Further Adventures with TV News Fonts

photo (12).JPG

Say you’re a news anchor–someone who’s paid handsomely to look good while reading the news competently and with enough dramatic flair to let the folks at home know that what you’re saying is really important. Question: Does it matter to you when your head appears on the screen next to something that makes you and the rest of the newscast look kind of dumb? (Picture is from a KTVU “10 O’Clock News” broadcast earlier this week, and the handsome head belongs to anchor Frank Somerville.)

(There are extenuating circumstances in this case. This was a newscast item on a high-school science competition sponsored by biopharmaceutical firm Amgen, the 2013 Bay Area BioGENEius Challenge. Whoever came up with the screen title didn’t consider that BioGENEius might not translate well to all-caps.).

Year of the Snake


In TV parlance, the term “font” is often used to describe the on-screen titles that accompany graphics during a newscast. In my relatively brief stint in TV news, there’d by someone in the control room assigned to put the titles together, usually following a producer’s or writer’s instructions. It’s kind of an important job, because mistakes show up prominently on viewers’ screens and tend to leave the impression that the people putting together the newscast are rushed, careless, or incompetent. Above is a recent example from what I still habitually call our best local TV news show.

My understanding is that the job of doing the fonts has been handed to the writers, who are also asked to do other stuff–like video editing–that they didn’t used to do. It’s not that mistakes didn’t happen when more people were working on the shows; errors are part and parcel of trying to put out a pile of information on a tight deadline with fallible humans involved in the process. But in the era of smaller staffs and “working smarter, not harder,” the mistakes seem to happen more frequently. And if that’s the case–my observations are purely impressionistic, not backed up by any statistics–you have to think that as long as the shows pull their weight in the ratings and the ads are all sold, the people ultimately responsible for “Chinses New Year Parade” don’t really care too much about what shows up on the screen.

A Round Thing Out There in Space


KTVU (“There’s Only One 2”) News is very excited about NASA’s upcoming landing attempt on Mars. It did a little item on the Curiosity mission a couple nights ago. The graphic accompanying the piece was attention-getting. Never has the Red Planet looked so … moon-like. That’s because instead of using an image of Mars, whoever produced the graphic used a picture of Earth’s moon during an eclipse. Hey–it’s a round thing out there in space, and it looks red. Isn’t that close enough? (See this image for a comparison to the one in the graphic. Below is a 2001 Hubble Space Telescope picture of Mars, one of thousands of Mars images available from NASA. And yes–you’re allowed to ask whether I don’t have anything better to do with my time.)


Oakland Occupied


Friday night at Frank Ogawa Plaza outside City Hall in downtown Oakland. I stopped very briefly on my way down to the Jack London Square ferry slip. The city had served notice a few hours before that it considered the occupation/encampment illegal and wanted Occupy Oakland to vacate the premises. Since the city considers the space “closed” from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.–a closed park at any hour, especially at city center, is an odd concept to me, but also not a new one–the city each day for several days has issued a “notice of violations and demand to cease violations” to the folks in the plaza. Today’s notice, like previous ones, says in part:

You do not have permission to lodge overnight in Frank Ogawa Plaza. You must remove all tents, sleeping bags, tarps, cooking facilities and equipment and any other lodging material from the Plaza immediately. Your continued use of the Plaza for overnight lodging will subject you to arrest.

For the past week, the city has issued more specific complaints, too, citing the occupiers/campers for everything from fighting, open-air sex, open fires, dogs, illegal drugs, public urination, improper storage of food blocking access for paramedics and firefighters, delivering soil to the site, graffiti and vandalism, trespassing in city buildings, and loud music. The notices have been posted on the web and apparently posted at the plaza, too.

The Occupy Oakland response? In essence, “We’re not going anywhere.” Well, that, and some preparation. The group has set up an emergency text system to try to rally supporters if and when the police show up and say 1,000 have signed up so far. An item before the camp’s nightly General Assembly on Saturday urged participants to “have a plan in place for yourself when the police come (lock arms and make inside/outside circles, film officers, evac. plan, outside mobilization). Think about it before you sleep tonight.”

In the picture above, there’s a banner on the left that says, “The Corporate Media Puts the Masses to Sleep.” Occupy Oakland has developed a bit of a reputation for being touchy with the local media. In one incident, a protester’s fairly mean-and menacing-looking dog grabbed the sleeve of reporter Ken Pritchett from Oakland’s KTVU (that link is from KPIX, another Bay Area station; the Occupy Oakland report starts at about 3:00 of the five-minute video; the brief view of the Pritchett incident starts at 3:51). On Friday, a KTVU camera operator and reporter were followed around the encampment and their attempts to shoot video and interview people on the site were blocked by members of the encampment.

Today, a statement purporting to have been approved by Occupy Oakland’s General Assembly appeared on the web. It sets the ground rules for media coverage in the plaza (which the occupiers call Oscar Grant Plaza, named after an unarmed black train passenger killed by a white transit officer on New Year’s Day 2009). The statement:

We agree with Occupy Wall Street that corporations “purposefully keep people misinformed and fearful through their control of the media.”

The mainstream media’s inextricable ties to corporate interests drive them to lie to protect profits. This undermines the discourse we have begun in occupations across the country and the world.

Due to this conflict of interest, we have set the following requirements for all media.

  • All media and those with professional recording equipment will check in at the Media Tent, located in the Southeast corner of Oscar Grant Plaza.
  • Do not photograph or film people who are sleeping, receiving medical treatment, or have requested that you refrain from recording them.
  • Do not enter the kitchen, kid zone, or medic spaces as this disrupts their function.
  • Do not recording personal conversations and meetings without the express permission of those involved.
  • We encourage you to document the General Assembly, the primary stage for public gathering and discourse, held daily at 7pm in the amphitheater.
  • Make an effort to report on a diversity of voices and opinions; the media team is happy to help.

OK–there’s something more than a little creepy about attempts to physically restrain reporters from doing their jobs. The guy with the dog in the video seems like he’s into a moment of ugly macho thuggery. And it’s disingenuous for the protesters to declare a right to occupy a public space and then declare it a semi-private zone where they, and only they, have a say in what will be reported from there. But there’s something disingenuous, too, about some of the local news operations and their pious tsk-tsking about the media-unfriendly behavior of Occupy Oakland.occupyoakland102111b.jpg

As someone who’s worked in news for a while, let me offer an observation: The media give credence almost without fail to statements from official government sources. These reports are generally accorded an initial assumption of credibility that virtually no one else enjoys. We often can’t help ourselves: We need to know what happened so we can tell our readers, listeners, and viewers, and we need to do it now. The official word on a crime, a police shooting, our nation going to war–it’s gold. Until it’s not. Until it turns out that maybe the whole truth wasn’t on offer for some reason. But that’s part of a future we’ll deal with then, part of tomorrow’s news cycle.

What does that have to do with Occupy Oakland?

Well, look what happened when the city started to issue its alarming communiques about fighting in the encampment, about rats, poor sanitary conditions, and all the rest. Without doing much independent verification, as far as I can tell, the local media went with the city’s complaints as gospel. The standard approach is taking that stance is pretty simple: As a reporter or editor, you don’t say Occupy Oakland is causing a rat problem; you say “the city says” Occupy Oakland is causing a rat problem. The media’s issues with public trust aside, many if not most in the audience conflate what they read and hear with what’s true. As Virginia O’Hanlon’s dad once said, “If you see it in the Sun, it’s so.”

And so, the occupiers’ preoccupation with trying to control what the world sees. A Chronicle reporter who talked with protesters asks the right question:

The real issue here is whether the stance is smart. The chief goal of a public demonstration, after all, is to bring attention to a cause. Some protest organizers seemed to appreciate the dilemma at a camp meeting Tuesday, with one saying, “When we get raided (by the police), we’re going to look to the media to get our word out. … Let’s stay on the good side. … Don’t scream at them like a madman or mad woman.”

Only on KTVU: ‘Catching Up’ with Ron Dellums

Only on Infospigot today, new revelations of a local TV news story that was broadcast as an exclusive without any apparent reporting. That’s right. You’ll only read this exclusive coverage of that pseudo-exclusive right here on this blog you’re looking at now. Only on Infospigot, your exclusive source today of these previously unreported revelations.

What’s up here?

Well, last night, after I got home from the public radio news factory where I work, Kate wanted me to see a story that KTVU, a once-proud purveyor of Bay Area news, had aired at 10 p.m. It was about Ron Dellums, our former congressman (meaning: he was really liberal) and former mayor of Oakland. He exited that second job with his reputation in tatters and about a quarter-million dollars in debt to the Internal Revenue Service. He left office in January, and it was a little surprising though not entirely shocking when the news broke in March that he was taking a job with a Washington, D.C., consulting firm founded and run by J.C. Watts, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma. The surprising part was that Watts is a Republican and was once promoted by the party as one of its leading African-American voices. The not-shocking part was that Dellums, who was in the House for decades and served as chairman of the Armed Services Committee, is connected and no doubt needs the money. And it’s also significant that the Watts firm touts itself as “the largest African-American-owned lobbying company in Washington.” Watts and Dellums (who is also African-American, for you non-Bay Area readers) might seem like strange bedfellows in the Republican-Democratic sense, but they clearly may have other interests in common.

Anyway–why is Dellums’s position with J.C. Watts, made public seven and a half months ago, news now? Because KTVU-Channel 2 made it the subject of an exclusive “Only on 2” report last night. The version of the story posted on the station’s website–“Longtime Democrat Dellums working for Republicans“– follows the script pretty closely. The piece led the hourlong broadcast in what is now the familiar and very tired KTVU formula for its “excloos”:

A surprising revelation about Ron Dellums. Only on Two, we discover what he’s been up to since leaving office.

Good evening everyone. I’m Frank Somerville.

And I’m Julie Haener. He is a lifelong Democrat, but now he’s working with Republicans. A stunning change of allegiance for Ron Dellums that has one supporter telling us the former mayor and congressman has quote “sold his soul.” Only on Two tonight, KTVU’s Ken Wayne is live at the Dellms Federal Building in Oakland with the likely reason for Dellums’ new job. Ken …

Julie, during his three decades in Congress, Dellums was so far to the left he described himself as a socialist. So it’s raising eyebrows to learn he’s now working as a lobbyist for an influential Republican firm.

From there, the report “discovers” what everyone who might have been interested knew months ago–the “stunning” news that Dellums was rubbing elbows with actual Republicans and trying to earn a living doing it. A couple of “Democratic party activists” are brought on camera to denounce Dellums as a turncoat. (The story manages to misspell the name of one of the activists, Nancy Sidebotham, both on screen and online.) Dellums’s tax problems, first reported nearly two years ago, are rehashed. The story doesn’t say a word about who J.C. Watts might represent and on what issues or what Dellums’s role in the outfit might be.

It’s hard to tell which is worse: the utter disingenuousness of passing this off as an exclusive report or the manufactured outrage at the phony disclosures. It’s as if the people reporting the story had never heard of lobbyists before or that people from different parties actually work together occasionally. But I’m guessing all that stuff–looking at what Dellums actually does for J.C. Watts, for instance, and who he might be representing and lobbying–was beside the point for KTVU. What seems to have really driven the story was a piece of video the station got when a producer and cameraperson “caught up with” Dellums outside a San Jose courtroom, where he was dealing with some of the wreckage of his mayoral administration.

Dellums has never been particularly patient with reporters, and he loses his composure on camera. The video captures him sitting down on a bench and muttering, “Oh, man. when am I ever going to get out from under this? I hate this. I hate this shit, man. I don’t like it.” The “shit” was bleeped out on the air. The KTVU report said Dellums “almost seemed despondent when a KTVU producer asked him to talk.”

Don’t get me wrong. I think there might well be a story in what’s become of Dellums’s career. There’s something bordering on tragic in his situation. He’s pushing 76 years old, and he still needs to be out there hustling. And there is a good story, probably, in finding out how the Watts firm is using Dellums’s connections both in Congress and with industry. Watts lists the “ACLU Voting Rights Coalition” as a current or past client; that certainly doesn’t seem to fit the conservative Republican mold. Other clients range from the University of Arkansas to AT&T to the Bowl Championship Series. Looking at what the specifics of what Dellums is doing might shed some light on how lobbying works and, incidentally, whether he’s betraying his former liberal constituents.

But of course, a story like that is beyond the scope of an embarrassing–to both sides–hit-and-run interview. Always mindful of suggesting ways a story could be made better, my advice here would have been to have never done this one at all if this is all you’re capable of or aspire to.

Watched in Horror

KTVU’s increasingly loathsome (or maybe just pathetic and strange) “The Ten O’Clock News” offered these items back-to-back tonight:

“Take a look at this surveillance video, and you will understand why a motorcyclist is thankful to be alive. Twenty-five-year-old Zach Perez was rear-ended on a Dallas freeway last month, and he went flying, but managed to roll away from other cars despite being in intense pain. Perez broke two ribs, four vertebrae, and lost his spleen, but he is alive. “

Last month? You mean March? That’s news? Are you kidding me? Where’s his spleen? Well, it’s graphic video, and such an upbeat ending. Unlike our next story.

“A daredevil stunt at a county fair in England went wrong, and a man called ‘The Human Cannonball’ has died. Police in Kent say the 23-year-old man was fired out of the cannon 40 feet into the air, but the safety net failed to open properly and the man fell to earth as the crowd watched in horror. The stunt show has been canceled while authorities investigate.”

Me, too. Watched in horror. No need to investigate.

Uprising, Meet Moon Rising


Nothing helps you relax after a long, hard week in the newsroom quite like another newsroom’s misfortune. The above is from a live shot KTVU-Channel 2 was doing in San Francisco’s U.N. Plaza tonight after a rally by supporters of the Egyptian uprising. The reporter, Amber Lee, was just wrapping up after a tape report when a passer-by dropped trow. In the moments following this shot, her camera operator tried to move to get this full moon out of the frame. He/she couldn’t quite do it.

As KTVU News likes to say, “Only on 2.”

Update: My friend Pete points out in the comments that KTVU still has the video of the report online. Watch for the last five seconds or so.: http://www.ktvu.com/video/26842640/index.html

Infotainment Tonight


Screenshot from the January 13, 2011, “10 O’Clock News” (a.k.a, “The Used-to-Be Really Good Bay Area News Show”). By way of explanation, whoever was in charge of doing this graphic left the placeholder label in place for all the audience to see. How does stuff like this happen? Staff cuts, mostly. I’ve heard that many of the artists and producers who used to make and oversee graphics like this have been reassigned or let go and that writers have been given this job–in addition to continuing to write the news and find, pull, and edit videotape. The unfortunate on-air result notwithstanding, cutting these corners makes the station owner’s bottom line look great.

Two Mugs, One Shot

suspect102010.jpgWe were watching KTVU’s “10 O’clock News” tonight–the Bay Area’s erstwhile decent local news broadcast (all right, KTVU: go ahead and look up “erstwhile”; the rest of us will wait here)–when a story came on about Berkeley police announcing they’d solved several recent street robberies. In one case, involving a group who was holding up pedestrians with a shotgun, the cops said they’d picked up four locals. KTVU showed pictures of four young guys. Next, the anchor said the police had announced an arrest in another stickup, and then they put the above two pictures–or one picture–up on the screen. You just hope that this is a picture of a real suspect–for extra points, one of the two in this case–because based on the stupidity of using the same picture twice, you don’t really have any reason to trust they got any of the pictures or names right.

Anchor Magnetism

Dennis Richmond is retiring after more than three decades on KTVU. Which makes me ponder the longevity of anchors, at least in the big markets. I haven’t lived in Chicago for more than 30 years, and I still seem to recognize some of the people reading the news. Same here in the Bay Area. The mystery is, the one thing about local news shows everywhere is the low esteem in which they’re held–at least among the cognoscenti in other media. So what accounts for the staying power of the same faces year after year after year?

The obvious part of the answer is that despite how shallow, superficial, hollow or misinformed a particular show or anchor is, the programs and personnel obviously develop a loyal following in all those anonymous TV-watching households. With my occasional serious journalistic pretensions and the occasional serious pretensions of my blog, I’ve been bemused to discover that the one subject over the past couple of years that draws readers day in and day out have been items dealing with Leslie Griffith, the former KTVU late-night co-anchor. I’ve noticed that plenty of visitors also arrive on my site after Googling Julie Haener and Sara Sidner and Gasia Mikaelian, Griffith’s successors. Part of the audience is obviously guys who really like hearing about traffic accidents and shootings and the Bush White House from good-looking gals. Period.

There’s got to be more to it than that, though. I think it comes down to the phenomenon of consumer habit. People like what they like, and just as most of us prefer a certain kind of car, a certain kind of breakfast cereal and a certain kind of toothpaste, most tend to stick with a favorite newscast. I think that group is the biggest group, and is very durable (even now, I can tell you which newscasts we watched when I was growing up in Chicago and why). But stations don’t go on hunches; they pay big money to figure out what the audience is doing and why; they pay top dollar to keep their brands intact by keeping a likeable lineup on the air.

The question I have is whether the phenomenon of the anchor who serves for generations, the way Dennis Richmond has, is passing or past already. We have different and many would insist better ways of getting the news now than watching someone in a studio someplace read a sliver of a complex story told better elsewhere. I guess it comes back to the habit: How much longer will we need that comforting daily presence coming to us over the air. When you look at it that way, the answer is maybe forever.

Technorati Tags: ,