Getting out of the bubble

NBC’s 90th anniversary show last weekend featured a heavy dose of former and current stars sharing memories of how certain shows were so “important” or “ground-breaking.”

“Come on,” I found myself thinking at various times. “This is television. This is passive entertainment we watch because it’s easier than reading and we don’t feel like putting on pants and going out.”

On Medium, I wrote about NBC’s inflated perspective – and how such a mentality might bleed over into the news division. But it isn’t hard to see how this would happen – and it doesn’t come from a place of arrogance. Anyone who works in a field, or in a given place, runs the risk of an altered perspective. People who work at NBC for years, and develop an understanding of its history, could be excused for over-inflating its importance (especially on a program designed to showcase the network’s programming). Similarly, it’s understandable why someone in the news division might conflate any attack on a media outlet as a full-on assault on the First Amendment.

Cultural bubbles exist. And while they may not pop easily, you can at least see outside of them, if you’re looking. For reporters, that’s going to become even more important in the coming years.

That’s not to say that television shows have not had meaningful cultural impact, nor that criticisms of the press could devolve into the erosion of press freedoms. It just means that the occasional dose of bubble-popping perspective is healthy and necessary.

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Crummy Little Podcast Episode 4: FUBU on a Klansman?

George Chidi, who is responsible for this hilarious video of a Klansman wearing FUBU sneakers, is this week’s guest on the Crummy Little Podcast.

George got some attention for that video, as you might expect, but what’s been missed was his coverage of the confederate flag rally from which that video came. He also spent a week covering a shady soccer stadium deal in DeKalb County, outside of Atlanta. It’s a long podcast, but it was a great conversation about news reporting, media, where it’s at and where it’s going. It probably could have been two shows, but I liked the flow of it.

This was an especially fun episode for me because George and I go back a ways. Long before I had a crummy little podcast, I had a crummy little radio show back at UMass on campus station WMUA. George was the news director at that station for a time, and even guest-hosted my show at least once (and did a better job than me, if I remember right). Needless to say, he’s done our alma mater proud since.

What’s wrong with NBC News? Lots more than Brian Williams.

The Daily Beast reports what you probably could have guessed: not even the good folks at NBC know how l’affair Brian Williams will turn out. But in the middle of the on-condition-of-anonymity quotes, there are some revealing tidbits that shed light on the genesis of this mess.

“My God, what’s happening to Brian is in the Zeitgeist,” marveled an NBC News wag on Monday. “He’s trumping Bruce Jenner on social media. I mean, cross-dressing Bruce Jenner killed somebody, but Brian Williams is still trending.”

There are a couple problems with this. Not to downplay the sad accident Jenner was involved in, but why did the story have to bookend yesterday’s news coverage? And why wouldn’t a question of a top anchor’s trustworthiness be bigger than that? That this surprise exists in the NBC news universe betrays a misunderstanding of their job. (Lesser problem: “In the Zeitgeist”? Who the hell talks like that?)

Maybe more upsetting is the reasoning given for why NBC is investigating Williams, rather than firing him outright:

“The Comcast people have a track record of marching out all these million-dollar figures to buy their way through their problems,” says an NBC News veteran, referring to the Philadelphia-headquartered cable television and broadcasting behemoth, the news division’s parent company. “[Fired Today cohost] Ann Curry cost them a bundle. [Fired Meet the Press moderator] David Gregory cost them a bundle. [Former news president] Steve Capus cost them a bundle. But Brian Williams is different—he’s a $50 million problem. If it was a lot less than that, you’d have to wonder whether they’d keep him.”

Much like a professional athlete with a huge contract, Williams is protected by the investment that NBC just made in him, having just signed him to a big-money five-year deal. It’s a smart move in terms of dollars and cents, and if good journalism were just as important as the results of a ballgame no one could fault NBC for it. Yet each night, the NBC news signal (as well as that of CBS, ABC, and local Fox affiliates) travels over the airwaves, free of charge to anyone with a TV antenna, to help educate the populace about the day’s events. That ought to mean something when it comes to quality.

Maybe Williams isn’t guilty of anything but puffery, and after a couple weeks everything will blow over. But this ordeal has already exposed systemic blemishes of network news. When it comes down to it, Williams is the product of a news division that doesn’t understand journalism. No wonder his facts are wrong.

A floating body might sink Brian Williams

Brian Williams’s shaky memory about his helicopter rides in Iraq spawned an NBC investigation.  While he’s drawn scorn from battlefield reporters, you’ll still find him behind the network’s anchor desk tonight for now.

It seems that Williams’s story is puffery run amok – embellishing the danger he was in using vague language that, over the years, became an outright lie. If the investigation shows that’s the case, and it’s an isolated incident, the mess probably won’t cost Williams his job. The news consuming public will forgive an honest mistake, and NBC doesn’t want a renewed Brian Williams hosting the CBS Evening News next year. After all, this is a guy who pops up on late night talk shows and even hosted Saturday Night Live.

But there’s another possible outcome. The controversy has invited scrutiny of the fantastic tales Williams shared from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, such as watching bodies float past his hotel room. If there are any more examples of him stretching the truth to sensationalize his memories, Williams is in trouble. Big trouble. Dan Rather-type trouble.

Cover-ups tend to exacerbate scandals – doing something wrong is never as bad as pretending that you haven’t done anything wrong. Similarly, high-visibility public figures only get really pilloried for doing dumb stuff when it becomes a pattern.

If the accounts of a post-Katrina New Orleans turn out to be tall tales, those late night appearances will take on a different context. Williams will retroactively look like someone bent on self-aggrandizement, who pursues attention with no care if the truth is a casualty. His apology for the Iraq story will ring hollow; NBC will have to move him off the air.

New revelations are, at this point, a big “if.” But NBC is looking into it, along with media watchdog organizations. If a puffed-up story about Iraq is the tip of a very real iceberg, someone will find out – and someone else will be hosting the NBC Nightly News.

Unnecessary Language Criticism

Check out this sentence from Politico’s story on Virginia dealing with gay stuff:

In the 2013 off-year elections, a state that once leaned solidly to the center-right has become the newest focal point in the national debate over same-sex relationships.

When people talk about needing more writing education in our schools, this is why.  Somehow, a national publication let this sentence go through.

If a state “leans” one way or another, by definition it is not “solid.”  Further, a state cannot “lean” to the center, making the phrase “center-right” incorrect.  Leaning implies a direction, being solid implies a lack of mobility.

The reporter should have written something like this: Virginia was solidly conservative, but is now a swing state that leans Republican.

(The premise of the article is pretty flimsy, too, but it’s a slow news day so they get some slack for that.)

Restricting free speech the right way

In America, for the most part, you have every right to say what you like.  But you may understand that it’s not always a good idea.

In decrying the mass media reaction to to the school shooting in Connecticut, Matt Lewis floated the idea of media control.  It was an intentionally over-the-top suggestion to demonstrate absurdity, but he has a point.  Separating recent events from the discussion, how many times have you heard (or even used) the phrase “the 24-hour news cycle” when explaining some social phenomenon or another?  It’s why our politics have been reduced to sound-bite-driven partisan hackery, it’s why Mark Sanchez has regressed as a quarterback, and it’s why “crisis communication” has become a must-have asset for big businesses.

Mama Eltringham had a saying back in the day: “The more hurry, the less speed” – meaning the faster you try to get something done, the more you tend to mess up.  Things like accuracy and thoughtful context fly out the window pretty quick when a media outlet relentlessly focused on scooping the other guys.  But accuracy and quality are essential elements for a press, so if they are flying out the window, someone will eventually come along and slam it shut.

Unimaginative libertarians hear the suggestion of “regulation” and bristle instantly.  But that can take many forms.  In the 1940s, it took the form of the Hutchins Commission, which famously outlined the duties of a  free and responsible press.  That commission (which was initiated by publishers and academics) sprang from concerns that while there were more and more people relying on the press, control of the mass media was falling into the hands of a few key players.  The key impetus behind the commission, though, was a fear that these concerns were the types of problems that, left unattended, would eventually result in rollbacks of the First Amendment.  The Hutchins Commission’s stab at self-regulation has now been taught for decades in Journalism departments across the country.

Today’s press faces the twin challenges of media consolidation and the ubiquity of information channels, including new/social media.  (The popularity of these new channels, incidentally, is a direct result of the lack of trust citizens have in the mainstream press.)  And of course there are the various strings attached to that dreaded “24-hour news cycle.”

Rollbacks on press freedom would not be good public policy, of course.  But since when has the quality of a policy ever prevented a knee-jerk implementation?  Federal law books alone have pages and pages of dumb or antiquated laws that aren’t removed for fear of public outcry.  In the right environment, media regulations could be in play – not today or tomorrow, but a bit farther down the path the press is currently on.

Before that day comes, major media outlets would be wise to put their heads together to think about how they are handling their freedom of the press, before some else thinks about it for them.

At least AP saved some money by not showing up

The Associated Press and Reuters joined Mitt Romney in not attending this week’s Republican quasi-Presidential debate.  A story written by the AP covering the AP’s decision quoted an AP official:

The opening stages of an event as important as the presidential selection process should be as accessible as possible to all forms of journalism,” said Michael Oreskes, the AP’s senior managing editor. “These candidates want to lead the country. The country has a right to see them from various angles, not only where the TV cameras are positioned.

Remember, Journalism school students, there’s no reason you can’t quote yourself in a story you write about yourself.  That’s completely fine.

The AP isn’t clear exactly how the rights of the voting public are trampled by Fox News in restricting still photos during the televised event, but not by the AP in refusing to cover the event at all.

The only potential problem is that there will be no embarrassing pictures capturing candidates with their faces scrunched up or with mouths gaping ajar while they pronounce words like “sure” or “capital.” The restriction on pictures would be horrible for the AP if they sold pictures.

Oh, wait, that’s right: they sell pictures.

It is also tough to stomach the spin used by both AP and Reuters in holding up their readers and news consumers like human shields as the aggrieved parties.  In reality it was the news organizations who were slighted by the picture ban.  This isn’t a First Amendment problem; it is similar in that such cases the “public right to know” is used as shorthand for “the news company’s right to publish.”

But luckily for the voters, the AP is pretty much irrelevant as a news gathering organization anyway.  By using their platform for political speech, they become even less so.