OK, enough about me. Those big introspective blogs are difficult to write, risky to share and probably very hard for everyone to read.
So, with that last piece now long settled, let’s get back to a subject we can all have fun with: TV bashing. Yea! High five!
Specifically, let’s discuss the whacky love and respect given by the general populace to television news personnel.
Narrowing it down even further, it’s the super-sized egos of network news anchors or morning-show hosts — a conceit orbiting high above any earth-bound reality of their abilities or talent — that have bugged me for, oh, a few decades.
Of course, I am far from alone in this reaction. Egocentric talking thickheads have been a rich source of comedy for as long as they’ve popped up on television.
Among the most memorable were Ted Baxter of the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” and Will Ferrell in “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” along with characters in the movies “Network” and “Broadcast News” and various skits on “Saturday Night Live.”
The bitter truth: Individuals whose prime qualifications for a position include strong vocal abilities, good acting skills (sad face, happy face) and an attractive appearance will not, as a general rule, also possess strong journalistic skills.
But we — that’s you and me, as viewers — make them think they do.
We treat these people as top journalists, rather than, perhaps more apropos, just top performers/broadcasters or even top broadcast journalists, entities to be judged separately from the profession as a whole.
They are granted an unwarranted authority, depth and importance.
Yes, the bottom-line fault in this situation lies with the public. People tend to worship all things television, and small-screen stars of all types wow them. To be on TV is to be recognized, to be glamorous. Just look at people’s reactions when they appear even momentarily on a stadium Jumbotron. They go nuts.
Evan as a small-town print journalist, I went up against this. While I would struggle at times to get cooperation for interviews or information, just let a TV newsperson walk in the room or express an interest in the subject matter. Good God. People would light up, make room, push me aside, scramble, offer refreshments, talk for hours, provide documents to make their job easier … whatever. It was almost embarrassing to watch the gushing and mood change.
On the national level, this overboard reaction is multiplied many times over by the heightened celebrity factor.
What’s so wrong with that?
Well, as celebrity worship, this perhaps can be justified. But when it crosses over to assigning these people some higher intelligence quotient based on their positions in the news operation, it goes too far.
Here’s what I’m trying to say:
In college journalism classes, I remember a key point about the then-dominant evening network newscasts was that the amount of information contained in a typical show, if set in type, would fit into one corner of the front page of the New York Times.
I extrapolated that comparison over the years to how TV news generally compares to its print brothers: Network news is to major metropolitan newspapers as local news is to small-town daily newspapers – paling in comparison, a news outline, a summary, a headline service.
If you want the real story, you have to get it from a print source or, these days, an online version of newspaper products or a source that seeks to copy that type news operation.
Practitioners of print-oriented journalism, by and large, have to be enterprising, detail-obsessed masters of their coverage area or “beats.” They become mini-experts, able to branch out into writing lengthy books on the subjects they cover.
Broadcast journalists tend to be none of the above. They are creatures of the sound bite, the short report, the general wrap-up. Their talent lies in being able to present a story in a crisp, clear, entertainingly visual manner.
To be sure, it takes a lot of skill to do a quality TV report. But it doesn’t take a lot of depth or traditional journalistic skills, at least in comparison to the amount needed from a print journalist.
And being a network anchor, or even the on-screen talent for a news show like “60 Minutes,” requires even less.
Yet, people treat these people in inverse proportion to their mental and journalistic abilities. TV news anchors are given reverential treatment, TV news reporters/correspondents are put on pedestals of varying heights (according to their popularity, which largely can stem from looks, as opposed to product), and print journalists operate in virtual anonymity.
Now, these print journalists likely prefer their anonymity; it helps them do the best job possible — real journalists avoid, at all costs, being part of a story — and removes the unwanted diversions that come with attention and celebrity.
But the rub comes when they observe their broadcast counterparts treated with some great respect, as experts in their subject areas, when the print journalists know the broadcasters are pretty shallow and not nearly as knowledgeable as many others working the beat on a day-to-day basis.
For me, a glaring example of misplaced reverence came when retired NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw was invited to speak several years ago at nearby Hamilton College. It was part of the institution’s highly regarded Sacerdote speaker series, which also has featured Elie Wiesel, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Rudy Giuliani, Margaret Thatcher, Madeline Albright, Desmond Tutu. Condaleeza Rice, Al Gore — you get the picture.
Tom Brokaw? In that group? Really?
But he was treated as royalty by faculty and students alike, as if he was some expert on the stories he “announced” or “covered” as an anchor on the scene (like the fall of the Berlin wall). It all made me nauseous.
It’s not all Brokaw’s fault, as I’ve noted. People are worshipful of TV talking heads, and if that means the heads tend to swell even bigger, you can’t totally blame the brain inside. It’s being pumped up by outside forces.
And I’m sure a lot of the TV people like Brokaw try to be self-effacing and humble and oh-so “aw shucks, I’m not so special.”
But they still rise to the praise and seem pretty well self-satisfied, enough so that many write (or at least put their names on) books about their views or experiences (although they tend to take on subjects of personal interest, like their dads or dogs or a fictional mystery or “the Greatest Generation”). Their names on book mean they sell off the shelves, of course.
At times, I wonder if I should consider a prospect opposite from what I’m espousing. Just maybe people like Brokaw, his successor Brian Williams, Diane Sawyer, Matt Lauer, et al., actually are that wonderful and smart and worth our admiration, above many others in the field.
By extension, then, I would have to mull whether their counterparts on the local level – the anchors and reporters for the local TV stations that I’ve seen in action firsthand over three decades as a small-town journalist — also are the equivalent of those practicing the journalism craft for print operations in their towns.
And that idea is frankly laughable. Sorry. I’ve met some very nice local broadcasters over the years, and I can think of one radio jack-of-all-trades who worked as hard and was every bit as capable as any print reporter or editor I’ve come across. Just one. In 30-plus years of small-town journalism.
Otherwise, as a group, they are hit-and-run, quick-take, surface-only reporters.
And they are, understandably, vain. Appearance is a major part of their job. But this is not a quality associated with good journalism.
In addition, most appear primarily focused on gaining enough experience to get to a larger market. Very few stay long. If they can’t move up, they get out.
It is a little easier not to laugh at the idea that news people on the national level are not as comparably vain, career-centered, shallow and unskilled as the local TV versions. They are presumably the best in their field and must have earned some respect and in-depth experience on their rise to the top
But my observations and reading of news accounts about these people indicate otherwise, so I do still laugh, when I’m not in full-mock mode.
Is there anyone who rises above the fray?
I admire Lester Holt on NBC, a straight-ahead, hard-working, few-frills news anchor who also seems to have kept a humble head despite the adoring masses.
I’ve also seen some weekend hosts or substitute anchors that seem similarly worth their positions while personally understated, like Maggie Rodriguez on ABC.
In conclusion — I have no conclusion. I have to just go with a weak cliché: It is what it is.
A splintering of national televised news into more outlets (CNN, FOX, MSNBC) has not lowered the egocentric nature of its lead practitioners. One can only hope that the younger generation, paying less and less attention to traditional news operations, will lower their profile.
On the other hand, the youth of America are turning their attention even more to broadcast media (on phones, tablets, etc.) and do not seem any less inclined to treat celebrity news people with any less reverence.
Granted, it’s not one of the more pressing issues of our time, but when we give undo credence to these airy talking heads (as it seems conservatives particularly do, with Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and the other Fox TV people), it does raise the specter of being greatly misinformed or misled.
While we’re on the topic of TV news people:
The coverage of Hurricane Sandy’s East Coast smash once again brought us the age-old silliness of putting anchors “on the scene” of disasters (or other major news events).
Certainly nothing diminishes the sature or integrity of these news representatives more than the sight of them struggling against the howling winds and rains of a major storm while leading coverage on their newscasts.
The same can be said of TV reporters put in harm’s way — being blown sideways on a beach or standing knee-deep in water on a street — as they report their stories.
It’s just so unnecessary, unless they ‘re intentionally setting themselves up to be the laughingstock of the internet, Jon Stewart or your average news viewer.
Just what do they think they’re doing?
Do they really think people give more credence to a news event or the news anchor if he or she is standing or sitting at the scene of a news event – like the West Virginia shootings, the Michael Jackson funeral, the earthquake-ravaged Haiti (all of which were converged upon by news anchors)?
News flash: They don’t.
Do they not see how rediculous it looks to be talking about the dangers of a storm — or, worse, the forced evacuations of people in its path — while standing in the middle of it?
News flash: You look stupid, at best, irresponsible, at worst.
In the latest sorry episode, we had the otherwise-dignified CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley looking sadly windswept near a New Jersey beach Monday night as Hurricane Sandy was approaching.
Now, this guy is attempting to be the serious face of a resurgent evening news operation — putting himself front and center each week for the network’s legendary and highly esteemed “60 Minutes” program — and he goes ahead and inexplicably stands like a drenched circus clown on a rainy beach.
It certainly has no news value, so why do it? So you can show you are not just a talking head but do indeed get out and cover news?
Really, this is just an ego thing for these anchors, a big show, an excuse to do some traveling and be part of the action rather than appear to be sitting apart from it, in the studio.
But even morning-show weather jokesters like Al Roker should clearly realize that standing in the middle of a storm only makes them look mentally challenged, as opposed to giving their reports greater credibility.
We would believe their reports just as much if they gave them from their customary studio positions, drawing on reports from persons authorized to be on the scene or, if they can’t be reached, a reporter.