tyndall report posts
Why Is Campaign 2016 So Newsworthy?Why Is Campaign 2016 So Newsworthy?
Andrew Tyndall2016-02-11T08:56:22-08:00only 246 minutes of coverage on the three broadcast networks' weekday nightly newscasts during January. That is far less than the last three election-year Januaries.
Here is the sequence for the month of January for the last eight cycles: 2016 -- 246; 2012 -- 363; 2008 -- 520; 2004 -- 324; 2000 -- 211; 1996 -- 70; 1992 -- 107; 1988 -- 245.
What has happened? Can our senses be deceiving us? It feels like the news is all-election all-the-time. So why the lull?
Never fear, politics fans. The January number is merely an aberration of the calendar. This year the Iowa caucuses were not held until February 1st so there was no actual voting in January 2016. By contrast, in 2012 and 2008, not only had the caucusgoers of Iowa met before January ended, but votes had been cast in the primaries of New Hampshire and South Carolina and Florida too.
The first week of February has already logged an additional 117 minutes of campaign coverage. We are well on track to continue the trend of 2015 (see the Year in Review 2015), which was the second heaviest penultimate year of campaign coverage in our database, second only to the build up to Campaign 2008.
This increased attention paid to the Presidential election campaign appears, at first sight, to represent an increased interest in politics. Yet it coincides with two contradictory countervailing trends. First, the interest in non-Presidential electoral politics (the mid-term elections, statewide Senate and Gubernatorial campaigns) has actually fallen at the same time as Presidential coverage has increased (see the Year in Review 2014). Second, coverage of actual politics (rather than electoral politics), namely the business of the federal government in its various branches, has also fallen (trend data here).
So, the enormous attention paid to the Presidential campaign represents a shift in the mix of political coverage rather than an increased interest in politics per se. So much interest in who is going to be the next President! So little interest in what the President does as soon as he (or she?) enters the Oval Office!
I draw two conclusions. One concerns the structure of the permanent Presidential campaign, which is that of a Reality TV contest, with easily identifiable, oversized, caricaturish personalities, a format that is tailor-made for television. The second suggests that the Presidential campaign is not just about politics: in addition, it stands proxy for the vast socio-economic and demographic disruptions that are roiling the nation, dramatizing issues of far greater scope than the mere power of the federal government.
Think of the most newsworthy of all Presidential elections, Campaign 2008 -- McCain, Rodham Clinton, Obama -- in which a trio of oversized personalities represented issues as huge as the legacy of the Vietnam War, the impact of the Feminist Movement, the rise of multiethnic multiculturalism.
The same, I suspect, is happening now during Campaign 2016, with its own new cast of oversized personalities, and its own set of overarching abstract themes that television journalism has a hard time covering directly, precisely because of their abstract nature, but is able to refer to symbolically, via the coverage of the candidates.
Here, finally, we find, embedded in the dramatic structure of a Reality TV contest, a forum where we can grapple with the societal resonance of the War on Terrorism following 9/11, of the Financial Collapse of 2008, of Globalization & Immigration. Here finally, the inchoate forces of the nativist Tea Party and the anti-capitalist Occupy Wall Street find their embodiment, in the figures of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
And who knows? If the fate of the Democratic nomination turns out to be decided by a contest over who wins the African-American vote, Campaign 2016 may be the vehicle by which Black Lives Matter, too, enters the political mainstream.]]>Campaign 2016 Coverage: Annual Totals for 2015Campaign 2016 Coverage: Annual Totals for 2015
2. The annual total of 1031 minutes is higher than any other penultimate year of the last seven Presidential campaigns, except for 2007 (1991 = 146; 1995 = 294; 1999 = 339; 2003 = 167; 2007 = 1072; 2011 = 790).
3. NBC Nightly News has covered Campaign 2016 more heavily than its rivals (417 mins vs ABC 324, CBS 290). NBC spent most time on both the Republican race (278 mins vs ABC 235, CBS 189) and the Democratic race (104 mins vs ABC 76, CBS 69).
4. The Republican race is more than twice as newsworthy than the Democratic race (701 mins vs 248 -- with 82 mins of coverage with no partisan focus). Besides the fact that there are many more Republican candidates than Democratic ones, the GOP debates have made much more news than the Democrats' (123 mins vs 25).
5. Donald Trump is by far the most newsworthy storyline of Campaign 2016, alone accounting for almost a third of all coverage (327 mins or 32%), more than the entire Democratic contest combined. The other GOP candidates, in order of prominence, were Jeb Bush (57 mins), Ben Carson (57), Marco Rubio (22).
6. Hillary Rodham Clinton has been the second most newsworthy candidate (121 mins), with an additional 88 mins devoted to the controversy over her e-mails as Secretary of State and 29 mins to the investigations into the Benghazi Consulate attack. The second most newsworthy Democrat was a non-candidate: 73 mins on Joe Biden's decision not to run.
7. Noticeably under-covered have been the current second-placed candidate in each party's national opinion polls: Ted Cruz has attracted only 21 mins, Bernie Sanders only 20 mins.
NOTE: this post originally contained Year-to-Date numbers for the first eleven months of 2015. Those prelminary data have been updated and replaced by these annual totals. The addition of the final month made no material change to these findings.]]>Donald Trump Poses Looming Loyalty Test for FOX News ChannelDonald Trump Poses Looming Loyalty Test for FOX News Channel
Andrew Tyndall2015-08-19T09:55:56-08:00The Hollywood Reporter is cross-posted here.
"Are we in a reality show?" asked NBC's Chuck Todd on Meet the Press on August 16th. "No. This is not a reality show. This is the real deal," replied Donald Trump.
Trump was dissembling. Of course, we are in a reality show. Trump's answer implied a binary: either he is a reality TV character or his candidacy is authentic. The choice is false: his candidacy is authentic and the campaign is structured according to the principles of reality television.
Just as in reality TV shows, modern Presidential campaigns are a series of ordeals that place candidates under such a spotlight that we can glimpse their true character under stress. So far in Campaign 2016, only Trump's persona -- as the nativist populist with no time for political correctness -- has captured the imagination, which is why he has dominated coverage to date. The debates are the winnowing process for Trump's main rivals to hone their alternate personas.
For the mainstream television news media -- the broadcast networks and CNN -- this reality TV structure offers a safe haven in increasingly polarized times. The mainstream craves a political position of impartiality. The highly partisan mid-term elections of 2014, for example, held no appeal for the weekday nightly newscasts of the broadcast networks, attracting only 133 minutes of coverage all year, fewer than any of the previous six midterm cycles. By contrast, in the first seven months of 2015 (some eighteen months before Election Day), Campaign 2016 already has attracted 242 minutes.
The emergence of Trump is golden. So far this August, the three broadcast networks' supposedly-august Sunday morning political shows all have waived their usual insistence that interview subjects appear on camera. Trump was allowed to phone it in. The skilled reality-TV performer has an ear for the outrageous soundbite, all the better to lead a newscast. He understands that confrontation makes compelling television, thus freeing journalists to be less mealy-mouthed in their interviewing.
Fox News debate moderator Megyn Kelly, when she confronted Trump about his history of sexism, must have been aware that reality TV can make a star of the panel member as easily as of the contestant. For Kelly, this was her Simon Cowell moment. The resulting feud was priceless: Trump's vision of a bleeding Kelly; the journalistic high ground seized by Chris Wallace, FNC's Sunday anchor, refusing to accept Trump's phone-in; a conciliatory call between Trump and Roger Ailes, FNC's chief; Trump's reappearance on FNC programs as Kelly took her vacation.
Vince McMahon could not have choreographed a finer brouhaha with his WWE wrestlers.
Reality TV false-feuds aside, FNC may face a serious issue arising from Trump's candidacy that the mainstream networks can happily ignore. The problem stems from FNC's dual role: a media enterprise whose objective is to maximize ratings and a political enterprise whose objective is to maximize the electoral prospects of the Republican Party. It has not happened yet, but the day may come when FNC's media ambitions and its political ambitions collide. It could be that Trump's brand of nativist, chauvinist populism that drives ratings might turn out to be toxic to the Republicans' prospects of assembling an electoral majority.
If such a day comes, FNC may have to decide whether its loyalty is to its viewers or to Republican would-be rulers. My bet is that Ailes, if forced, prefers to make reality TV rather than real governments.]]>Donald Trump Hogs Headlines -- And Quite Right TooDonald Trump Hogs Headlines -- And Quite Right Too
Andrew Tyndall2015-07-29T06:09:31-08:00here, here, and here), Lindsey Graham's cellphone number (here, here, and here), and a whistlestop to Laredo for a border inspection (here, here, and here) confirmed Donald Trump's position as the leading newsmaker of Campaign 2016 for the season to date.
Trump was the Story of the Week last week (30 mins vs 23 for Sandra Bland, the Texas jail inmate found hanged). He was the lead story on NBC Nightly News last Monday and Tuesday and on CBS Evening News on Monday.
Here are the statistics for the summer so far (data represent coverage since the beginning of June through last Friday, July 24th, on the weekday nightly newscasts of the three broadcast networks):
-- Coverage of Donald Trump now accounts for more than half of Campaign 2016 coverage on all three newscasts combined (60 minutes out of 114 -- 52%)
-- NBC continues to cover Trump much more heavily than its two rivals, both in absolute time (35 mins vs CBS 16, ABC 8) and in proportion of Campaign 2016 coverage (62% vs CBS 53%, ABC 31%)
-- NBC is the overall leader in Campaign 2016 coverage of all types (56 mins vs CBS 31, ABC 27) yet its emphasis on Trump has not been at the expense of other aspects of the campaign. The three newscasts are closer to parity in total time for non-Trump-related campaign stories (NBC 21 mins vs CBS 15, ABC 19)
So, have the networks, and NBC in particular, made the correct journalistic decision to treat Trump as the main campaign event of the summer?
Huffington Post, famously, disagrees with the network newscasts, deciding that Trump belongs in the same category -- "Entertainment" -- as the Kardashians and The Bachelorette and has removed him from its "Politics" section. At PressThink, Jay Rosen endorses HuffPo for its "sensible proposition." This is how Rosen understands its stance: "There's a different logic driving Trump's campaign. So we re-classified it."
As for me, I dissent from my friend Professor Rosen and the Huffington decision. I side with the networks and the leadership position taken by NBC News.
Clearly, the rationale for NBC's decision could be based on nothing more than the network's institutional memory of Trump as a ratings magnet when the star of its primetime reality TV Apprentice franchise. Add in a sprinkling of corporate animus as NBC-Universal prepares to face off with the billionaire in a court case over its decision to cancel Trump's Miss USA and Miss Universe beauty pageants. Assume that Trump's candidacy will eventually self-destruct, and you can imagine the suits at Rockefeller Plaza taking extra pleasure from watching it do so in a hefty blaze of publicity, courtesy of their own news division.
Be that as it may -- crass ratings grabbing and potential schadenfreude aside -- I have two civic-minded arguments for agreeing that Trump warrants the prominence he has been afforded so far this campaign season.
First, to dismiss Trump's Presidential candidacy as a sideshow to the Republican primary contest proper because he is unelectable, and because his policy platforms are facetious, is to misconstrue the political function of the primary process.
Granted, eventually, the primaries culminate in the party's selection of its nominee -- but only eventually. Equally important, and preceding the selection itself, every four years the primary contest functions as a re-evaluation of the relative strengths of the various components of a party's coalition: a proving ground for those positions that have acquired more salience, a waste disposal system for those that no longer resonate, and the establishment of the pecking order for the coalition's constituent sociological and ideological groupings.
In his buffoonery, Trump appears to be the caricature of a Republican that the imaginings of an Occupy Wall Street protestor might dream up: a know-nothing nativist, ranting about Mexican rapists…an unreconstructed chauvinist, organizing televised contests of breast-enhanced bikini-clad beauty queens…a workplace nightmare of a boss, delighting so much in employee insecurity that he makes You're Fired his catchphrase…the embodiment of the inequality of wealth distribution in this second Gilded Age, insisting that a plutocrat, and only a plutocrat, is fit to rule this republic.
Yet it turns out that Trump's participation in the primary contest is a test. How much is he a mere caricature? How much does his worldview represent a significant faction of the Republican coalition? NBC's political director Chuck Todd is certain that Trump's support is not imaginary. He describes them as voters "who feel marginalized themselves." Trump's bombast, for his supporters, represents the plain-speaking of one unconstrained by mainstream rules of political correctness, of one wealthy enough not to have to curb his tongue to kowtow to fat-cat contributors.
It is one of the failings of the networks' nightly newscasts that they find Presidential primary politics easier to cover than Congressional legislative politics. The large personalities of the stump are so much more vivid than the corridors of the Capitol. Were that not the case, the networks' political correspondents would already have reported on the extent of the influence of the reactionary populists to whom Trump appeals. They may "feel marginalized" but their marginalization does not exist in fact: they have sufficient veto power within the House Republican caucus that legislation that could have attracted a bipartisan majority -- on immigration, for example, or carbon emissions, or infrastructure funding -- never came to a vote.
Trump's supporters may represent a base that is indispensible to Republicans to maintain control of the House, yet their attitudes may be so toxic that they constitute an insurmountable obstacle to assembling a national majority to gain control of the White House. Such are the trade-offs of coalition building. And he embodies them.
Second, Trump's candidacy represents a crossroads in conservatism.
It is one of the perennial conundrums of contemporary television news: why -- when the electorate is evenly divided left and right, Democrat and Republican -- is the conservative-targeted FOX News Channel so much more successful than MSNBC, its liberal-progressive counterpart?
Leaving aside the question of whether FNC produces more compelling programing, delivered by a more accomplished roster of talking heads, the disparity between the sizes of their audiences also tells us about the asymmetry of contemporary politics.
Groups belonging to the left-leaning electoral coalition enjoy a diverse, and non-overlapping, assortment of media outlets for self-expression: many are not part of the news media, but belong in the spheres of entertainment, lifestyle and ethnic identity instead. Thus MSNBC's left-leaning political programing is marginal and only partially representative of the coalition's cultural identity.
The diversity of the right-leaning electoral coalition, on the other hand, is represented much more readily by political markers. Sociological and cultural formations on the right find an easy shorthand in hot-button public policy issues: the right-to-life, the Second Amendment, border security, the War on Christmas, suspicion of Islam, global warming skepticism and so on. To be sure, all of these (except the War on Christmas) are active political issues -- and therefore exist in the sweet spot of news coverage for a cable network like FNC -- but they are also markers of an identity that is cultural rather than political to the component groups of conservatism.
FNC is therefore a news channel and a cultural one, comprehensively, for conservatives in a way that MSNBC cannot mirror. Put another way, contemporary conservatism is simultaneously a political formation and a cultural one. As a consequence, it has spawned an entire media-industrial complex -- not just FNC, but talk radio, and book publishing, and the lecture circuit -- and a splendidly lucrative one at that.
This is where Trump comes in. The logical conclusion of conservatism-as-culture rather than conservatism-as-politics is that it creates -- and attracts -- celebrities. None is more adept at exploiting that spotlight than Trump. While his stylings may not be designed to appeal to voters but to audiences instead, his logic turns out not to be "different" at all, as HuffPo would put it, but mainstream conservative.
This is the second reason why Trump's participation in the Republican primary contest is not only newsworthy but politically important. Trump is exposing the contradiction that lies at the heart of contemporary conservatism. Is it a political movement, whose goal is governing? Or is it a cultural movement, whose goal is maximizing audiences by offering a sense of identity to an embattled minority resentful against a changing world? If the latter, Trump's inimitable mixture of bombast, outrageousness, polarization, insult, and egoism fits right in. If the former, the electoral necessities of outreach, bridge-building, the big tent, and constructive policy proposals make Trump anathema.
Coverage of the campaign has not yet reached the point of choosing nominees, let alone the process of choosing a President, with its conventions and debates and opinion polls and swing states. When those phases do arrive, Trump will be old news.
In the meantime, the Republican Party is engaged in resolving these two crucial contradictions. First, does it jettison its reactionary nativist-populist minority -- at the risk of losing control of the House of Representatives -- in order to have a better chance at winning the White House by detoxifying its image? Second, does it decouple from the embattled, resentful conservatism that is such a powerful and lucrative media phenomenon? Does it present itself as a majority party of government rather than a minority party of culture?
The prominence of Trump proves that these questions are currently much more important than the question of who the eventual nominee might be.]]>On the Telephone with Lester HoltOn the Telephone with Lester Holt
Andrew Tyndall2015-06-22T01:04:55-08:00Nightly News anchor, the public relations people at NBC News slotted me in for a 15-minute q-&-a with Lester Holt on the telephone. Holt likened himself to an air traffic controller handling landing slots as they piled up over LaGuardia Airport.
In order to cover as many issues as possible in the landing slot provided for me, I e-mailed him my six questions in advance. With the questions thus stipulated, our exchange was more conversational than a formal question-&-answer interview, so I am paraphrasing his answers here rather than quoting him verbatim. To make sure my paraphrases were not misleading, I ran them past the PR people at 30 Rock.
I was most impressed by his answer to #5, and his reflections on the role of the newscast anchor in the social media age. I suppose that impressed me most because I happen to agree with it.
Here is my pre-interview submission: "Some of my questions are based on premises that I have generated from my own work. Since I do not want these assumptions to seem like an ambush in an interview, I thought it would be wiser to submit my questions in writing in advance. In this way, if you cannot answer any question because you challenge my assumption, you can do so directly, without being evasive or seeming to stonewall. Since I am submitting my questions in writing, please feel free to answer them by e-mail in writing, if you would prefer. Otherwise I look forward to talking by telephone, as agreed."
Here are the results:
1.You have been given the job of nightly anchor without the accompanying position of managing editor, as is customary. You know that my opinion is that the managing editor title is honorary and symbolic, not functional, so the nature of your relationship as anchor with the executive producer will be no different from that of your predecessors. Am I correct in this opinion? If not, which of the traditional roles and responsibilities of the anchor will you not be exercising because of your lack of managing editor status?
No, in the process of daily story selection the title of managing editor included the power of veto, or insistence on inclusion. Without such a title the anchor is merely one of a group of three that makes daily decisions by consensus, the other two being the executive producer and the senior broadcast producer. Holt's role involves persuading the other two, if there is a disagreement, not overruling them, a role he has always occupied, never having been the managing editor of anything. As for long-term strategic planning by NBC News management -- as opposed to daily story conferences -- Holt expects to have a consultative role not a decision-making one.
2.As you know, I have found it useful to describe NBC Nightly News as a "Goldilocks newscast," positioning itself midway between the format, style and story selection of the rival newscasts at ABC and CBS on a series of different metrics. There is an alternate way to differentiate the three newscasts: not as positions on a linear spectrum, but in triangular fashion, characterizing each as having skills and specialties that are distinct from the other two. What triangulated specialties does NBC's newscast possess that I am overlooking with my Goldilocks formulation?
Holt asserts that he makes it a point of principle not to scrutinize the content of his rival newscasts, so he does not feel qualified to characterize the relative strengths of the three. He says he routinely watches ABC World News Tonight and CBS Evening News, live, out of the corner of his eye, on monitors at the anchor desk. I find this claim credible, since he congratulated both his rivals for producing a quality newscast. If he were watching closely, that compliment would apply only to one of them. The hallmark attribute he claimed for NBC Nightly News was "relevance," a term that one hears so frequently from broadcast journalists to describe their product that it has become devoid of meaning.
3.Specifically, for many years, both before and after the death of Tim Russert, a unique hallmark of NBC Nightly News, and NBC's news division generally, was the pre-eminence of its DC Bureau. In recent years, NBC has scaled back inside-the-Beltway. For example: the White House is no longer the most important correspondent position; the 2014 mid-term elections received record low coverage; no replacement has been hired to fill Lisa Myers' investigative position; the DC bureau is no longer assigned the daily political agenda-setting hour at 9am on MSNBC. Should the DC bureau and coverage of the role of the federal government have pride of place on the NBC Nightly News? Or is it appropriate that its role has been scaled back?
Holt refuted the claim that the DC bureau has lost its pre-eminence recently, either compared with its status under Russert, or compared to the other two bureaus. He emphasized that NBC News has a full-time Congressional correspondent in Kelly O'Donnell, the mention of which I interpreted as a reference to ABC's lack thereof. My statistics do indeed show that NBC's DC bureau is vibrant vis-à-vis ABC, but not vis-à-vis CBS. He defended the recent heavy coverage of local stories (Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia) on his national newscast by invoking the most recent such local headline, the AME church massacre in Charleston SC, as an event of national and historical scope.
4.Concerning the relationship of NBC Nightly News to its NBC-Universal corporate siblings: at the moment there is minimal visibility for MSNBC (Andrea Mitchell aside), CNBC (no coverage of Greece & Euro, very little on the Pacific Trade debate), The Weather Channel (extreme weather is covered by meteorologists like Al Roker rather than climatologists in the context of global warming), or Telemundo (Latin America, except for Cuba, is low on Nightly's agenda). Can we expect similar disdain for NBC Sports next summer in Rio de Janeiro? Will Nightly News, under your anchorship, discontinue its shameful shilling for your corporate sibling NBC Sports and its Olympics coverage?
There was no sign of enthusiasm from Holt for expanding or deepening the synergies between his newscast and other parts of NBC-Universal's newsgathering operation. He said he consulted the feed from his corporate siblings at his daily assignment meetings but gave no indication that he was interested in giving them especial prominence, nor in cross-promoting his own newscast on those sibling channels. I told him that I mentioned the Olympics merely as a provocation and did not need to hear his answer. He understood the exchange in the spirit in which it was framed.
5.The prospects for audience growth for your newscast lie not in television, a mature medium, but online, specifically in mobile video. Is it your view that the traditional 120-second-long correspondent's package is the appropriate format for re-purposing in mobile video? If not, and if mobile video requires a different tempo and visual style from television, does this mean that NBC Nightly News will adapt its style to make its content re-purposeable? Or does it mean that packages have to be produced in two separate visual styles: one televisual, one mobile?
Holt has a clear strategy for expanding his newscast through social media, but it is not by retooling its visual style. He is committed to promoting his correspondents as experts in their various beats, consulting with them before airtime on how to preview their packages, and having them provide supplemental and detailed information on their reporting, using their identities as an NBC brand to make it accessible on social media not just at the newshour but round the clock. In answering this question Holt was clearly talking the talk of the anchor as the enabler of a cohort of correspondents rather than the persona through whom all news flows each evening.
6.Last, on a personal note, Brian Williams confessed that it was when he stepped away from the newsroom that he became "sloppy" and told tall tales. Has NBC News management applied those lessons to you? Have you been instructed that you may not promote the newscast in non-journalistic environments such as late-night talkshows and comedy skits? If you have received no such instructions, will you restrain yourself from accepting such invitations voluntarily? What steps will you take to ensure that you remain a journalist and do not become a celebrity?
No, management had laid down no ground rules for avoiding show business. No, he would not talk about his predecessor's problems. No, he rejected the premise that it was possible for a nightly news anchor to fail to become a celebrity. The fact of appearing in millions of households each and every night and the fact of the television medium, which makes anonymity impossible, makes celebrity unavoidable. And no, Holt does not see that such celebrity inevitably leads to sloppiness in truthtelling (that was the closest I could come to get him to refer to Williams).]]>My Ego Is Getting the Better of MeMy Ego Is Getting the Better of Me
Andrew Tyndall2015-06-19T03:28:18-08:00 cross-posted at The Hollywood Reporter:
For the sake of argument, let's take NBC News at its word. Let's assume that Brian Williams really has been assigned to MSNBC "to strengthen its daytime coverage by further leveraging NBC News' expertise in breaking news," as the press release says. Goodness knows: MSNBC is the biggest single headache facing NBC News management. The cable channel needs all the help it can get.
Never mind that the decision to assign Williams to MSNBC after removing him from his Nightly News anchor chair for transgressions against the truth looks like an insult to MSNBC and its viewers: "Not truthful enough for Nightly, but good enough for MSNBC." Williams looks like sloppy seconds.
Never mind that this second humiliation of the once-vaunted anchor -- first a suspension without pay, now a demotion to the minor leagues from whence he came -- appears to amount to pressure on Williams to resign of his own accord, thus relieving Comcast of the cost of buying out his extravagant contract. It certainly looked like humiliation at the end of the second part of his interview on Today with Matt Lauer, when the normally too-cool Williams had beads of sweat running down his face as he composed his own obituary: "…chastened and grateful…mindful of his mistakes...hoping for forgiveness and acceptance…"
Never mind that the reassignment is accompanied by the absence of any specifics about its rationale. Neither NBC News nor Williams himself in his interview with Lauer elaborated on the "number of inaccurate statements about his own role and experiences" found in the network's own extensive internal review. So it conveniently avoids any accounting by management for its culpable lack of oversight of its star. As Williams confessed to Lauer: "I told stories that were not true over the years."
Let's, for the sake argument, give NBC News and its newly re-appointed president Andrew Lack the benefit of the doubt and assume that Williams has been reassigned as part of the plan to restore the news division to the place of pre-eminence it occupied when Lack was last president and, in particular, to revive the fortunes of MSNBC.
First, concerning MSNBC: Comcast, when it took over NBC-Universal, made the fateful decision to end the integration of MSNBC and NBC News on the broadcast side. It set up a Chinese wall between broadcast and cable, each with its own president, who reported in turn not to a journalist but to Pat Fili-Krushel, an administrator. The rationale for this separation was ideological: a centrist broadcast news division would not alienate political partisans; and a liberal-progressive cable news operation would appeal explicitly to a partisan audience.
This separation was a disaster. The potential advantage of ideological clarity that it afforded turned out to have been far outweighed by its journalistic disadvantages. MSNBC has been weakened as a venue for coverage of breaking news by its diminished ability to tap the resources of NBC News. NBC News has been weakened by no longer being able to use MSNBC as a farm system to test its up-and-coming talent and as a showcase for its correspondents' expertise.
The rehiring of Lack, with control over both broadcast and cable, was a signal that Comcast was rethinking this separation. Until the reassignment of Williams, however, he had not yet implemented important changes at MSNBC on the programing level. So, giving Lack the benefit of the doubt, this could be the first sign of reeling MSNBC's ideology back in, reconfiguring it as a news channel rather than a politics channel. Hence Williams' reference -- to my ear a disingenuous one -- to his cable roots as a breaking news anchor in the second part of the Lauer interview, claiming that when viewers stop him in the street they remind him of his coverage of the TWA 800 crash or the death of Lady Diana.
By the way, while he is at it, it would behoove Lack also to reincorporate CNBC into the NBC News fold. As an independent channel, CNBC has scaled back on its coverage of the macro-economy, monetary, fiscal and trade issues. Instead it has become a talking shop for stock touts and day traders. When the global financial system collapsed in 2008, the coverage at NBC News was superior because it could call on the economists, financial reporters and banking experts of CNBC. Lack should want them available again for when the next crisis happens.
Second, concerning Williams: let's give him the benefit of the doubt, too, and accept his explanation that it was the celebrity spotlight -- the occasions when he was away from the newsroom -- that made him tell stories that made him seem "sharper, funnier, quicker" than he actually is. The urge to show off in a show-business environment "came from a bad place…a bad urge inside of me," he confessed to Lauer. In the most convoluted phrase of the interview, Williams described the phenomenon as "my ego getting the better of me."
In the announcement of Williams' reassignment to MSNBC there was no mention that he would have to stay away from the environment that made him stray from the truth. No more late-night talk-show couches. No more slow-jammin' the news. No more Saturday Night Live skits. No more college commencement addresses. No more New York Rangers games with decorated veterans.
The best way for a news organization to promote its journalism is journalistically, not through celebrity stunts. Williams the late-night-raconteur was a counterproductive image for an anchor, even if had been scrupulous with the truth while telling his anecdotes. If, when he is out of the newsroom he is also out of the celebrity spotlight, that will be good-faith evidence that he has found a way to resist the "bad urge inside me" to deviate from the truth. It will also make NBC News as a whole seem more trustworthy.
We'll see.]]>Lester Holt's Caretaker RoleLester Holt's Caretaker Role
To decipher press release code, Lack's praise for Holt includes a backhanded swipe against the departing Williams, whose prose style when introducing each night's lead story had become increasingly ornate over the years. During Williams' unpaid leave of absence from the anchor chair, one of the clearest changes that Holt has made to NBC's newscast has been to revert to a short, declaratory introduction to the day's top story before self-effacingly handing over to the actual correspondent reporting from the field.
An analysis of NBC's newscast under Holt-as-caretaker offers clues about what to expect now Holt is permanent anchor. Notably, Holt has not been named managing editor as well, as is customary. Inside Cable News argues that this is a sign of trouble ahead for Holt. I disagree: the executive producer always has the guiding hand over the composition of the newscast; the title of managing editor is a mere honorific.
The data quoted here cover the three full months of Holt's role as caretaker: March through May (the stint also included portions of February and June, not counted here). During that period, more than half of the three-network newshole (1940 minutes out of 3635) consisted of local stories -- rather than national, federal, or global ones -- led by a trio of big-city headlines from the northeast corridor: the Boston Marathon bombing death penalty trial, the Philadelphia Amtrak derailment, and police misconduct in Baltimore.
Under anchor David Muir, ABC has generally skewed its story selection in order to emphasize local news (712 minutes vs CBS 587, NBC 640) so Holt's newscast during these months found itself playing to ABC's strength. All of the three trips Holt made to anchor from the field during this time period were for such local stories: to Philadelphia and to Baltimore -- and to South Carolina to interview the videographer of the killing of an unarmed man, shot in the back while running away by a police officer.
Holt inherited a newscast whose format and story selection occupied the middle ground between its two rivals. ABC is becoming more quick-paced, more video-centric, more action-oriented than ever (the average length of a correspondent's package on ABC is now 87 seconds vs CBS 121, NBC 121). Scott Pelley's old-school newscast at CBS continues to cover foreign policy, international affairs and the federal government most heavily. NBC under Holt, as much as under Williams, aimed for the Goldilocks touch...
…not too much Crime-&-Storms-&-Accidents (in minutes of coverage)
Crime: ABC 204, CBS 188, NBC 181
Weather: ABC 154, CBS 111, NBC 137
Transportation: ABC 174, CBS 117, NBC 135
…not too little Policy-&-Diplomacy-&-Globetrotting
Domestic Federal Government: ABC 101, CBS 155, NBC 148
US Foreign Policy: ABC 63, CBS 115, NBC 88
International: ABC 140, CBS 227, NBC 162
Away from the headlines, Lack's reference to Holt's ability to find the "most direct connection to the everyday lives of our audience" was presumably an oblique reference to his non-celebrity status, compared with Williams.
It is significant that both the internal investigation into Williams by NBC News and Williams' own mea culpainterview on Today with Matt Lauer pointed to Williams' celebrity as his problem. Both asserted that in the role of on-air journalist Williams' misstatements of fact were negligible; the tall tales, embellishments and self-aggrandizement occurred for the most part in his celebrity appearances in the role of late-night raconteur.
As early as last September, five months before Williams found himself in trouble because of his fib about his Iraq War helicopter flight, I noted that, to coincide with Muir's arrival at ABC, his newscast had increased its celebrity spotlight. In addition, Williams made a daily feature of the Third Block, some 20 minutes into the newsast after the second island of commercials, to showcase his special talents: his sardonic sense of humor, observations on pop culture, a potpourri of celebrity obituaries, viral headlines and offbeat curiosities. Here too Holt has modified the newscast to make the anchor's role less prominent. Under Williams during 2014, the average length of the Third Block was 135 seconds; the self-effacing Holt's lasts just 86.
When it comes to the selection of topics for feature coverage, instead of a celebrity focus, NBC under Holt has tended to opt either for social issues or for human interest. Recent series on social issues have included such topics as hacking and Internet security (here, here, and here) or the drought in California (here and here). Human interest series have included cancer patients bankrupted by the astronomical price of medication (here and here), genetic testing for potential diseases (here, here, and here), and, to coincide with the Caitlyn Jenner story on ABC, Kate Snow's pair of profiles of transgender in pre-pubescence (here and here).
Holt's four-month probationary period has been remarkably light on headline-grabbing stories, on inside-the-Beltway controversies, and on international crises. Campaign 2016 is still in its infancy, although under Holt, NBC has decided to cover it heaviest, earliest (40 mins March-May vs ABC 18, CBS 23).
Under its current configuration, ABC is least well equipped to cover serious and consequential news when it does break out: its DC bureau, for example, has become the neglected orphan (114 mins vs CBS 210, NBC 199). Even though he was talking in code, Lack's promise of an NBC newscast that is more straight-talking, less celebrity-oriented under Holt positions it properly for when the news environment turns more national and international, and more serious, as it surely will. The straws in the wind during Holt's caretaker role indicate that Lack's words are not mere flack-speak but have actual substance.]]>ABC News Must Thread the Needle on StephanopoulosABC News Must Thread the Needle on Stephanopoulos
Andrew Tyndall2015-05-15T07:21:31-08:00This Week interview with author Peter Schweizer about the ethics of the Clinton Foundation. Stephanopoulos was a donor, at the $25K-a-year level, to the foundation and did not disclose the fact, either to Schweizer or to his audience, at the outset of the interview. This is a basic breach of obvious journalistic protocols.
According to The New York Times, Stephanopoulos also failed to disclose the donation internally at ABC News, in violation of its explicit policy that "an employee making a donation to a charity must disclose that to us before covering a story related to that organization." Stephanopoulos owed us all an apology -- and he duly delivered it via Dylan Byers at Politico.
So far so clear: if that non-disclosure is the limit to Stephanopoulos' wrongdoing then we should all accept his apology and carry on, business as usual. Yet business is not as usual. Stephanopoulos has formally recused himself as moderator of ABC News' debate during the Republican primary season (informally, obviously, the Republican candidates vetoed his appearance and ABC News decided not to expend its clout in order to stand by its man).
So what is unclear is whether ABC News considers that it is not just Stephanopoulos' non-disclosure that is the problem -- but the underlying donations themselves.
It would preposterous for a news organization to have problems with its journalists donating to charity. Clearly, the problem is not with a donation but a particular recipient. As npr's David Folkenflik put it on All Things Considered: "…the Clinton Foundation, this is not a -- this is not just the American Red Cross!"
What Folkenflik is implying here is that the Clinton Foundation is an illegitimate charity for a journalist to donate to. Why would that be? In the Times, Jeremy Peters & John Koblin come up with the insinuation without naming names that Stephanopoulos' motives were not altruistic at all: "He finds himself facing accusations that he was effectively trying to buy favor with his former employers as Mrs Clinton seeks the Presidency for a second time."
Even if we were to give Stephanopoulos the benefit of that particular doubt -- that his self-portrayal as an HIV-fighting tree-hugger is genuine -- that still leaves the question about The Clinton Foundation itself. Folkenflik characterized it as "a vehicle for President Bill Clinton's legacy in his retirement and also a vehicle for [Hillary Clinton] to have a national, global, public stature as she looked toward the White House herself." Following up on his criticism of Stephanopoulos in Politico, Jack Shafer e-mailed to me: "The primary sense in which the Clinton Foundation is a charity is in its paperwork."
This current storm may have George Stephanopoulos in its eye, but its underlying importance concerns the standing of the Clinton Foundation. ABC News has to decide whether it is a bona fide charity or a political placeholder for the Clinton Dynasty in its out-of-office years. If the former, then Stephanopoulos' only error was the non-disclosure and his disqualification as a debate moderator amounts to the news division's betrayal of its lead anchor.
If the latter -- the Clinton Foundation is not a legitimate charity but a fundraising front -- then ABC News (and npr's Folkenflik and Politico's Shafer and Erik Wemple at Washington Post and so on) is effectively challenging the legitimacy of Hillary Rodham Clinton herself, since the power base of her candidacy-in-waiting would be exposed as a tax fraud against the IRS and a shakedown of future favor seekers.
One only needs to look at the pushback to this idea from Bill Clinton in Cynthia McFadden's Exclusive from Nairobi on NBC to imagine the backlash ABC News would receive if it did take that extra step and decide that the foundation itself was an illegitimate recipient for donations. On the other hand, it is inconceivable that the Republican Presidential field would tolerate an ABC News position that such donations are legitimate philanthropy, as long as they are properly disclosed.
I expect ABC News to focus on George's disclosure error and to waffle on the question of the foundation's bona fides. Let's see if it can thread that needle.
UPDATE: Erik Wemple at Washington Postpoints out that Stephanopoulos second apology, on air on Good Morning America, added an admission that the underlying donations were a mistake -- not because the Clinton Foundation is a bogus charity, but because he "should have gone the extra mile to avoid even the appearance of a conflict."
My paraphrase: "I should have gone the extra mile in order to relieve my employer from having to decide whether the charity work I was supporting was bona fide, or a political front operation."]]>