Monday, August 06, 2007
It's All Downhill from Here
It seems fitting that I happened to stumble upon the excellent 1999 film The Insider while scanning through the cable channels earlier today.
For the few of you unfortunate enough to never have seen it, the movie tells the mostly true story of a 1995 60 Minutes exposé of the tobacco industry, and the efforts that went on behind the scenes within CBS itself to shut the story down and prevent its most damning element -- an interview with a former cigarette executive turned whistleblower -- from ever being aired. What resulted was a shameful black mark on the hallowed record of CBS News and particularly 60 Minutes, whose Executive Producer Don Hewitt willingly caved to corporate pressure from a network which feared a massive lawsuit at the hands of cigarette manufacturer Brown & Williamson.
As I watched the story unfold, admittedly with far more jaded eyes than the first time I saw it almost a decade ago, I was struck by the seriousness with which one of the story's protagonists, 60 Minutes Producer Lowell Bergman -- played in the film by Al Pacino -- takes his profession. Bergman was, and likely still is, a legendary pain-in-the-ass -- a tenacious fighter for truth and an uncompromising believer in the power of the Fouth Estate and the responsibility required to be an effective part of it.
I doubt Bergman ever considered himself a member of the media, as much as he did a journalist, and for that I'm infinitely jealous.
Within the past week, three separate incidents (two active, one merely symbolic) have conspired to further prove the notion that television journalism as it once was -- the daring, take-no-prisoners model of news driven not by ratings and the necessity of a pay-off to corporate shareholders but by the unrelenting pursuit of truth and quality -- is all-but-gone at the network and local levels.
What we've been left with, well -- just turn on your TV and see for youself.
Casualties of Entertainment
In my career, I've known three people personally who've died in helicopter crashes while on the job.
Back in 2001, while working at WTVJ, the NBC owned and operated station in Miami, I sat in a conference room one afternoon and watched as every other station in town suddenly flashed breaking news involving some kind of plane crash in South Dade county all over the airwaves. My first reaction was to throw open the doors to the newsroom outside and demand to know why our chopper was late getting to the scene. I will never forget the look of terror on the face of one of our senior producers as he turned around, looked directly into my eyes and said, "We can't find the chopper."
I immediately turned back to the various shots of the same burning wreckage and just stared at it in silence before finally mouthing a barely audible "Oh Jesus."
Killed in the crash were pilot Ruben Rivero and photographer Rob Pierce.
They were covering what seemed at the time to be a legitimate news story -- one that, obviously, every other station in town had also seen fit to dispatch its chopper to (which is in no way meant to imply that simply because every assignment editor in a given market has the same knee-jerk reaction, an event should be automatically afforded the status of "newsworthy"). Regardless, a sky-full of helicopters presented a danger, no matter what drew them to the same scene.
As it turned out in the end, the crash of WTVJ's news chopper had less to do with the number of helicopters in the air at the time than it did with the number of lines Ruben had been stupid enough to put up his nose before deciding to fly.
Infuriating doesn't even begin to cover it.
Not long after that, in 2002, a friend of mine and one of the finest investigative journalists in the business -- as well as the reporter who worked with me on a 1996 story that won the both of us a Los Angeles Golden Mic Award -- Drew Griffin, called to inform me that a former colleague and friend of ours had been killed in a helicopter crash in the Persian Gulf.
Larry Greene, one of CBS's best photographers and one of the inarguably nicest, funniest and easiest to work with guys I've ever had the pleasure of knowing died when the Navy SH-60B in which he was flying crashed into the mast of a ship.
It goes without saying that Larry was indeed covering an important story at the time of his death.
But can the same be said about Craig Smith, Rick Krolak, Scott Bowerbank and Jim Cox?
They were all tragically killed last Friday in Phoenix -- live on the air -- when the news choppers they were riding in collided in mid-air while jockeying for position over an event that's become almost nauseating in its questionable on-air ubiquity: The high-speed police chase.
There's been much debate over the news value of such pursuits; having worked for some time in Los Angeles, I can tell you that nothing, nothing, sends an idiotic managing editor and short-sighted assignment desk into orgiastic spasms like a good car chase. Despite the obvious, almost gladiatorial entertainment to be derived from a potential for bloodshed and destruction, the typical police pursuit is thoroughly worthless as a journalistic endeavour. It serves only to prove that the whiz-bang technology now available to most television stations can allow for real-time voyeurism, as well as giving a station's promotional department an excuse to immediately begin bludgeoning the hell out of viewers with 3D-rendered, Scott Chapin-voiced 30-second spots proclaiming K-PAP's ability to be "FIRST with (completely meaningless) BREAKING NEWS."
A police chase is, under almost no circumstances, worth dying for.
Yet last week, as could've been easily predicted, a pursuit the likes of which can typically be seen every week on shows such as "America's Most Mindless Car Chases" drew at least four local news helicopters into the same crowded airspace. It was, as it usually is, a recipe for disaster.
Now, four people are dead -- and in completely unsurprising fashion, local news as a whole is pausing for the requisite seven days of sitting on an old TV and covering the glossy press photos in the lobby with black cloth. To the viewer, this mourning period takes the form of shameless on-air soul-searching and an introspective questioning of whether or not some sort of self-policing needs to be put into place when it comes to risking the lives of innocent people in an effort to chase down crap.
Put simply, it's the question that you've heard ludicrously posed by the media to the media time and time again: "Has the Media Gone Too Far?"
As usual, the heartbreaking answer to that question is yes and no: It's gone too far in one direction (tawdry entertainment); not far enough in another (actual journalism).
The Good, The Bad & The Fired
I wouldn't dare call myself an idealist, nor would I think to, in the same breath, proclaim such a designation to be admirable when referring to a 37-year-old man who has bills to pay and should've learned long ago that nobility isn't an acceptable currency to be used in the payment of them. For this reason, one of the scenes that most sticks in my mind from The Insider involves a moment when Mike Wallace -- played with all hefty bravado and legendary arrogance by Christopher Plummer -- insinuates that, frankly, you've gotta pick your battles, and that going to war with CBS Corporate over one interview is akin to shooting one's self in the foot. Wallace says to Lowell Bergman, "I'm not going to spend the last years of my career working for National Public Radio" -- a line that may have gone over the heads of some in the audience, as it's a rather underhanded jab at former CBS News correspondent and personal Edward R. Murrow hire Daniel Schorr, who defied network executives in 1976 by leaking the contents of the Pike Report on illegal CIA activities to the Village Voice when CBS refused to go with the story. In addition to being one of journalism's most respected elder statesmen, Schorr is also now the Senior News Analyst for NPR.
I bring this up, because lately I've been thinking back to a time in my career when I probably would've been willing to resign in protest when I believed someone to be unjustly fired. (I won't even get into the level of frustration that comes with knowing that I couldn't quit my job if I wanted to, simply because New York City would likely leave my wife and I subsisting on a steady diet of ramen noodles within a matter of weeks.)
Last Friday, a close friend of mine with whom I work -- a woman I happen to respect quite a bit and whose credentials are unassailable -- was unceremoniously shown the door.
I'm not so thoroughly deluded as to be unwilling to accept that sometimes business is business and people get fired, even if they don't necessarily deserve to be; it's the way in which she was dismissed, and the person with whom she's being replaced that's left me wanting to march into the office of our company's King Koopa and pelt him with fireballs.
She was thoroughly blindsided, in a manner that confirmed every rotten, Office Spacesque stereotype about the modern corporate M.O.
And she's being replaced, on-air, by an idiot -- a "peppy" idiot (to parrot the exact word used by the boss to justify this dismissal), but an idiot nonetheless.
What this means for my friend, quite frankly, is nothing worth my getting upset about; like most people I know within our organization who happen to have an IQ above that of a ficus, she was secretly disillusioned to begin with-- despite never letting it show and, to the contrary, pulling double-shift upon double-shift -- and has no doubt now been given exactly the push she needed toward bigger and infinitely better pursuits.
What this means, whoever, for you the viewer is something entirely different.
You'll suffer, because once again a smart, talented, and eminently qualified news correspondent has been let go in favor of one who's little more than a Barbie Doll.
Although unfortunate, a development such as this is all but expected at the local news level these days, a place where sweeps pieces breathlessly proclaiming the hidden threat posed by your hair dryer are commonplace.
From one of the largest news organizations in the world however -- from us -- you deserve better.
The news you're supposed to trust, just got a little bit dumber.
Last Call for Colortinis
Not only will there never be another Tom Snyder, there will never be another one remotely like Tom Snyder.
Last week, after fighting lymphocytic leukemia for more than two-and-a-half years, Snyder died at the age of 71 -- and an entire brand of television died with him.
I wouldn't dare claim that a man who understood that there's nothing more mesmerizing than a simple conversation -- than the sound of two human voices -- had any influence whatsoever on the kind of work that I've done throughout my lifetime. No, my career in TV news began at WSVN in Miami, a station that just might be single-handedly responsible for the complete excision of "journalism" from television journalism -- certainly at the local level. WSVN led the charge whose battle-cry was "If It Bleeds, It Leads." It was the first station in the country to put colorful graphics, high story-count and young, South Beachy reporters above actual storytelling. To this day, the place has its own in-house musical composer -- an extremely talented guy who's responsible for making sure that every special investigative piece comes with its own personal Moby-esque soundtrack. There's nothing subtle about WSVN.
And when I started there 15 years ago, it was a perfect fit for me, given that I was a rotten kid who knew next-to-nothing about journalism, or television for that matter. I only knew what looked good -- and that was all I needed to know. My job, as I often used to say with a cocky smirk to whichever girl at the bar I felt like taking home, was to turn murders into music videos -- and I was damn good at it.
I more than admit my complicity in the downfall of old-school television journalism; I was one of the architects of the style that helped bury it.
Tom Snyder likely would've had none of what a station like WSVN was dishing out on a daily basis, and yet I guarantee there wouldn't have been even a hint of arrogance in his dismissal of it.
Without meaning to, without even trying, Snyder was the coolest son-of-a-bitch on television; he was hipper and further in front of the curve when it came to pop culture trends than any glossed-up, fast-paced MTV wanna-be TV operation -- and all he did was sit in a chair, smoke a cigarette and talk.
During his stint on the now-legendary Tomorrow Show, Snyder interviewed reclusive sci-fi author Harlan Ellison and writer-philosopher Ayn Rand. He did the very first American TV interview with U2. He allowed The Clash to play live and let The Plasmatics destroy half of his set by setting off an explosion that was so loud, it interrupted the NBC Nightly News, which was broadcasting live two floors up. He talked to Sterling Hayden. He talked to Charles Manson. He talked to John Lydon and Keith Levine of Public Image Ltd. for God's sake.
Tell me that's not a bad-ass.
Through it all though, he believed in something that seems to have vanished in all the post-MTV, post-WSVN, Dazzle-'em-with-Bullshit glitz: Just talk.
He read and researched voraciously, and asked tough questions. He was fearless, feisty and funny.
What's more, Tom Snyder was his own graphics package -- a character so engaging, charming and utterly entertaining that you just couldn't take your eyes off him, and couldn't help laughing along with his trademark chortle.
So, as Tom himself used to say, one more time, "Fire up a colortini, sit back, relax, and watch the pictures now as they fly through the air."
Raise your glass to Tom Snyder, and to what television journalism used to be.