tyndall report posts
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."]]>Bob Simon's Legacy: No One was Better at Setting Words to ImagesBob Simon's Legacy: No One was Better at Setting Words to Images
Andrew Tyndall2015-02-13T08:51:48-08:00The Hollywood Reporter asked me to write a tribute to CBS News' foreign correspondent Bob Simon, who died in a car crash on February 11th, 2015, at age 73. I cross-post it here:
At the dawn of television news, a foreign correspondent had to file reports on film, which was then jetted to a laboratory back home for processing, ready to appear on air several days later. This meant that actual breaking news from abroad had to be read as copy by the anchor, and that the foreign correspondent's role was to provide non-time-specific background features.
The second phase saw a conversion from film to video, and transmission by satellite rather than jetliner. This phase allowed Ted Turner to assemble his global CNN brand. It allowed ABC World News Tonight to base Peter Jennings as its live anchor in London. And for the first time, breaking foreign news could be covered in real time on a nightly basis as easily as breaking domestic stories.
The third phase -- the current one -- sees a switch from satellite to the Internet, and from tape to digital. Lightweight equipment with better cameras and microphones allow smaller, more agile crews. Broadcast correspondents are now living in the same world as VICE video and digital freelancers.
Bob Simon is most vividly remembered as the long-form reporter at 60 Minutes, his assignment for the final 15 years of his career -- and rightly so. It was there that memories of him are freshest and where his audiences were largest. Funnily enough, although it represents the most recent phase of his career, 60 Minutes' stories turn out to resemble the features of the film era.
Simon's true claim to fame in the history of television news is as the preeminent foreign correspondent of the second phase, from-videotape-to-satellite, from his posting to CBS News' Tel Aviv bureau through the end of the civil wars of the former Yugoslavia, when the broadcast networks' nightly newscasts were still dominant, before the rise of the 24-hour news channels, long before there was such a thing as digital video.
Such was the enthusiasm at the network news for breaking foreign news during that period that Simon, and his rivals at NBC and ABC, would routinely file four weeknights out of five from Israel and the West Bank at the height of the first Palestinian intifada.
Desert Storm, the 1991 war to repel Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, should have been the sweet spot of Simon's career, when both he and the network television news divisions were in their primes. Chafing at the restrictions imposed on his reporting by the Pentagon, he and his crew set off into the desert to find their own stories and famously spent the war in an Iraqi torture cell instead. If his 60 Minutes career resembled the film era, this Gulf War episode resembles the dangers facing the modern gonzo digital era.
Sandwiched between Desert Storm and the Siege of Sarajevo -- and now mostly forgotten -- came the Marines Corps' so-called humanitarian invasion of famine-riddled Somalia in December 1992. Simon, naturally, was assigned to cover the warzone and it was here that he demonstrated the chops that his Iraqi jailers prevented him from showcasing in Kuwait.
This is how the Tyndall Report described Simon's stylings in March 1993:
"After one week the anchors went back home, but their presence had done the job, justifying the deployment of so many journalistic resources to such an unaccustomed corner of the world. CBS' veteran foreign correspondent Bob Simon took up the reins, and was there as the Humvees rolled to Baidoa, yet again proving to be nonpareil at his trade. A Simon sampler:
-- At the feeding center, the children's salvation had come in the form of men dressed up like chocolate-chip cookies.
-- The Marines rode down the road to hunger, to the town that starving children had put on the map -- from the Halls of Montezuma to a room in Hell called Baidoa.
-- As soon as the Marines move on the looters will be back. Villagers pleaded with Marines to stay with them -- before the Marines moved on. At the end of the food chain is a guy with a gun.
-- This country's only export is pictures of starving children, which it trades for bags of wheat.
The days of dominance for the evening newscasts are over. His successors at CBS News -- the trio of Holly Williams, Clarissa Ward, Elizabeth Palmer -- and Richard Engel at NBC have disadvantages and advantages compared with Simon. They report to smaller audiences and have less clout to shape the national news agenda; the occasional warzone danger that Simon's plight in Iraq dramatized is now ubiquitous, as the decapitations of freelancer James Foley and Japanese TV's Kenji Goto made brutally clear. On the other hand, today's digital correspondents have more agile equipment than ever; they can get closer to the action, can collect video in the most inhospitable of conditions, and are able to conduct interviews without encumbering crews and equipment.
These technical advantages have led to two innovative styles of reporting that were not available in Simon's heyday. The first humanizes a story: CBS' Arab-speaking Ward, in particular, adds drama to her war reporting by adding the anecdotal intimacy of individual profiles. The second provides action: NBC's Engel likes to file video from the actual battlefield.
(In passing, we should note that this latter virtue of immediacy can easily turn into a vice, leading to showboating by the correspondent, making him the central character in his own reality TV show rather than observing and reporting on the actions of others)
Despite these innovations, Bob Simon's legacy reminds us of a third way in which reporters impart immediacy and insight into their stories. The medium of video is, after all, properly an audio-video medium. The audio component encompasses wild sound, yes, and soundbites by interview subjects, too. It also allows for narration by the correspondent. No one was better at setting words to images than Bob Simon. In the hurly-burly of battles, the skill required to calm down, think clearly, and write aphoristically is rare indeed -- and one that modern digital video journalists should try to emulate.]]>Brian Williams is not the Indispensable ManBrian Williams is not the Indispensable Man
Andrew Tyndall2015-02-11T07:13:52-08:00NBC Nightly News as closely as I do (by which I mean almost the entire population) let me assure you that the suspension of Brian Williams from the anchor desk for six months is not that big a deal as far as the newscast is concerned.
If you watch the evening news, you will see that the important journalistic work is delivered each night by four or five pre-taped, edited packages filed before its first commercial break. These cover the major national and international hard news of the day. They constitute a summary of the most important and consequential developments of the previous 24 hours. The work of reporting, factchecking, interviewing, videography, graphics, writing, editing and presenting is done by correspondents, their producers and their crews.
For all significant intents and purposes, the nightly newscast is a correspondent's medium, not one that belongs to its anchor.
If you look at Williams' role on a typical nightly newscast, you will see that he showcases his special talents -- his smooth delivery, his sardonic understatement, his wry smile, his showcasing of his patriotic, Jersey Boy, blue collar roots -- in the two-minute segment, the so-called Third Block, between the second and third commercial island, some 20 minutes from the top of the newscast, far away from its important business.
So Williams' vaunted celebrity stylings act, as it were, as the dessert course, after the meat-and-potatoes are dispensed with. It is significant that the fib that brought about his downfall -- the grenade in the wrong Chinook helicopter -- was told in the Third Block in one of those Jersey Boy riffs.
To be sure, Williams' name is on the newscast, and in the vernacular, viewers will refer to it by his name -- "I watch Williams, not that guy Pelley" -- rather than by the name of the network. But this phenomenon is a Januslike one: as much as it projects personal attributes that belong to the anchor onto the newscast as a whole, the opposite is also true; the positive appeal, or negative defects, of the newscast as a whole is personified onto the blank slate that is the anchor's image.
It is on cable news that the anchor and content are truly merged. Bill O'Reilly or Anderson Cooper or Rachel Maddow are truly indispensible to, and inseparable from, the hour-long programs that bear their name.
Traditionally on broadcast news, the importance of the nightly introductory Teleprompter-reading role of the anchor has been a placeholder position for those times when he truly has to play the News Anchor proper. When major stories break (a 9/11 attack, the outbreak of war), or giant set-piece events are staged (such as a State of the Union speech or a Presidential election), that is when his skills kick in: the ability to be facile on live television, to evaluate the importance of events instantly as they arrive, the image of calm in a crisis and concern over calamity.
In the meantime there are two reasons that the anchor reads the Teleprompter each night: to become a familiar and reassuring face in advance of that crisis, and by immersion to acquire a thorough familiarity with the news of the day so that he will be prepared, whatever the source of the crisis might be.
Now comes Williams' suspension -- and a six-month experiment to test whether a celebrity anchor is as dispensable to those newscasts as I believe he is. Although the suspension is unprecedented, the experiment is not. This is its third occurrence and I have been vindicated both times before. CBS News made a bet on the indispensability of the celebrity anchor when it hired the Katie Couric to boost its evening newscast ratings; she did more harm than good. ABC News made the opposite bet when it delinked the role of evening newsreader from lead anchorman when it hired David Muir to replace the celebrity anchor Diane Sawyer; so far Muir has suffered few audience defections, in fact, if anything, he has attracted viewers.
Network nightly newscast audiences are remarkably stable, if gradually aging and declining. Audience size is determined much more by the performance of their lead-in local newscasts than by the identity of the newsreader. And, as said, journalistic content is determined much more by the performance of correspondents and producers than by the newsreader's personality.
If I am right, this is bad news for Brian Williams and the entire industry of agents and aspirants seeking to pocket their share of the network news divisions' diminishing revenues. However, it is not bad news for television audiences, or for the body politic, to the extent that it relies on sound and conscientious journalism from its remaining mainstream media outlets.
And it clearly can be quite good news for Lester Holt.]]>What is Trivial and What is Serious about Brian Williams' FibWhat is Trivial and What is Serious about Brian Williams' Fib
Andrew Tyndall2015-02-05T08:55:35-08:00NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams and his 2003 reporting experiences during the invasion of Iraq, I can go to the videotape.
Yes, I actually watched his March 26th report from that year on that attack on Chinook helicopters on VHS tape from my archive last night. Erik Wemple at the Washington Post has the transcript here.
The main angle of Williams' report twelve years ago turned out not to be the rocket-propelled-grenade attack on the Chinook convoy in which he was traveling, but the ensuing sandstorm after the helicopters made their emergency landing in response to the attack and the Abrams tanks that protected them for a couple of days thereafter.
The human-interest tribute to Tim Terpak, the retiring sergeant who enjoys Rangers hockey, which precipitated the current crisis, also focused on the Abrams tanks not the Chinook helicopters, since the sergeant served on the ground not in the air.
The falsehood in Williams' account resides in the embellishment from "I was flying in a convoy of four low-flying helicopters that came under fire, one of which was hit, and was forced to land" to "I was flying in a convoy of four low-flying helicopters that came under fire, two of which were hit, including the one in which I happened to be riding, and was forced to land."
Incidentally, Stars and Stripes quotes helicopter crewmen who do not remember Williams as flying in the Chinook convoy in the first place, which, if true, would make Williams' woes much more serious than they are at present, since his original 2003 report would be impugned, too. Leaving that aside, Brian Stelter at CNN offers a timeline of Williams' various accounts.
Stelter reports that the first time that Williams is on the record as misrepresenting the grenade attack, redirecting it from the convoy as a whole to the particular helicopter in which he was riding, was ten years after the event, when he shared the anecdote with David Letterman on CBS' Late Show. This contradicts the apology Williams made last night on his newscast that his failure of memory occurred for the first time when he was composing his tribute to Terpak.
Be that as it may, journalistically speaking, Williams' fudging of these details is trivial. His embellishment of the level of danger in which he found himself twelve years ago does absolutely nothing to undermine his account of Sergeant Terpak's valor, nor of our understanding of the circumstances of the invasion along the Euphrates river valley. If Williams is in trouble -- and he is -- it is not because of an egregious error in his journalism.
So what is the problem here? Two quick thoughts:
First, the position of anchorman on a network nightly newscast is not just a journalistic one. Williams also has the status of a television celebrity (hence his appearance on Letterman) and as such his appeal to his viewers rests not only on his journalistic bona fides but also on his personality. Is he, personally, perceived by his audience to be intelligent, honest, trustworthy, proportionate, of sound judgment? So, granted, his little fib about which Chinook he was riding in has no journalistic import. Yet it has great import as a glimpse into a flaw in his character. To the extent that this fib makes him look vainglorious, self-aggrandizing, melodramatic, reckless and opportunistic, his journalistic "personality" is damaged as surely as his fudge of the facts turned out to be, journalistically, trivial.
Second, this particular fib that Williams chose to tell -- to identify himself all the more closely with the perils soldiers face in battle -- derives from his underlying editorial judgment to offer instinctive support to the members of the uniformed armed forces. NBC's Williams is not alone in this editorial judgment: CNN's Jake Tapper wrote a bestseller in praise of warriors in Afghanistan; CBS' Lara Logan famously undermined Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone in order to defend a special forces general; ABC's Bob Woodruff sponsors an annual celebrity fundraiser at Madison Square Garden for disabled combat veterans. And it is not only journalists that exhibit such "instinctive support," which is in truth a mere euphemism for "kneejerk adulation." Anyone who attends a major league baseball game observes the same unquestioning endorsement of the uniform and those who wear it.
Jim Fallows of The Atlantic recently observed that such "reverent" solidarity with our troops acts as a ring-fence that protects the entire military-industrial complex from the scrutiny it deserves. So the editorial importance of the fib Williams told is not only that it displays a reflexive desire toward identification with the military; it also represents his own newscast's self-disqualification as a dispassionate journalistic observer of the Pentagon's role in the domestic body politic and the nation's foreign policy. Thus his newscast functions more as supportive propagandist than as skeptical journalist where the armed forces are concerned -- and helps keep Fallows' ring-fence impregnable.]]>David Muir's Journalistic StylingsDavid Muir's Journalistic Stylings
Andrew Tyndall2014-10-24T07:13:42-08:00Hollywood Reporter asked me to provide a primer for newly-arriving viewers of David Muir's ABC World News Tonight. It is cross-posted here.
Now that ABC's World News Tonight has all but climbed into first place in the evening news ratings race, David Muir, the new anchor, can expect an extra sampling from viewers unfamiliar with his journalistic stylings.
Needless to say, this is not your Peter Jennings newscast. Under ABC News president James Goldston, World News has cut back on international and political stories and introduced a sensibility closer to that of Good Morning America, complete with tabloid true crime, sports-and-celebrity coverage, news-you-can-use service journalism and buzz around social media.
Unlike at CBS and NBC, World News offers a cable-news-style graphic that makes a story's headline visible even when the broadcast is on mute. In the month since Muir's arrival, his newscast's pace has quickened and its newshole has shrunk at the expense of teases and promos. For his Instant Index roundup of the most-viewed video online, Muir spends nearly half as much time before the commercial pod telling us what we are about to see as we actually enjoy with the ensuing reveal.
The nightly newscasts initially were conceived as television versions of the news agenda found in major newspapers. To ABC's credit, it is trying to rethink its nightly news to make it medium-specific, news that can be uniquely found on television -- in other words, a video newscast rather than a newscast that happens to use video.
Some innovations are refreshing, others miss the mark, a few are frankly ridiculous. While they are not exclusive to World News, they are seen there more systematically. A sampling viewer should watch for ten telltale tricks.
1.Actuality: The underlying event is not really newsworthy. Either something almost happened but was averted, or the event amounted to local news but had no national consequence. But it happened to have been recorded on video. It's news because there is something startling to see, not because something startling happened. Related audio actuality (911 calls, etc) can get the same treatment.
2.Bait & Switch: Often the video of an event is not enough to sustain an entire package. Watch for a pair of techniques for spinning the story out: First, the use of "watch," whereby the correspondent rolls back the video to play it again, perhaps several times. Second, the bait and switch, in which we are told that the new video is similar to a previous, more serious story that was actually newsworthy.
3.Play One on TV: Cellphone video never will have the production values of fictional moviemakers. So watch for a news event being likened to a movie or TV series, so that it can be illustrated by star-laden footage. Related to the bait-and-switch phenomenon, sometimes a news story will be similar to something that happened previously -- to a celebrity.
4.Self-Promotion: The newscast needs to reassure its viewers that its newsgathering is of a sound pedigree. So World News mixes in file footage of an anchor's previous interaction with a newsmaker or showcases its own correspondents asking confrontational questions or includes a soundbite from an in-house expert like Brad Garrett (ex-FBI) or John Nance (airline pilot) in order to seem more authoritative.
5.People are Paying Attention: Completely nonscientific and unrepresentative popular reaction now can be obtained by quoting from Twitter and Facebook. It looks buzzy and gives the story an air of importance.
6.Reality TV: When Muir was a reporter, he was a master at inserting himself into the middle of a story. He's most famous for striding through factories high-fiving blue-collar workers for the Made in America series -- the journalist as central character in his own reality TV show. Now, Matt Gutman is partially filling Muir's shoes.
7.Soundbite Shortcuts: HBO's John Oliver had fun at 60 Minutes' expense with a montage of interviews with dramatically phrased, well-written soundbites -- except the bites all came from the correspondents' own leading questions. Muir takes no backseat to 60 Minutes. Related, see correspondents channeling Art Linkletter, sitting on the floor trying to get kids to say the darnedest things.
8.Korean Storytelling: When video is not available, ABC relies heavily on its Virtual View computer animation team to depict what they imagine the scene might have looked like. And to take viewers to far-away places, why use ABC's own cameras when Google Earth can do the job?
9.Special Effects: To give video that little extra help to be compelling, music is mostly used for inspirational feature stories (check out ABC's America Strong series), black-and-white video for a sense of personal danger (along with handheld camera), and video game-style, lock-on-target clicks for foreign threats.
10.Verb Mangling: Slate founding editor Michael Kinsley spotted the misuse of "-ing"-ending verbs more than a decade ago. That trend has found renewed favor at ABC, where reporters impart a sense of current urgency to past events by slipping in an "-ing" (example: Joe Biden's son [is] "testing" positive for cocaine). ABC's Paula Faris loving it.]]>