The Fluff Factor: Today’s Journalism
Will someone please buy gags for Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford?
It makes no difference what the color is.
Plain or polka-dotted.
Painted or sequined.
Scented silk, Egyptian cotton, or an auto mechanic’s oil-soaked rag. Just as long as it can be stuffed into their mouths.
When their mouths are open, the personality-drenched hosts of NBC’s fourth hour of “Today” are swilling cocktails, blathering about themselves, or interrupting their guests.
It makes no difference who the guest is. Cookbook or romance author. Relationships or nutrition expert. A-list actors. No one gets more than a couple of seconds without cross-talk with one or both of the hosts. They may think it’s funny. Or, maybe, like authors who are sometimes paid by word, or doctors who are given bonuses for scheduling myriad lab tests, these babblers have to justify their seven-figure annual incomes by the jabber rate of words per minute. It may be time for NBC to move all four hours of the “Today” show from the news division into the entertainment division.
Almost as bad as the GabFest at 10 a.m. is what has happened to news shows. At one time, news anchors, assisted by newswriters and producers, went into the field, got the news, wrote it, edited it, and then broadcast it. They sat in anchor chairs because they were excellent journalists. But broadcast journalism—and those two words should seldom be put next to each other in the same sentence—with a few network and regional exemptions devolved into yet another mess of Reality TV.
The co-hosts, known as anchors, are usually a tandem of a wise middle-aged older man and his pretend trophy wife, both of whom spend more time in Make-up and Hair Dressing than they ever spent in journalism classes. Their reporters and correspondents may have studied journalism in college, but their interests were undoubtedly more focused upon voice quality, delivery, and personality than source building, probing, and fact checking.
On air, the anchors open with something serious. A fire. A mugging. A supermarket opening, reported by freshly-scrubbed 20-ish field reporters and recorded by videographers with digital cameras and almost no knowledge of what video is. In all fairness, it’s hard to know what videotape is when your best friend is an iPad.
If a story doesn’t have a “visual,” it probably won’t air. That’s one of the reasons why stories about the foolishness of state legislatures aren’t broadcast. The other reason may be that Public Affairs Journalism isn’t usually a required course for college students majoring in Broadcast Journalism. By the end of the first news block, the co-hosts lighten up. Coming back from commercials—there are eight minutes of them in a 30-minute news cast—the co-hosts may have more news or a script that directs them to “throw it to Weather.”
For four or five minutes, a college-educated meteorologist or a “weather girl”—on some stations it makes no difference—using the latest visual technology tells us the highs, lows, barometric pressure, storm fronts, and the history of weather.
One of the responsibilities of the weather people is to make sure they get names into the broadcast, probably because some overpriced media consultant told them to do so. A simple sentence like, “It was in the mid-80s throughout our region” is replaced by telling us it was 84 degrees in Snowshoe Falls, 85 degrees in Dry Gulf Junction, and 84 in East Swamphole. To make sure our bodies can tolerate the whimsies of Mother Nature, weathercasters predict what will happen a week away, usually with about the same success as a drunk with the Racing Form.
Time for more commercials.
At least twice, the anchors “tease” the viewers with some celebrity scandal they will tell us all about if we just keep watching until the end of the show.
Next up is about four or five minutes of Sports. The latest fad in sports reporting is to be a part of the story. So, we see sportscasters doing push-ups with the football team, learning how to shoot an arrow, or reporting from inside a race car. Apparently, they believe that gives them credibility, something they probably learned from anchors’ ride-along on fire trucks and Blue Angels flights.
By the end of the newscast, the co-hosts, weather people, sportscasters, and field reporters have turned the news into the Happy Time Half-Hour Aren’t We Wonderful Show. They wasted our time chatting informally among themselves, tossing one-liners they think are cute and might get them work in a Comedy Club—as a cook. Take away the Happy Talk, tighten up their reporting—how many times do we need to hear that a “community is in shock” about a fire, death, or that the fireman’s carnival had to be cancelled—and the 22 minute news show might be only 15.
At the National Conference for Media Reform four years ago, Dan Rather—who for more than a half-century has been everything a news journalist should be—explains what has contributed to the decline not just TV news but all journalism as well: “Media consolidation, the corporate news environment, ‘message discipline,’ media cowardice, news-for-profit, celebrity fluff, ‘so-called human interest stories,’ sensational trials, gossip, ‘news you can use,’ [and] partisan shouting matches.”
There are a few journalistic highlights, like “60 Minutes” and Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show,” which he modestly calls fake news, but which makes far more sense than anything else permeating the airwaves. Nevertheless, most news operations—local, regional, broadcast or cable—have been compromised by exactly what Dan Rather said. Maybe it’s time for all of us to join Hoda and Kathie Lee and drink our way through what passes as the news.
[Walter Brasch proudly calls himself a journalist, and has been for more than 40 years, in radio, TV, newspapers, and magazines. He was recently honored with a lifetime achievement award from the Pennsylvania Press Club. His latest book is the critically-acclaimed Before the First Snow, which looks at the establishment and alternative media, as well as the public relations industry.]