Walter and Rudy

I admit to being unmoved at news of the passing of Walter Cronkite. I'm sure he was a decent guy on a personal level. And professionally, yes, he became the news industry's voice of authority for a time. But that age, that industry, passed long, long before Cronkite did. I never liked his "and that's the way it is" sign-off. It bespoke a certainty that the papers, the networks, and the wire services understood stories and could be relied upon to get them right, a certainty that the product never justified. Some notable exceptions aside, I'd argue that the strength of the news media then was the persistence to get the story right eventually. The process might take years, but you'd get there. In the meantime, you settled for what appeared to be a straightforward recitation of the facts. Sometimes, you'd get more, as with Cronkite's famous pronouncement against the Vietnam War; but remember that Cronkite and many other journalists arrived at that view and became willing to voice it only after years of seeing that our government's story about the war didn't hold water.

Listening to a radio show this morning on which Cronkite's name came up, I considered how I'd convey to my kids the scope of Cronkite's reputation. Then I thought: Rudy Vallee. He was still kicking around on TV throughout my teenage years and beyond. I was given to understand that he was a big, big star once. The impression I had was a guy in a raccoon coat and funny hat, crooning corny ballads. Impossibly quaint and dated stuff. There was no way to look at him from the culture in which I'd grown up and understand why anyone would have cared.

Unlike me and my siblings, whose TV news world was dominated by Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley, and Howard K. Smith, my kids grew up in an age where the vision of "Network" had started to become reality. Rather, Brokaw, and Jennings presided over shows increasingly infused with entertainment values; their audiences shrank as CNN, Fox News, and the rest of the cable menagerie came to life. Like many people of their generation and mine, they've come to see comic versions of news as a more compelling reflection of reality than network news is inclined to offer. The culture in which they've grown up simply doesn't have a Cronkite. He's the guy in the raccoon coat.

News and ‘News’

In The New York Times this morning: “Under Bush, a New Age of Prepackaged News.” It’s a neat roundup of how successful the administration has been in producing news segments (video news releases, or VNRs, in industry parlance) that broadcast outlets around the United States uncritically pick up and run as “real news.” The story’s been growing since early last year, when it came to light that a government contractor had produced thinly disguised Bush propaganda stories that hundreds of stations across the nation had run virtually unchanged. The practice has proven so successful for government agencies that at least one state administration, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s here in California, is sending out its own video stories.

The Times makes a couple of obvious points about how government VNRs keep appearing on news shows: First, that despite an industry code of ethics that frowns on the practice, the government’s news releases keep showing up on the air because TV news departments are often doing more programming with fewer resources, so there’s unceasing pressure to find stuff to fill out the newscast. Second, it’s common practice for stations to take stories from “network feeds” to which they subscribe and rework them to fit their own local needs.

This is something we did frequently on our half-hour daily news show on TechTV; the reality is that when you’re under the gun to get something on the air — and for our show, we needed to produce 22 minutes of something every day to go along with our 8 minutes of commercials — you need external help. Nothing wrong with that. We’re used to newspapers using wire reports, or complementing their own reporters’ work with material from other sources (wires or freelancers). It’s innocuous — no, it can make help you serve your reader or viewer better — if the work is done conscientiously and you’re always careful both to know and to say, when necessary, where the facts you’re reporting come from.

But here’s the danger in putting together news this way. A reporter or producer is handed a story package with an intro and some unknown reporter’s voiceover and standup and given orders to rework it. Depending on factors such as how well the original material is written and how good the video is, the script might get a rewrite, the order of the video shots might be changed, the new reporter will retrack the script and might include his or her own standup. When you see a local reporter doing some way-out-of-town story but still appearing live on the station’s set, you can assume that this is how they did it. The station usually doesn’t disclose what’s going on; I think the general belief is that viewers are smart enough to figure it out, if they care at all.

The problem is that the source of the original material can becomes secondary to getting it on the air; reporters and producers stop thinking about where it’s coming from because their job is to get the story done in time for the show. And pretty soon, the good-news gruel from the State Department Pentagon or Department of Homeland Security blends in with all the stories coming over the feed from CNN and the Associated Press.

At the point you stop thinking about where the information is coming from — and the implications of turning your operation into an accessory for government-produced messages masquerading as news — you’re not in the journalism business anymore. And that’s the bottom line of the Times’s report: It’s not that Bush and Schwarzenegger and their cronies are so damned clever putting out propaganda and calling it news, it’s that so many of the people who are supposed to care enough to recognize the difference simply don’t.