Monday, May 7, 2001

Week of 05/07/2001

Network News or Network Fluff?
- by David Matthews 2

"Half the American population no longer reads newspapers: plainly, they are the clever half." - Gore Vidal

TV journalism has always seemed to be a double-standard. All too often, those who aren’t out there in the field doing investigative reports, or talking about the latest scandal or tragedy, are seen as "air-fluffed egos" who only read off of what is presented to them. From Ted Knight in the old "Mary Tyler Moore" series to William Hurt’s character in the movie "Broadcast News", TV anchors are seen as photogenic airheads whose only talents are to look good and read off the TelePrompTer. And yet, seasoned journalists would kill to get that kind of a spot.

When we think of "respectable" network anchors, we think of people like Walter Cronkite or Edward R. Murrow. Men and women who have been with us for years, who have worked their way to the anchor desk. These are people for whom we want to trust to present the news.

Ironic, isn’t it? The people we so desperately want to trust are the same ones we tend to think of as being nothing more than glorified media parrots.

Well, now it seems that the journalists are beginning to panic.

They’re panicking because their lofty position as THE "fourth estate" has been slowly eroding, and they are only now starting to recognize it.

For the past two weeks, laid-off employees from the Cable News Network have been doing double-takes over the decision of their former bosses to bring in a new face for Headline News. That fresh-face’s name is Andrea Thompson, and it’s not really her face that they’re throwing fits over.. it’s her body and her experience.

You see, Andrea Thompson is not a seasoned journalist. She didn’t even graduate from high school. Aside from an 11-month stint at a local TV station in New Mexico, she had virtually no experience whatsoever in journalism. Before that, she was an actress, appearing in movies and TV shows.. and apparently a model as well, appearing naked in one artistic magazine appropriately named Black & White.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise to see veteran reporters throw temper tantrums over this decision. After all, CNN (now a subsidiary of America Online) is laying off dozens of seasoned reporters, and yet they’re going through with the hiring of what could essentially be an "air-fluffed ego".

Conservatives are getting into the act too, bemoaning about the posting of Thompson’s nude pictures all over the Internet, and asking out loud whatever happened to the "good old days" of TV journalism. After all, they can recall when a local TV anchorwoman by the name of Shelly Jameson posed nude for Playboy over ten years ago and ended up being fired. Now one of the most popular websites on the Internet is one dedicated to "Naked News", where the anchorwomen (and, sadly, one anchorman) read the news completely in the buff.

Well let’s get brutally honest here… SHOULD it make a difference that a network personality once posed nude for some magazine, whether it be Playboy or some other artistic publication? Should it matter that the network personality was once an actress who appeared naked in some European movie?

The answer is NO. No, it shouldn’t make a difference whatsoever. Especially if they knew in advance what that person’s past was like! What.. you don’t think the people at CNN didn’t do their homework on her? You don’t think that they would forget to check her education credentials and her past experience, do you? Do you really think that CNN’s human resources department is THAT inept?

And, as it turned out, it didn’t really matter to the people at AOL or CNN that one of their incoming network personalities once appeared nude. In fact, they relish the publicity it is generating!

And bear in mind what I referred to Thompson as.. a network personality. Not a journalist, but simply a face in the media. And that is exactly what the network executives see them as, just a bunch of faces in the media.

I mean, come on, do you really think that Katie Couric and Matt Laurer got to be the hosts of the Today show on their journalistic experiences? How about their predecessors? How about their competition? Yes, these people could interview heads of state, and the movers and shakers in Washington.. but then just thirty minutes later, they’re sitting next to some guy wearing a sock puppet who’s singing to them. Now, do you want to tell me that’s "serious" journalism at work?

What those in journalism need to recognize is that they no longer hold the reigns to the wild horses we call the media. It’s long been considered more style than substance, only now there are no pretenses about it.

Anyone can read the news in front of a camera. It doesn’t take a degree in journalism to do it. It doesn’t matter if it’s by some seasoned newshound, or by a beautiful woman with no journalistic experience who slowly takes her clothes off as she’s presenting the news, or even by a computer program called Annanova. If they look and sound good in the presentation, it works. And that’s all that matters to the network executives.. and, quite frankly, to the public as well.

The so-called "fourth estate" has slowly been losing their dominance in the media as news has gravitated away from informing the public, and has instead tried to entertain the masses.

Once upon a time, the only people who could comment on the happenings on the world were seasoned political reporters. Men and women who spent years reporting on the movers and shakers in Washington and the various state capitols. Now, just about anyone can be a commentator.. myself included.

Once upon a time, only trained and certified meteorologists were allowed to give the weather. But who is the most famous weatherman we all know? Willard Scott, who is known not as a weatherman, but someone who was once Ronald McDonald.

Monday Night Football on ABC is now hosted by a trio of men, one of whom is not a former athlete, but instead a stand-up comedian and actor who hosts his own profanity-laced show on HBO. Dennis Miller didn’t get the job because of some obscure history as the water-boy for Joe Montana. No, he got to be the color commentator for Monday Night Football because he was snappy on the play-by-play and he knew the inner workings of the sport just as well as anyone else. Listed as an also-ran in that very slot was Rush Limbaugh, a nationally syndicated talk show host, and someone with some experience in reporting on the sports world. NBC’s venture into Vince McMahon’s XFL football gave the world another unique sports announcer.. former professional wrestler, and now Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura. Ventura (who did not want to be referred to by his political title while on the air) gave the XFL viewers exactly what they expected when covering the upstart football league.

I’m sure the seasoned journalists are wincing in pain every time they have to remember that one of the biggest media stories in the 1990’s.. not to mention the most hyped story in that decade.. was that the President of the United States once dallied with an intern. In fact, the so-called "seasoned journalists" at Newsweek had already shelved the story when it was picked up by a self-styled Internet reporter by the name of Matt Drudge, and it simply snowballed from there. In fact, many of the stories from the Bill Clinton era came about BECAUSE traditional journalists were shelving them.. only to be out-scooped by the "upstart" Internet news services.

And I would be remiss in my examination of journalism if I didn’t point out that former Vice President Al Gore.. of whom many in the media wanted to be the next president instead of George W. Bush.. just got done teaching his first semester of class at Harvard University. The course? Journalism. His experience? Well, he once worked for a small-town newspaper in Tennessee, not to mention he was a reporter for the Army during his two-month stint in Vietnam.

And academia considers him enough of an "authority" to teach journalism at Harvard? I’m sure tenured professors all across America were reaching for the aspirin when they heard that news!

Now, we’d like to see how well Gore taught his class, but in true Clintonian fashion, he imposed a media blackout. Students couldn’t ask him about his political career, and reporters couldn’t report on what he was teaching his students. However, one of those aforementioned "upstart" Internet media services did say that "Professor Gore’s" performance, as graded by some anonymous students, was "mediocre."

The sad truth is that the news media is more foam than cappuccino. Reporters need to realize that their covering everything from impeachment trials to stamp collections will not get them that anchorman’s chair on the 6 o’clock news. That is a fact of life, and both the journalists and the media critics need to suck it up and deal with it and be thankful that they aren’t flipping burgers.

Yes, reporters can cover tragic accidents, political scandals, world wars, the breakup of "Friends", or even some redneck’s prized snot collection, but the closest most of them will ever see themselves as the hosts of the nightly news will be in their dreams. That job will always go to the media personalities.. the people with the snappy comebacks, the fresh faces, the perky attitudes, the neatly coifed hair… or the neatly coifed toupee as the case may be. They can be seen as America’s favorite grandfather, or the spunky girl next door. As long as they can deliver what’s presented to them, and be appealing enough to keep the masses tuned in, that’s all that really matters.

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