I’ve had a couple of weeks to think about this whole concept of news conferences after tennis star Naomi Osaka walked away from the French Open rather than face reporters at mandatory sessions. She revealed that for her news conferences are stressful, counter productive and amount to a legitimate mental health issue for her.
As someone who’s covered a bajillion news conferences over the past 47 years, I hate them too. Oh sure, they’re a necessary evil because it’s not practical to give reporters individual interviews in most cases, but sometimes they can amount to public showcases for individuals astute at the fine art of bullshitting, self-aggrandizement, lack of preparedness or pugnacious discourtesy…and that’s just on the part of those staging the event, let alone some journalists.
Perhaps the worst so-called news conference I ever attended lasted less than 30 seconds. We were called to Cleveland to hear from boxer Mike Tyson after he was released from serving time on a rape rap. He was to discuss his return to the ring. After cooling our heels for quite awhile in the bowels of what was known at the time as Gund Arena Tyson finally came on stage, in a half-whisper said he was glad to fight again and walked off. No questions, no nothing. Well…almost nothing. Wasn’t worth the plane ticket or the price of the crappy hot dog I ate while waiting for the former heavyweight chump.
So yes. That’s a clear case of a useless news conference because the very word “conference” infers a dialogue. This was barely a monologue.
Then there are the news conferences where some reporters appear to want to “share” knowledge rather than gather it. If you’re in the biz you know these people. They take an eternity to let the speaker know how much they already think they know about the subject before finally spilling a question.
On the auto beat there’s one longtime reporter whom I won’t name who has gained a decades-long reputation for such endless preambles. Indeed, at an event in conjunction with the New York Auto Show in the early 2000’s two executives of a major automaker played the roles of police officer and perpetrator to show off a new police cruiser.
They staged a fake chase in front of the press corps then suddenly stopped. Fake cop tells fake perp to put up his hands. Fake perp says, “no problem. I’ll do anything you want. It would be better than enduring a question from (reporter). The guy was in the crowd and enjoyed the notoriety. The rest of us got a good laugh. Comedy based in truth always hits home best.
One time I was actually the main speaker at a news conference and gained instant empathy for those who regularly stand at the business end of reporters’ questions. It happened in the 1990’s when I was one of three pool reporters for the in-prison arraignment of James Nichols, brother of Oklahoma City bombing perpetrator Terry Nichols.
I was joined by reporters from the Associated Press and a local newspaper. When it came time to decide who would brief the rest of the press I was drafted because as the the print guys said, “you’re CNN, TV. You don’t mind facing the cameras.” No, I don’t mind cameras. It’s people who give me the creeps. I gamely gave the top line facts of the proceeding then in a case of “back at ya,” I tossed it over the print guys for “more of the details.” This was not planned by anyone…but me. I was always a decent ad libber on camera.
Truthfully, I ended up feeling exhilarated after fielding some questions and not saying something stupid or wrong. It was a kick being quoted by CBS and others but I’d rather be the inquisitor.
Honestly, I hate to ask my best question during news conferences, especially if it was based on some information I had in hand that would give my place a competitive edge on a previously unexplored angle. Why give it to everyone else? In that case I would try to find a way to ask the question privately, but you can’t always count on that and you need an answer so sometimes you have no choice.
Look, I feel for Ms. Osaka if facing the media is stressful and unpleasant. A person’s mental health is a serious matter and should not be downplayed.
Unfortunately, professional sports is actually a form of show business where athletes’ stages are the field, pitch, court or ice. Tickets are sold and fan loyalties are stoked in part by news stories. That all can generate the millions athletes can reap from prize money, bonuses and endorsements. In other words, there’s tremendous demand for what an athlete has to say, even if it’s not especially enlightening.
For journalists, direct quotes offer depth, context and perspective to a story which adds to a richer experience for their readers or audience.
Perhaps some of the anxiety for those thrust into situations that demand presence at news conferences could be allayed by counseling or league-sponsored media training that includes realistic mock sessions using actual journalists. When I conduct media training sessions the strategy is to always put the trainees through an even tougher experience than they might actually face. Kinda like swinging a heavy bat in the on-deck circle so your real bat feels lighter when you’re facing a fast ball.
That, or know what you would be getting into before you decide to become a professional athlete or other high-profile profession, and choose another path to avoid the news conference blood sport.
My 47-year career has taken me to both sides of the street as both a flak and a hack. So I’ve seen things from each side of the scrimmage line. Right now, in my semi-retirement, I’m actually doing both simultaneously as a freelance journalist, mainly as a Senior Contributor at Forbes.com, and consultant for Detroit PR and marketing firm Franco.
The cool part of playing both roles is it sensitizes you the challenges, frustrations, wins and losses you encounter in each position. So I decided it might be fun, and useful, to have a couple of internal conversations with both sides of me. It’s OK to eavesdrop. That’s why I’ve posted them here. You can even contribute to the conversation in the comments. Here we go.
Key: JE=Journalist Ed
PRE: I’ve got a client that wants me to get national coverage on the fact they opened a new office in East Dumpy. Would you bite?
JE: Don’t know. What business are they in?
PRE: They sell printer paper in packs of 400 instead of 500-sheet reams. The CEO insists this will help solve what he believes is a massive office supply storage space crisis at firms around the country. He says 100 fewer sheets saves 7/8-inch for each pack.
JE: Sorry, I’ll pass. I think it’s a made up crisis.
PRE: Wait! What would it take for you to do this story? I’m under a ton of pressure. New client and the agency is busting my ass to make them happy.
JE: First of all, office issues, paper or otherwise, are not what I write about. You have to think of that before pitching a reporter. Second, even if I was your guy, you can’t just say something’s a crisis. You have to be prepared to back it up with some research–proof. A CEO just trying to get some publicity with an unproven scheme isn’t a news story. Finally, I feel for ya, but my masters are my editors and audience.
PRE: (trying to pull out a win) But you’re a business writer. Aren’t office storage issues a business story? What if I came back with some stats that back up the client’s claims. Would you reconsider?
JE: Possibly. I’d have to look at the info then decide if it’s BS or not. I’m swamped right now. On deadline, so I gotta run, but get me that stuff ASAP and I’ll let ya know.
PRE: OK, cool. I’ll have it for you by the end of the day.
(PRE is sweating. He knows there really isn’t much, or any, research on the subject, but smells pulling this one out of his butt…sends email to JE)
PRE: OK, did you get that stuff I sent you? Pretty convincing, I’d say.
JE: What’s the Institute of Office Ergonomics and when did they do this study? I never heard of them and Googling it comes up with nothing. Plus, I’m calling BS on the conclusion that over 3-million square feet of storage space could be saved each year in the U.S. by using smaller packs of paper. Did your client pay for this study?
PRE: OH, they’re a, um, boutique outfit. Don’t even have a website, and, well, the client did subscribe to the study but the IOE is totally impartial.
JE: Nice try. Not buying it. Very sorry
PRE: Well, you’ll be sorry when your competitor runs it.
JE: I’ll take that chance.
PRE: Hi. Thanks a lot for doing that story with my client, but he’s kinda pissed.
JE: What’s the problem?
PRE: He says you took his position on “solar powered pencil technology” out of context and actually misquoted him.
JE: Really? What part of “I believe solar powered pencil technology will render ink an archaic form of inscription” was wrong? I recorded the entire interview, as agreed to, and that’s exactly what he said.
PRE: Check your recording. He claims he actually said, “I believe solar powered pencil technology will render ink a second tier form of inscription.” Plus, the way your framed it was inaccurate. Going into the quote you wrote, “Solar Pencil CEO Al Bum makes an unproved claim regarding his product’s rising role in imaging, declaring…….”
JE: So what’s the issue? He can’t prove his declaration and there isn’t one industry expert who will back it up. I know. I tried finding one.
PRE: I get it, but couldn’t you have gone into that quote a little softer? I’m taking a lot of heat for this.
JE: I understand your situation but I’m writing news stories, not ads.
PRE: Yeah, sure, of course I know that but at least resist the use of judgmental adjectives and just state the facts.
JE: It’s not judgmental to state the fact that there’s no documentation whatsoever your client’s claims are viable.
PRE: Why did you even accept the story if you weren’t convinced it had merit?
JE: Fair enough. Why did you agree to sell a story you knew wasn’t true?
PRE: I didn’t know and I long ago vowed I would never knowingly lie to a reporter
JE: You’re in a tough spot when your clients lie to you. So how will you explain things to him?
PRE: Yes, I’m in a very tough spot. I’ll just blame everything on you 🙂
JE: Heh…OK…Good talk!
EVENT NOTE: I’ll be on a PRSA panel Feb. 19th in Royal Oak, Mich. with several other journalists who have gone to the “dark side.” Details at this link. Should be pretty lively…and..there’s breakfast! Hope you can come if you’re in the area.
I’m retired now, but I have covered my fair share of contract talks between Detroit’s automakers and the UAW and worked for one of them between 1989 and when I retired from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles in 2016. That means I’ve seen the meat grinder from both sides of the gristle.
The bottom line is too many reporters are wasting their time calling their sources asking for some indications as to how the talks are going. Oh sure, some may have a pipeline to the bargaining table and others who have been through the process previously, may think they know what’s happening. I’ve found those clandestine quotes make for good stories under even better headlines and broadcast news teasers, but are often off the mark.
Now I’ll share what many longtime auto scribes already know–the truth is in the food. I realize times have changed dramatically since the days of reporters basically living at auto company headquarters waiting for the white smoke of a contract settlement. I even spent my 20th wedding anniversary at Ford’s Glass House fast asleep on a couch hoping for a timely agreement so I could get home in time to celebrate our big occasion.
Back in the day, the automakers fed us ‘round the clock. Catered meals, unending supplies of Dove Bars, midnight snacks. For the first few hours it seemed like the most fun you could have without beer.
Yes, we’d constantly be calling our sources hoping for at least one new lead. I was working at CNN most of the I covered the auto beat, so I was desperate for something new to say on my almost hourly live shots. The producers got pissed if all you had was “GM stuffed our faces with a delicate linguini.”
But the menu was more prescient than less experienced reporters realized. When the fare was suddenly upgraded to include steak, or lobster, or steak and lobster, it was like the big finale at a fireworks show. We’d get on the horn to our editors, breathlessly reporting, “Shit! It won’t be long now. Put me on the air!”
Anchor to Ed: “Ed, what’s the latest from the contract talks?”
Ed: “Well Bernie, all indications are they’re about to shake hands on a new pact.”
Anchor: “How do you know this?”
Ed: “They just fed us surf and turf. There can be no doubt it’s a done deal.”
Anchor: “Thanks for that scoop, Ed! Folks, you just heard it first on CNN. The two sides are just dessert away from inking a new four-year contract!”
Then there was the time a PR guy at one of the Detroit 3 decided to spoon feed me the scoop without actually saying it. This actually happened.
Ed to PR guy: “Hey Tom..what do you hear? Can I step out for a little bit?”
PR guy: “NO! The pizza is coming and it’s gonna be SO GOOD!”
Ed to PR guy: “Aw thanks, Tom, but I’m stuffed”
PR guy: “NO! you don’t understand. The pizza is coming at about 2 a.m. and it’s gonna be awesome. Don’t leave!”
He seemed kinda wound up so I stayed. Good thing. “Pizza” was code word for an agreement and sure enough, at around 2 a.m. word came down they’d reached a deal.
Sure, times have changed. I haven’t been stuck holed up staking out labor talks for several years so I’m sure the automakers aren’t serving up surf, turf or Dove Bars anymore which means today’s journalists are working hard, working their sources, pumping them for any nuggets of news. But it just might be worth it if one enterprising scribe went a little old school and asked the question, “hey, what’re they serving?”
If it’s pizza, fire up your device and prepare to file. It’s gonna be “so good!”
One panelist said he refuses to use the term “fake news,” others, including myself, surmised fake news could be anything from the satire of The Daily Show to maliciously-published falsehoods. A Thomson Reuters report on Fake News released yesterday described the term as being “weaponized” by the current cretin in the White House who launches it every time a story he dislikes is released, whether or not it’s true.
For 105 minutes last night, we kicked around what fake news really is, how it started, how to stop it, how social media and the pervasiveness of the 24-hour news cycle contribute to the dissemination of blatant bullshit and what readers/viewers can do to make sure they’re getting a straight and true story.
About 50 people attended our session at the Southfield, Michigan Public Library, at a session sponsored by the Detroit Press Club and the library. I was joined by Matt Roush, a former reporter who now heads communications at Lawrence Technological University, Eddie Allen, senior editor at Hub Detroit, Jennifer Cherry Foster, CEO of Detroit social media company, Catalyst Media Factory. The panel was moderated by Maureen McDonald, a freelance writer who’s been published everywhere.
What struck me more than anything about the discussion didn’t actually come from the panel, but from the questions fired at us from the audience. A mostly middle aged crowd brought up reading newspapers and watching Walter, they seemed almost desperate…at loose ends..to find out from us how things got this way. What happened to journalism, where did all the “real” journalists go, how do I find reliable sources of fair and accurate news?
The younger members of the audience came at it from an entirely different direction. A journalism senior at Michigan State University despaired she wasn’t properly trained, complaining at no time during her almost four years at the school did a journalism instructor offer any advice or guidance on the very basics of finding good stories. In all honestly, a couple of internships alongside working reporters and editors would probably prove more valuable than classroom instruction.
One African-American gentleman who appeared to be in his 30’s surmised the problem starts with how school kids are taught history with the emphasis on transplanted, plundering Europeans and almost no meaningful discussions of where Americans of other cultures came from.
The one thing we could agree on is the dangerous and tragic decline in the number of trained journalists. In this age where anyone with a connected device can post any dreck and then claim to be a journalist, the number of young people enrolling in actual journalism curricula at universities and pursuing a career in news has plummeted. As I pointed out during out session, if I put a Band-aid on your cut, that doesn’t make me a doctor and just writing and disseminating crap that hasn’t been verified and attributed doesn’t make someone a journalist.
It’s incumbent on anyone who really cares about the information they’re exposed to, to be vigilant in taking the step of checking out sources quoted or attributed in stories that seem sketchy. If you’ve never heard of a person or organization quoted or attributed, it’s a small task to find out just who or what they are. You might be horrified, but not terribly surprised, they have no standing at all.
The sad conclusion is anyone who really cares about ingesting accurate information must demand it by turning away from echo chamber outlets who pander to one point of view, ignore obvious click bait and paid placement items, refuse to read or view content long on “analysis” and short of straight reporting, and if you’re not sure, that wonderful thing called the internet is only a few mouse clicks from exposing the frauds and bolstering the real deals.
It wasn’t the lead story in any newscast, or even an item, but in case you missed it, this week marked the 50th anniversary of the first ATM. Can you imagine a time you couldn’t drive, or walk up to a financial R2-D2 to grab some cash for the weekend…when people actually used folding money?
The occasion sparks one of those memories that helps you remind yourself that you, indeed, paid your professional dues on the way. It was in 1974. I worked at WMBO-AM in Auburn, N.Y., about 25 miles west of Syracuse. Auburn was a town back then of about 35,000 people and home to a giant state prison known as the joint where inmates pounded out the Empire State’s first license plates. It was also a rough place. The prison was so close to the station that when I told a crappy joke on my morning drive time show, which I did often, you could hear the guys inside yell, “you suck!” Nice to be recognized.
One way the station made some money was by selling what they’d call a “program length” commercial…basically a remote, hawking a store or a product. I did one for three hours once at Rondina’s furniture store promoting an upright vacuum cleaner with a bag that looked like a pair of denim jeans.
One this cold day, the Marine Midland Bank coughed up a few grand to have me do my show outside next to its newfangled contraption that would allow customers to drive up and do their banking with no human interaction. The name ATM hadn’t yet come into use. They just called it an “automated teller.” For three hours I stood in the freezing cold yapping about the thing that would not yap back, accosting drivers who stopped to struggle with the new technology. When I attempted to stick my mic in their cars asking them how they enjoyed the new experience, some gave cogent answers, others believed they were being robbed of the cash they just received from what some called “that goddamned money vending machine.” Luckily, no weapons were drawn, or fired, although I had to jump out of the way several times to avoid being run over. Perhaps the most harm I suffered was breathing in carbon monoxide for three hours, which provided me some insight as to the life of a New York State Thruway toll taker. Since there was no delay, whatever the folks said was aired, thus giving the nice people at Marine Midland some rather unfiltered feedback as to their new gizmo.
Fast forward to 1987 when I was employed as a correspondent with CNN. I traveled to Greensboro, North Carolina to catch up on how some folks from Vietnam were settling in to their new lives in the U.S. We followed a gentleman to the bank where a volunteer was demonstrating to him how to use an ATM to make a deposit. You could tell that between the language barrier and the unfamiliar technology this would take some time. Indeed, he filled out the deposit slip and placed it, and a check into the envelope provided. The volunteer then instructed him to slip the envelope into the slot. He gave her a very skeptical look, then did as he was advised. Sure enough he placed the envelope in the slot where it quickly disappeared from sight. The poor man’s face turned red, his lips quivered and I detected a tear from one eye as he turned to the volunteer and quietly pleaded, “where my money go?” Fifty years later, we’re all asking the same question.
I’m a little out of sorts today. My family thinks I’ve actually descended into a deep cognitive hole. Here’s what’s going on. Early this morning I got out of bed, put on business clothes and really ugly, but comfortable shoes. In the dark I rummaged for a lanyard with some sort of badge attached that might have my name on it. I found one from 1998. Sure, why not. My name hasn’t changed although I’ve changed jobs four times since then. Who cares?
I slipped the lanyard over my head, got in my car and looked for a gathering of similarly dressed humans. I found them at a nearby Tim Hortons, although I didn’t know that’s where I was. Thinking otherwise, I held out the canvas shopping bag I toted and gamely asked the person behind the counter if they were giving out free lattes and danish, and maybe a press kit. Some sort of swag might be fun too. A tchochke I could later sell on eBay. Also…did she know where the free lunch was. I then started averting my eyes to the barista’s midsection. No, I wasn’t looking at that. I was searching for her badge because her name escaped me. Fact is, I never knew it. The bewildered young lady didn’t call the cops but the muscular manager gently led me to the door, quietly suggesting I was either lost…or deranged. Oh no…I protested. I’m at work. Right? Uh, no. The manager, being proactive, directed me to the Urgent Care Clinic across the street.
The on-duty shrink, Dr. Fucocktah, sat me down, asked pointed questions, some of which revealed I’m a long-time auto writer. I then went on to tell my story thusly.
My recent knee surgery is preventing me from covering the show for the first time since 1990 in the waning years of the last century. I begrudgingly gave up my credentials, thus breaking my 37 year string. My employer assigned them to someone else, which is like someone simply handing over your soul..or MoviePass. Some kid..by that I mean someone under 60, would use my badge to snag all the free cappuccinos, tote bags, finger sandwiches, pastries and dust-collecting swag I was totally entitled to. Cars? LOL! The stories have long been written before the show courtesy embargoed info provided by the automakers weeks in advance. The media preview days exist for grabbing an auto company bigwig for an interview in hopes of breaking a story, networking for your next job, catching up with old friends..in hopes they can help you get your next job and always, always, always, free stuff.
Without being there I would be confined to home, following coverage online and pining over the Maserati-shaped lasagna I’d be missing, along with the swell BMW backpacks stuffed with releases I’d never read. Doesn’t matter. It’s free. You just want it. But now I am bereft without my annual ordeal of attempting to find a parking space within seven miles of Cobo, breathing in the luscious propane fumes spewing from the forklifts whizzing down the aisles, playing chicken with photographers trying to get their shots.
I will miss the mind-numbing roundtables and endless scrums where, as a short guy, get a spectacular view of my competition’s asses.
But it’s what I do, and have done for so many years. Second, third week of January each year, it’s where I am. Doesn’t matter where I’ve worked, CNN, AP, Detroit News, FCA, Automotive News..I have my badge, my comfy shoes and 90 pound bag with my laptop and other reporting stuff. I’m ready to do battle…and win. It’s show time but not this time for this lame-kneed scribe.
He quickly diagnosed my malady.
“You, my pathetic patient, are suffering from a common condition we call COBO-NO-GO,” he pronounced. “It’s occurs when veteran auto writers, for one reason or another, aren’t able to cover the Detroit Auto Show but blindly go through the motions anyway. There’s no known cure.”
I know. I thanked him…and asked if he could set me up with a free espresso. He couldn’t…but handed me an attractive tote bag. It’s a first step.
Until next year.
Sorry I haven’t been here in awhile. I’ve been smothered under a pile of stuff I started gathering as far back as the ’60’s, when I was a pre-teen, and now I’m in my 60’s, pre-mortem.
The boxes and tubs and drawers and file cabinets and shelves and assorted other fossils of my life were doing just fine taking up space until my wife and I decided we needed to move to another house a couple of miles away. The premise was simple. The house we lived in for 25 years had a nice yard and plenty of room for our kids to play. But the kids are adults and not interested in frolicking on a swing set, so the yard became just something for me to mow and fertilize and water, but never enjoy. So we ditched the big lot for a bigger house on a smaller piece of land and a lot less upkeep.
That’s when we discovered we messed up by letting sleeping stuff lie. There was one tub of reporter notebooks I saved…from 1979-80 when I was a budding local TV reporter in Tucson, Arizona. Would I really need to reminisce about covering the Pima County Planning and Zoning Commission? There was a tub stuffed with ball caps I had collected. My favorite? The brown and gold cap with the embroidered Ontario Flue-Cured Tobacco Growers’ Marketing Board logo. Just the color scheme is almost as hazardous as the product it represented.
I was pleased to find my old scorecards from Yankee and Shea Stadiums, especially the one from the Yankees-KANSAS CITY A’s twi-nighter with Phil Rizzuto’s and Joe Garagiola’s autographs along with a blade of grass from right field, which I swiped after the game on my way through the old rightfield wall to the subway.
Oh, there were a dozen or more coffee mugs that were freebies at press events, political buttons, some “very important” t-shirts I collected along the way. A couple that stand out were “I was there. 7.1” that I picked up when covering the 1989 San Francisco earthquake and one emblazoned with one of the brands involved in the “great mustard war” at the old Cleveland Municipal Stadium.
Something kinda cool I still have are the original watercolors our courtroom artist made of Pete Rose in Federal Court in Cincinnati during the time he was kicked out of baseball. The artist was a large fellow, seated in the vacant jury box. The judge was not amused when the poor guy kicked over his water pot during the proceeding. Alas, the paintings were never completed but just fine under a withering deadline.
I have a Howdy Doody pen given to me when I interviewed Ed Kean. He was the head writer on the show and invented the Clarabell the clown character, played by Bob Keeshan before he was Captain Kangaroo. Howdy’s legs and arms are posable. The pen part sticks out of one of his legs. That’s something I’ll never part with.
On the other hand, I have two big boxes with hundreds of press passes. Some are keepers like the one I got covering the very first Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. I also have a few White House pool tags and a laminated one from the Secret Service when covering a campaign swing through Arizona by then First Lady Rosalynn Carter. But I also have scores more from every assortment of automotive events, especially auto shows, conferences and drive programs.
All this stuff takes room. What else do you do with it all besides leave it in repose in whatever repository it happens to be laying in? It’s not like I’m gonna sneak in the basement in the middle of the night to grab a quick peek at that six-foot tall plastic faux pencil I have courtesy of Kmart, which sent it to our bureau to promote its back-to-school campaign of 1990. Yes, I have it. Can’t part with it. Moved twice with it. Need it? Nope. Want it? Yes. Insanity? Could it be anything else?
My wife implores me to “weed out” anything considered a dust or space collector, but reporters don’t do that. We keep thinking we’ll need to refer back to some specimen of detritus to write a book, or something. “Oh no! I need those notes from my feature on dwarf tossing in Grand Rapids!” I actually was assigned that story by CNN in 1989. Not proud. Not proud at all.
See? I already got some use from some of those, um, artifacts, lurking in dark spaces by writing this blog post. Does that mean I’m done with them? Are you crazy? I’m certain follow-ups will be necessary, in fact, demanded, by my two or seven readers. Don’t worry. I know where everything is and where it will always be. Indeed, I don’t know how many more moves I have left in my life…but I know what will be moving with me.
He sat in front of his locker with a towel on his head and took no questions. It was the man the Detroit Tigers depend upon to successfully seal the deal when they’re ahead in a game. The “closer.” Two nights in a row Francisco Rodriquez, K-Rod, did not seal the deal. He did not close the door. He made enough mistakes to allow the team the Tigers were beating to beat them instead. It made me think about this particular arrangement where we call on someone else to finish the job we started then allow them to suffer loathing, both self and external, when they can’t quite get it done.
Let’s say we’re writing a news story. I make the calls, do the research and start to write. I’m almost done but I’m outta gas. The words aren’t coming to me and my fingers are tired from typing. I could also use a stiff drink and a hot dog. No problem. I call in “the closer” who is tasked with finishing my story in such a way it not only the front page lead but is so amazing it goes viral and CNN employs a panel of 27 pundits to parse it and assigns it a dramatic theme song and spooky graphics.
But that’s not the way it goes down. The closer is fatigued from bailing out a half-dozen of my colleagues and depleting his hyperbole supply. By the time I call him into my game he’s got nothin’. He gamely takes the assignment anyway because closers never say “no” when their number comes up or they’re offered single malt Scotch. He taps and taps on the keyboard and I feel editorial victory is imminent. It’ll be my byline all over the paper and CNN will ask me to do a Skype interview with Anderson Cooper who will compliment my journalistic enterprise, and cuff links, while privately I will know it was the Closer who won the day for me. But that’s not the way it went down. The Closer falls short. Working on no day’s rest he coughs up three errors of fact and two blatant personal biases. I’m called on the carpet by the Managing Editor and ordered to personally write the corrections and an apology to the readers for allowing bias to breach the body of my story.
Damn Closer! It was his job to complete my assignment, make me look good and pave the way to that Pulitzer. He apologized profusely and promised to pull himself together for the next assignment. I just don’t know if I can trust him anymore. For now on I’ll have to pitch a complete game..from lead to nut graph to conclusion. But I can’t go on indefinitely like this. In a pique of frustration I stole the one thing that would get the newsroom’s attention and hit my colleagues the hardest. When one hapless scribe padded up to the kitchenette looking to fill his empty mug, he was greeted with Alec Baldwin’s greatest line. “Coffee is for Closers.”
One of the best books I ever read was a slim little paperback thing published in 1954 titled “How to Lie With Statistics,” by Darrell Huff. It was required reading in my “Ethics in Journalism” course at the University of Arizona when I attended grad school there in 1978.
I bring this book to your attention because it should also be required reading for anyone who takes any stock in the myriad of public opinion polls tossed in our faces during this dreadful political season.
Huff warns us, “The secret language of statistics, so appealing in a fact-minded culture, is employed to sensationalize, inflate, confuse, and oversimplify,”
Indeed. If you don’t already know this, polls are not the same as elections. News organizations buy polls to give them something to report, regardless of their accuracy. Polls are also useful for earning publicity for the purchasing news organization because every time the poll is cited in another news organization’s story, the purchasing network, station or publication’s name is mentioned…like the CNN/Wall Street Journal Poll, or the Mad Magazine/Hustler Poll. I made that one up. Doesn’t matter if the polls reflect reality. They can always tout the “margin for error,” to explain away the fact the poll’s results could be full of crap.
Political candidates buy polls to convince voters they’re winning. Corporations purchase polls to prove the world can’t live without their products or services.
It’s all in the wording of the questions. Sure, there can be the simple choice of candidate listed. But then the questions become even more leading. Say, “If Donald Trump wasn’t a misogynistic, lying creep, how much more likely would you be to vote for him?” Or. “How much does the fact that Hillary Clinton may very well be indicted affect your decision whether or not to vote for her?”
A company touting, say, its new miracle product might ask consumers identified as ex-felons, “Agree or disagree that your personal well-being would be enhanced with a product that could completely dissolve the serial number from a weapon used in a crime.”
Huff covers that possibility with the declaration “there is terror in numbers.”
You may recall the polls appeared to predict Mitt Romney unseating Barack Obama from the White House four years ago, only to be handily disproven when actual votes were counted. The polls showed that because those cited were “internal polls” taken for Romney, and paid for by Romney’s organization. Gotta keep the customer satisfied, until poor Mitt let his polls blind him into deciding not to write a concession speech “just in case.” Unfortunately for him, the real poll, known as the election, didn’t square with his self-serving survey and Mitt had to concede to the fact he was unprepared to cogently concede.
This is why I completely disregard any sort of poll plastered on the screen or on the page, no matter the subject. I learned long ago, courtesy Darrell Huff’s 144 pages of truth, the margin for error, is the poll itself.
Last Sunday my eyes teared up as I watch the retrospective of Morley Safer’s career on “60 Minutes” on the occasion of his retirement. Who knew he would pass from the scene only a few days later. Oh, my verklempt moment had nothing to do with him packing it in after a million years on the air. It had more to do with the perfection of his writing. Marrying his avuncular narration with video, writing short sentences, masterfully using the medium to tell a compelling and memorable story. For any of us who write for television, Safer was one of a very few to whom we could only hope to emulate, and never quite get there.
My tears were also drawn by the realization the art of television writing is becoming a lost one, as stations and networks rely on extemporaneous live reports that escape thoughtful writing and critical editing. Expediency and penny-pinching come with a high cost. Skilled television reporters and writers are being forced onto the street and replaced with so-called “citizen journalists,” bloggers and social media gadflys who may not have had the experience or training, learning the vows of the holy matrimony between words and video, economy of narration, video storytelling. Much too often I see scripts from wannabees and hacks who bang out words having never looked at a frame of video figuring the editor “will find something to cover that line with.”
I learned the hard way. I started my broadcasting career on the radio and eventually migrated to TV. The first time I handed a poorly written script to an editor who saw no relationship between the available video and my words he spat to me, “you realize, asshole, I don’t have one shot that matches what you wrote! Look at the damn video!” Those words have stayed with me to this day and I’ve passed them along to subsequent offenders.
I was blessed during my 20 CNN years to work mainly with one shooter to the point where we knew each other so we would each come up with lines and shots that matched perfectly, always avoiding the dreaded generic “wallpaper” shots that offer no value to the story.
In my capacity as Head of Digital Communications at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, I’m a constant drumbeat to our video producers to write tight, look at the damn video before writing and make certain pictures and words are in complete lockstep. It’s a continuing battle but one that is in hand.
Which brings me back to the genius of Morley Safer, for whom this marriage was sacred…and one on which he never cheated. The same could be said of the late, wonderful Bruce Morton, whose verbal dexterity was a key driver of my decision to enter broadcast journalism.
Sadly, as the Safers and Mortons pass from the scene, the beautiful art of television journalism is fading from the scene as well…and that brings tears to my eyes.