk on March home sales was not informative. ABC also noted the national 27% increase in the sale of homes but, unlike Katie, they explained it was "fueled in large part by a special tax credit for home buyers which expires next week." That tax credit? $8,000 if you are a first time home buyer, "$6,000 for everyone else." ABC explained that some areas of the country were doing better. (CBS News offered a graph that really drove this home featuring 5.7% for the west, 4.3% for the central north, 35.7% for the north east and 43.5% for the south.) And they featured Yale's Robert Schiller explaining that, as a result of the tax credit expiring, "we could see a rebound down."

Time and again, the message the three shows drove home was if a viewer was able to watch all three, s/he might be able to piece together enough needed knowledge to make sense of a story. Left to just one evening newscast as a primary source of current events? We think a consumer would be woefully and repeatedly misinformed. And more and more, it appears that is not only the broadcast way, it's also the intent.
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