A television station in San Francisco invites the authors of a new book that’s highly critical of TV news, the blogosphere and the “menace of media speed” for a Jan. 3 interview. Then, in a speedy development that turns out to be menacing for the authors, the TV station cancels the invitation, claiming a sudden change in format.
It was a lie. The station’s news director admitted it in a note to the authors’ publicist: “The format hasn’t changed. We still do guests. But I am not all that interested in a book that is going to be critical of what we do as a business. So I am going to pass on this one.”
Obviously, here’s a news director who knows the first rule of 21st-century journalism — don’t just report the news, become the news.
The station is ratings-challenged, financially troubled KRON-TV. The news director soon to find a rewarding career as a media consultant is a man named Aaron Pero. The book is No Time To Think: The Menace of Media Speed and the 24-Hour News Cycle, by Los Angeles Times television critic Howard Rosenberg and former CNN correspondent Charles S. Feldman.
I learned about this from the Lost Remote blog, which covers the convergence of news, media and technology. Most of the LR comments that followed were what you would expect from the blog’s readership; this guy’s a coward, TV news doesn’t get it, etc. But the episode moved from farce to tragedy for me when somebody admitting to be KRON’s online news editor chimed in, saying he agreed that viewers should be allowed to criticize local TV, but “a former newspaper hack” and “a former CNN hack” don’t have the same rights. After crowing about KRON letting viewers talk back to the station on its Web site, and being one of the first to live-blog breaking news, the editor defends Pero with a line that’s right out of the last 20 minutes of “Frost/Nixon:” “His only mistake in my view was being honest with them instead of just saying, ‘we made a decision to go another direction in this segment.'”
I see. Instead of pursuing his brief fling with telling the truth, Pero should have kept on lying. This is coming from journalists, folks.
I’m guessing both Pero and that online news editor had no time to think.
No Time to Argue the Point
I would hope that by now, somebody has informed that online news editor that the “former newspaper hack” won a Pulitzer Prize in 1985 for his television criticism and the “former CNN hack” spent 20 years in print and TV, covered some big stories for CNN in its formative years and used to teach journalism at USC. I would also hope that somebody told the news editor that by de-booking Rosenberg and Feldman, KRON missed a chance to challenge them and talk up their own web newsgathering strategies. But that would probably have necessitated actually reading the book, which really doesn’t criticize local news so much as it takes to task cable news networks, political Web sites and blogs, and the lightspeed pace at which opinions masquerading as news — not to mention errors, propaganda, lies and damned lies — can now travel thanks to technology.
“No Time To Think” is a lively read; Rosenberg brings the biting sarcasm and humor from his LA Times columns, but writing the book must have been liberating for Feldman, who gets to tell some great behind-the-scenes CNN stories, especially in the chapter called “Mr. Inside, Mr. Outside: A Conversation.” There are also interviews with a Who’s Who of those formerly and currently involved in the newsgathering and news dissemination process, including Tom Brokaw, CNN/US president Jon Klein, Arianna Huffington, Jim Lehrer, former NBC News president Michael Gartner, former “Nightline” reporter Dave Marash, CNN co-founder Reese Schonfeld, former presidential press secretaries Ron Nessen, Marlin Fitzwater and Mike McCurry, NBC correspondent Pete Williams.
The interviews help the authors make their case that modern journalists have no time to think their stories through — making more calls, doing more research, checking out sources and leads — because of technology putting the spurs to the need for speed; the need to beat the competition, to feed the 24-hour news beast, to pump up the ratings and charge advertisers higher rates. And if journalists don’t have enough time to think their stories through, then citizens don’t have enough time to think the stories through, and that hurts democracy. Rosenberg and Feldman are particularly scathing in their reviews of the 2008 primary elections, singling out CNN and MSNBC for their use of gimmicks and lack of objectivity.
And then there’s the Internet. Technology has always driven the pace car in the news race, from letters to telegraphs to telephones to satellites to broadband, and while the authors aren’t complete Luddites, they ask some tough questions; can “the wisdom of the crowds” really be trusted to correct factual errors on the Web? What about that first wrong draft of history that’s still floating around the Internet? Is “getting it right — eventually” the death knell of credibility?
You won’t get much of an argument from me with most of No Time To Think, but I don’t have as jaundiced a view of the Web’s influence on news. Rosenberg and Feldman cite several examples of technology beating journalism to death with a crowbar, but not a lot of time is spent focusing on possible solutions that could help the news media pry open new, positive directions in newsgathering. Yes, citizen journalists probably won’t be filing a lot of legwork-intensive investigative series like the New York Times’ expose of retired generals serving as TV military analysts who were getting their talking points from the Pentagon. But citizen journalists can fill some of the gaps left by cutbacks in local journalism. Hell, even some of the neighborhood events and stories that are ignored by fully staffed newspapers and TV stations can now get a full hearing on the Web.
Which brings us back to KRON. Its misguided news managers have only helped to prove Rosenberg and Feldman’s point about the speed of news on the Internet. It didn’t take long for blogs and Web sites to broadcast the station’s boneheaded move to the multiverse. The authors posted an angry letter to Pero after being disinvited, but they may end up sending a thank-you note for all the extra copies of No Time To Think — the book critical of what it does as a business — that KRON helped them sell.
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The New York Times has a new feature on its front page: an advertisement. It might as well have set a 96-point headline in Bold Italic saying, “This should give you some idea how bad things are for newspapers.”
Follow the money. How will newspapers and other major media find the funding to stay in business? I asked Dianne Lynch, dean of the Roy H. Park School of Communications at Ithaca College and a contributor to the PBS “MediaShift” Web site, for thoughts on what 2009 holds for the media as news maintains its collision course with technology. One of her predictions: get your checkbook ready.
“They’ll either start charging for it, or they’ll stop publishing,” Lynch said. “I know that’s heresy online, but the free ride is over, folks. We pay for magazines, we pay for books, and eventually, audiences who can afford it and are of the right demographic to value it will end up paying for ‘the best’ American journalism. And I don’t buy the argument that the audience will ‘never’ pay for content online; the question is whether the brand’s added value will make it marketable when readers can no longer get it for free.”
Public funding and philanthropists could end up paying for those who won’t pony up. Lynch argues that public funds help pay for clean air, water and good schools, along with the arts, as part of the continued good health of towns and cities. “The public funds those; it will need to begin funding news and information for its citizens who can’t afford to buy it for themselves. Models like Pro Publica, the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Center for Public Integrity, and the Knight Foundation’s News Challenge grants are breakthroughs in terms of philanthropy stepping up to fill the news and information gaps in the media marketplace. I think that’s just the beginning.
“We need news and information to function as a democracy, as a community, and as a marketplace. And the good news is, journalism is alive and well; we’re just finding new ways to pay for it.”