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Monday, February 16, 2015

The Gaping News Hole

One thing that's not being discussed much in the wake of Brian Williams' exile -- from which I'm not sure he can ever return, as we learn more revelations about his Pinocchio side -- is something those newscasts should have learned from Jon Stewart's "Daily Show." That is the value of confronting politicians and others with their own words.

The greatest contribution "The Daily Show" has made to our modern info-media was hiring researchers who can sift through thousands of hours of videotape to find a clip showing someone saying something in the past that's 180 degrees from what they're saying in the present. Stewart and his team had no hesitation in pointing out that kind of hypocrisy, whether it was from someone on the left or the right or from Fox News or CNN.

Why haven't the larger news organizations -- the ones that are on the air for more than thirty minutes four days a week -- hired some of those researchers away, or found others who can dig up those soundbites, or quotes in a Lexis/Nexis database, and then confronted any number of loudmouths with the stupidity they've spewed (or are spewing)? That seems to me to be one of the most important functions of journalism, to challenge those in authority and hold them responsible for both their deeds and their words.

Perhaps Williams, while managing editor of "NBC Nightly News," was too busy pumping up his own ego by telling stories and playing around with Letterman and Fallon to recognize this huge gap in his own news division's role as a fact-checking operation. But what excuse do the others have?

And then there's this from Andrew Tyndall, who monitors and writes about television news, and says that the suspension of Williams from the "NBC Nightly News" desk for six months is not that big a deal. He points out that the real work of generating content for that (and the other networks' evening newscasts) is done by the reporters and editors who put together the four or five pieces that make up the first segment, so those broadcasts are much more reliant on the work of others than the anchors.

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.
Read Tyndall's full piece here.