Friday, February 13, 2015

1446 Bad Week for News

Bob Simon was one of those guys about whom the label “legendary” landed and stuck.  After covering wars on three continents, he died ingloriously on the battlefield of a New York City road.

David Carr was one of those reporters who covered guys like Simon.  His own war zone was a background in which the words “drug” and “booze” still emerged frequently, but whose insight and prose and investigative skills kept the rest of us more or less honest.

And then there’s Brian Williams.

Three guys gone missing in one of two ways.

Simon’s biography and his prowess have been well covered.  He was one of those correspondents who made CBS the “Tiffany network” at least for news.  And you can read anywhere about his exploits and the stupidity of his death as a passenger in a livery cab. Probably, you have already.

Carr was the media columnist for the New York Times.  He died “in the office” yesterday as the paper so delicately put it.  His work was a must read for those of us who navel gazed about ourselves, or work our colleagues and the trends -- really the tidal wave -- that the news business is dealing with nowadays.

And then there’s the now-suspended Williams, who brought honor and dishonor to NBC and osmotically to the rest of us lesser lights.

As for Williams, it’s time to let the scars heal before we resume the whipping. And let’s consider what the controversy really all about.

The short answer is money.

You have to ask, does NBC’s owner, Comcast, really care about the credibility of the fallen anchorman?  This also has a short answer: yes… money.

Not the estimated yearly ten to 13 million dollars they spend keeping him in good suits and a fancy midtown east apartment.  It’s the hundreds of millions the Nightly News program brings in.

Keep these facts in mind:

--The evening newscasts are on life support.
--The Williams version was the least likely to die until Brian was outed as a teller of tall tales.
--It is number one in a slow race largely because the ABC version is anchored by a kid whose main asset is that he’s a kid and the CBS version is so boring it puts you to sleep before 7 pm.

These once premier newscasts -- replacements for the afternoon and evening newspapers -- have descended into a television hell that tells you nothing you haven’t already heard on radio, read on the internet or don’t care about and shouldn’t unless you’re a big fan of missing puppies.

Think about it.  Huntley-Brinkley, Chancellor, Brokaw, Jennings and Cronkite used to sit you down for half an hour and tell you what you missed while you were busy all day.

But you don’t need them anymore.  You have CNN and Yahoo news.  And the Huffington Post and Drudge.

So the job of anchorman (or woman) now is more ring master than tour guide through the maze that is each day’s news.

People are comparing Williams’ six month unpaid suspension with the slow speed ousting of Dan Rather at CBS.  Not the same thing.  

First, Rather’s supposedly fake story might actually have been real, but he couldn’t prove it.  Second, Rather had his enemies within CBS and within the Washington establishment.  He got canned, but  wasn’t turned overnight into a national laughing stock.

Money.  Williams’ future hangs on what happens to ratings and revenue during his absence.

And the amateurs at Comcast need to learn how to run a newsroom.  So far, the lessons are lost on the company-wide news chief and her ineputy, the president of NBC News.

You can learn a lot about an anchor by looking at what he or she does during the off time.  Lester Holt is said to take refuge behind a Fender bass.  Cronkite took refuge on his sailboat.  Williams took refuge by appearing on Letterman and Saturday Night Live.

Then there’s Brokaw.  Here’s a story from a weekday afternoon in the third floor newsroom at 30 Rock.  

Brokaw has his coat on and is heading for the elevators.

The executive producer at the time, Jeff Gralnick (1939- 2011,) asked him where he was going.  The answer: to some local school where kids were waiting to talk with him.

Gralnick: “I want to send a camera crew along.  We can use that.”

Brokaw: “Nah.  That’s not what this is about.  This is about those kids.”

Heard it with my own ears from a distance of about one foot.

Guess we’re all going to have to turn to Jon Stewart for the news. Oh, wait… he’s calling it quits this year.

Well, there’s always Drudge and the Huff-post.

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to it. ®
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© WJR 2015

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