Saturday, February 10, 2007

Anna Nicole Who?

Yesterday Brian Williams discussed NBC News' coverage of Anna Nicole Smith's death on his Daily Nightly Blog. Below is an excerpt that is probably the best explanation of why NBC News is the only broadcast news I watch.

"Deciding the format of this broadcast (and those of our friends at ABC and CBS) is, last night and tonight, a classic example of one of our guiding expressions -- no organization can ever be 'above the news.' While public interest in a given topic cannot rule our judgment or decide our story order for us, it can and does affect our reporting and story order.

It's not as if there aren't other news outlets for those viewers dissatisfied with our treatment of the story and the end of a tragic life. People watch our broadcast presumably because they trust our reporting and our people, and because they agree with our editorial take on the day more often than not.

The great thing about this era of media choice is that all those who find our broadcast lacking in any way are free to go to any number of Web sites where they can find video showing a cat flushing a toilet, or the explosive properties of Diet Coke and Mentos when mixed together."

I'll be the first to say that watching Brian Williams report on the explosive properties of Diet Coke and Mentos would be fantastically cool, but that's entirely because his nightly broadcast doesn't waste its twenty-two minutes each night peddling salacious stories to get viewers, but instead talks about the sometimes boring but always informative topics that impact the lives of his viewers, our country, and the world we live in.

Williams' post reminds me of a speech I first heard recreated in a movie, but have since read many times when looking for the best expression of the responsibility that publishers and broadcasters have to their readers and viewers.

"There used to be an old phrase in this country, employed when someone talked too much. It was: "Go hire a hall." Under this proposal the sponsor would have hired the hall; he has bought the time; the local station operator, no matter how indifferent, is going to carry the program-he has to. Then it's up to the networks to fill the hall.

I am not here talking about editorializing but about straightaway exposition as direct, unadorned and impartial as fallible human beings can make it. Just once in a while let us exalt the importance of ideas and information. Let us dream to the extent of saying that on a given Sunday night the time normally occupied by Ed Sullivan is given over to a clinical survey of the state of American education, and a week or two later the time normally used by Steve Allen is devoted to a thoroughgoing study of American policy in the Middle East.

Would the corporate image of their respective sponsors be damaged? Would the stockholders rise up in their wrath and complain? Would anything happen other than that a few million people would have received a little illumination on subjects that may well determine the future of this country, and therefore the future of the corporations? This method would also provide real competition between the networks as to which could outdo the others in the palatable presentation of information.

It would provide an outlet for the young men of skill, and there are some even of dedication, who would like to do something other than devise methods of insulating while selling."

That was Edward R. Murrow, probably the most popular television news anchor in US history, speaking at the end of his career to the Radio and Television News Directors of America convention in 1958. He offered to an audience already headed toward the news culture he described a warning against what they could expect from the future. The Anna Nicole Smith story, and the non-stop coverage it received epitomized that warning.

Brian Williams is by no means today's Edward R. Murrow; I doubt that with the technologies we have available today that such a news broadcaster or source could ever fill that role. But what I admire about Williams and about NBC news, is that they are trying, where so many others have given up. In spite of so many commercial reasons to run the Smith story first, NBC made the choice to educate rather than titillate its viewers.

Williams, borrowing from Lloyd Bentsen, said it best, "others pointed to the drop-everything, wall-to-wall live coverage all day on all three cable networks. To that argument I responded that I worked in cable for several years. I know cable. Cable is a friend of mine. We are not cable."

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