Tuesday, October 17, 2006

All The News That Fits The Business Plan

It’s a tale of two cities, at least that’s the inescapable conclusion from watching TV news and then reading The Commercial Appeal.

More and more, the daily newspaper seems to be officialdom’s view of Memphis while television news swings wildly to the other end of the spectrum. It’s almost as if you need to read and watch them both to find the point in the middle where reality exists.

Last week’s coverage of the local Homeland Security office is a perfect example. On the nightly broadcast of Fox News, we hear about the operational debacles in the office and suggestions that funding was not spent in compliance with federal regulations. Prominent in the coverage are two damning interviews with the former two heads of Homeland Security, and Shelby County Public Works Director Ted Fox is left, clearly uncomfortable, to explain the county administration’s position. We came away from the coverage concerned that Homeland Security is in disarray and that seemingly fatal flaws exist in its ability to protect us.

On The Other Hand

When The Commercial Appeal finally reports on it (it had been the worst-kept secret in county government for months by then), the report told about county government’s valiant and successful effort to keep massive amounts of federal funding from being returned because of the incompetence of local homeland officials. We came away from that coverage reassured by the outstanding job that these county public servants are doing in protecting our money.

All in all, it left us with news whiplash. But that happens a lot these days in local coverage.

Lost in the coverage was a broader context for understanding the work of Homeland Security in the first place. How is its work different from EMA, and how does it coordinate its services with that agency? What are the causes of the lingering organizational problems with the agency, and why are they still present after two years? What is the response from the Inspector General’s Office of U.S. Homeland Security who has received a complaint alleging that office operations violate federal rules?

Emotional Content

Sometimes, we’re just left confused. There’s the inescapable feeling that television news can’t pump enough emotion into every story and conversely that The Commercial Appeal is determined to drain every ounce out.

In competing with television news, the newspaper should play to what should be its substantial competitive advantage – its ability to offer deeper understanding and more information.

OK, we admit that we’re having trouble adjusting to the realities of today’s news business. Newspapers are fighting predictions of their ultimate doom, and television news seems content to base its future on the overstated, the emotional and the salacious. No longer is it enough to report the news, we now are subjected a cast of characters playing roles, like the “Watch Dog” and other themed reporters who inject themselves into every thing they report.

Dying For Real News

Maybe we’re a dying breed, but we really aren’t looking for a large national corporate news company to be “on your side.” We’d just be content to get the unvarnished news, free of the chatter and the personalities. We’ll figure out what it means to us.

That’s a reason we didn’t have much interest in Katie Couric’s debut as an anchor. Before she could even take stage, she’s promising us that not only will she tell us what the news is but why it matters to us. Frankly, we’d rather make that judgement for ourselves.

Somehow, the line between news and commentary, objectivity and personality has been breached so completely that we can never go back. So, editorial comments are sprinkled into scripts for local and national anchors while reporters shape shift from commentators to reporters and back, as if their stated personal opinions do not forever alter our confidence in their abilities to report the story straight down the middle.

The Reporterazzi

It’s as if the nightly news has become a reality show in which the reporters see themselves as stars, garnering a new name that more accurately reflects their work - the reporterazzi.

Some time ago, there was a commercial on our New York Times-owned station (at least for now) that showed The Watch Dog shouting at someone walking down the street: “You have a responsibility to talk to me.” And I think he really believes it. Certainly, most Americans seem to.

The culture of talk and celebrity cannot be saturated or satiated, and because of it, we have days upon days fixed upon the wrong targets. Soldiers continue to die in Iraq, but the news gets fixated on Branjelina’s adopted baby (now supplemented by Madonna’s baby). The earth is warming and we’re spending hours focusing on this week’s version of Scott Peterson is. The country is splitting apart, and we’re entertained by the indictment as Roman circus.

Reality Television Meets TV News

Surely, soon, reality television and TV news are destined to converge, and then, life will be so much simpler. We can simply vote on whether Martha Stewart is an American Idol or if Gary Bonds is a Survivor. It becomes less preposterous every day.

As the Homeland Security coverage showed, there’s often more heat than light on issues that deserve better. The newspaper fails to makes some basic phone calls to people who are independent observers and experts, and television naturally gravitates to the person making the wildest charges.

The motto for Scripps-Howard, parent company for our newspaper, was: “Give light and people will find their way.” Its logo was a lighthouse. These days, it’s a sentiment that seems a relic of a lost age. Right now, we’d just settle for a reporter with a flashlight.


autoegocrat said...

I know this may sound flip, but it's the truth. The first thought that ran through my head when I woke up and saw the news about the downtown fire was, "My God, they finally found a fire to cover that really matters."

If Smart City has any suggestions or criticisms for the bloggers, we'd love to hear them. Unlike the corporate media, citizen journalists are motivated and eager to improve.

Too bad the Flyer only prints weekly.

Anonymous said...

I'm a fan of our local television news, but not for reasons Fred Friendly might appreciate. It's infotainment everywhere; at least here, they've got real personality -- not many slickly bland Ron Burgundys. Plus, they do go after the powers that be, in a way that appears to be somewhat non-partisan, even if it means yelling down the road in some goofily dramatic fashion. At least they're asking. Do we have any national television reporters that are that aggressive with our political and business leaders (without being partisan)? I don't know.

I agree with your points on the Commercial Appeal. I'd particularly like their business reporting to get tougher -- not so much like animated press releases. Either more analysis (ala the Flyer) or the printing (on paper or the web) of unedited transcripts of tough interviews that make up the stories.

My favorite old school journalists are the BBC "but, surely..." interviewers, where the interviewees are politely asked hard questions by the BBC reporter. If the reporter is given spin as an answer, the reporter confronts them again. It seems more effective than the he said/she said, dueling spinmeister, brand of journalism.

If I can't have Andy Wise hunt negligient landlords and corrupt contractors down the street, then that's the kind of reporting I want.

Anonymous said...

And it's kind of unfair to label the CA as THE newspaper. There are plenty other more substantial sources - the Flyer, the blogs, even the Memphis Daily News of late.

Smart City Consulting said...

We were concentrating on primary sources of breaking news, and this was not intended to say anything about the Flyer whose website we read daily or the Daily News which has improved considerably under the editorial guidance of David Yawn.

Anonymous said...

I have visited this website several times. I do not respond to comments. But twice, you have written on topics that I have some personal knowledge. Memphis Crime and local media coverage of events. Your comments were intelligent and informed. I have been involved in "news events" over many years, and the coverage runs exactly as you described.I usually don't recognize the event covered, even when I was there and often times provided accurate information. I want Memphis to be a positive place to live, work and play, but "the powers that be"...have all morphed into one, big misinformation work group... The TRUTH is no longer important.

Smart City Consulting said...

Based on your firsthand experience, what do you see as the reason for this misinformation?

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

IMHO, as a former reporter, The Flyer is doing a better job of covering breaking news and the issues than the CA. On the Web and in print. The TV station news websites are a joke, and the CA rarely reports anything substantial on its website ahead of print. Sadly, I can glean more actual news from blogs like this than I can the local daily, which rarely goes beyond restating the obvious. If that's all I needed, I'd just watch television.

Anonymous said...

“Somehow, the line between news and commentary, objectivity and personality has been breached so completely that we can never go back”…...You have the best answer.
Firsthand, the "misinformation" is mostly laziness or carelessness when from the media. When they report "misinformation" from people in authority, they allow themselves to be used to continue access to the "newsmakers". Simply, Andy Wise is an oxymoron. Or maybe just a moron. With rhetorical reporting starting with "might, maybe, could be, ect...people don't get the news. When this new breed of "reporters" try to sell themselves as "On Your Side",don't buy it. Thanks for your hard work. This is the future and the media knows it.

Anonymous said...

John Ford gets child support payments reduced

Oct 19, 2006 04:10 PM CDT

John Ford child support battle: Jason Miles

Former Senator John Ford was all smiles as he left Juvenile Court Thursday, laughing and joking with reporters.

"You guys are something else," he said.

Here's an exchange with Reporter Jason Miles:

Miles: "Are you going to be able to come up with that $4000?"
Ford: "Why don't you loan it to me?"
Miles: "Why don't I loan it to you?" "I didn't bring my checkbook."

News Fit to Print?

Anonymous said...

Don't blame all of the would be journalists. Their beats and their stories are controlled by managment. Some of them really want to report the news. But their hands are tied. As a government source for many of them, I hear their laments all the time.

Anonymous said...

Amen. Do not blame all the journalists; blame the managers. And i don't mean just the bean-counters. The CA with all their layoffs and buy-outs has pretty much wiped out its institutional memory, meaning the people passing judgment on stories by rookies like Halimah Abdullah are little more than rookies themselves, or tired burned-out survivors. Sometimes I think the daily runs on automatic pilot, again to reference Ms. Abdullah (not picking on her, honest): some of her stuff is excellent, some of it is woeful. Every good writer needs a good editor, and the CA business plan doesn't lend a lot of support for either.

Anonymous said...

Just found your site while searching for info, I like it, and to comment on the media issue:
Well, has anyone heard of Howard Beale? One of the funnier segments over the past couple of years was that Channel 30 woman chasing down traffic scofflaws, while their truck would be parked on the sidewalks! Also, the Flyer too often prints gossip, not news in its coverage, especially the politics section, and confuses attitude with information...it's grown more conservative, but like the rest reflects a real status quo spin in its reporting, and seldom challenges major power players anymore than the others, just presents itself with a more cynical outlook.

Anonymous said...

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