Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

TV’s courage

with 2 comments

The courage of TV consists of the courage to support the conventional narrative, whatever it may be. For example:

The most memorable reporting I’ve encountered on the conflict in Iraq was delivered in the form of confetti exploding out of a cardboard tube. I had just begun working at the MIT Media Lab in March 2006 when Alyssa Wright, a lab student, got me to participate in a project called “Cherry Blossoms.” I strapped on a backpack with a pair of vertical tubes sticking out of the top; they were connected to a detonation device linked to a Global Positioning System receiver. A microprocessor in the backpack contained a program that mapped the coördinates of the city of Baghdad onto those for the city of Cambridge; it also held a database of the locations of all the civilian deaths of 2005. If I went into a part of Cambridge that corresponded to a place in Iraq where civilians had died in a bombing, the detonator was triggered.

When the backpack exploded on a clear, crisp afternoon at the Media Lab, handfuls of confetti shot out of the cardboard tubes into the air, then fell slowly to earth. On each streamer of paper was written the name of an Iraqi civilian casualty. I had reported on the war (although not from Baghdad) since 2003 and was aware of persistent controversy over the numbers of Iraqi civilian dead as reported by the U.S. government and by other sources. But it wasn’t until the moment of this fake explosion that the scale and horrible suddenness of the slaughter in Baghdad became vivid and tangible to me. Alyssa described her project as an upgrade to traditional journalism. “The upgrade is empathy,” she said, with the severe humility that comes when you suspect you are on to something but are still uncertain you aren’t being ridiculous in some way.

The falling confetti transported me back three years to the early days of the war in Iraq, when the bombs intended to evoke “shock and awe” were descending on Baghdad. Most of the Western press had evacuated, but a small contingent remained to report on the crumbling Iraqi regime. In the New York offices of NBC News, one of my video stories was being screened. If it made it through the screening, it would be available for broadcast later that evening. Producer Geoff Stephens and I had done a phone interview with a reporter in Baghdad who was experiencing the bombing firsthand. We also had a series of still photos of life in the city. The only communication with Baghdad in those early days was by satellite phone. Still pictures were sent back over the few operating data links.

Our story arranged pictures of people coping with the bombing into a slide show, accompanied by the voice of Melinda Liu, a Newsweek reporter describing, over the phone, the harrowing experience of remaining in Baghdad. The outcome of the invasion was still in doubt. There was fear in the reporter’s voice and on the faces of the people in the pictures. The four-minute piece was meant to be the kind of package that would run at the end of an hour of war coverage. Such montages were often used as “enders,” to break up the segments of anchors talking live to field reporters at the White House or the Pentagon, or retired generals who were paid to stand on in-studio maps and provide analysis of what was happening. It was also understood that without commercials there would need to be taped pieces on standby in case an anchor needed to use the bathroom. Four minutes was just about right.

At the conclusion of the screening, there were a few suggestions for tightening here and clarification there. Finally, an NBC/GE executive responsible for “standards” shook his head and wondered about the tone in the reporter’s voice. “Doesn’t it seem like she has a point of view here?” he asked.

There was silence in the screening room. It made me want to twitch, until I spoke up. I was on to something but uncertain I wasn’t about to be handed my own head. “Point of view? What exactly do you mean by point of view?” I asked. “That war is bad? Is that the point of view that you are detecting here?”

The story never aired. Maybe it was overtaken by breaking news, or maybe some pundit-general went long, or maybe an anchor was able to control his or her bladder. On the other hand, perhaps it was never aired because it contradicted the story NBC was telling. At NBC that night, war was, in fact, not bad. My remark actually seemed to have made the point for the “standards” person. Empathy for the civilians did not fit into the narrative of shock and awe. The lesson stayed with me, exploding in memory along with the confetti of Alyssa Wright’s “Cherry Blossoms.” Alyssa was right. Empathy was the upgrade. But in the early days of the war, NBC wasn’t looking for any upgrades.

“This is London”
When Edward R. Murrow calmly said those words into a broadcast microphone during the London Blitz at the beginning of World War II, he generated an analog signal that was amplified, sent through a transatlantic cable, and relayed to transmitters that delivered his voice into millions of homes. Broadcast technology itself delivered a world-changing cultural message to a nation well convinced by George Washington’s injunction to resist foreign “entanglements.” Hearing Murrow’s voice made Americans understand that Europe was close by, and so were its wars. Two years later, the United States entered World War II, and for a generation, broadcast technology would take Americans ever deeper into the battlefield, and even onto the surface of the moon. Communication technologies transformed America’s view of itself, its politics, and its culture.

One might have thought that the television industry, with its history of rapid adaptation to technological change, would have become a center of innovation for the next radical transformation in communication. It did not. Nor did the ability to transmit pictures, voices, and stories from around the world to living rooms in the U.S. heartland produce a nation that is more sophisticated about global affairs. Instead, the United States is arguably more isolated and less educated about the world than it was a half-century ago. In a time of such broad technological change, how can this possibly be the case?

In the spring of 2005, after working in television news for 12 years, I was jettisoned from NBC News in one of the company’s downsizings. The work that I and others at Dateline NBC had done–to explore how the Internet might create new opportunities for storytelling, new audiences, and exciting new mechanisms for the creation of journalism–had come to naught. After years of timid experiments, NBC News tacitly declared that it wasn’t interested. The culmination of Dateline‘s Internet journalism strategy was the highly rated pile of programming debris called To Catch a Predator. The TCAP formula is to post offers of sex with minors on the Internet and see whether anybody responds. Dateline‘s notion of New Media was the technological equivalent of etching “For a good time call Sally” on a men’s room stall and waiting with cameras to see if anybody copied down the number.

Networks are built on the assumption that audience size is what matters most. Content is secondary; it exists to attract passive viewers who will sit still for advertisements. For a while, that assumption served the industry well. But the TV news business has been blind to the revolution that made the viewer blink: the digital organization of communities that are anything but passive. Traditional market-driven media always attempt to treat devices, audiences, and content as bulk commodities, while users instead view all three as ways of creating and maintaining smaller-scale communities. As users acquire the means of producing and distributing content, the authority and profit potential of large traditional networks are directly challenged.

In the years since my departure from network television, I have acquired a certain detachment about how an institution so central to American culture could shift so quickly to the margins. Going from being a correspondent at Dateline–a rich source of material for The Daily Show–to working at the MIT Media Lab, where most students have no interest in or even knowledge of traditional networks, was a shock. It has given me some hard-won wisdom about the future of journalism, but it is still a mystery to me why television news remains so dissatisfying, so superficial, and so irrelevant. Disappointed veterans like Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather blame the moral failure of ratings-obsessed executives, but it’s not that simple. I can say with confidence that Murrow would be outraged not so much by the networks’ greed (Murrow was one of the first news personalities to hire a talent agent) as by the missed opportunity to use technology to help create a nation of engaged citizens bent on preserving their freedom and their connections to the broader world.

I knew it was pretty much over for television news when I discovered in 2003 that the heads of NBC’s news division and entertainment division, the president of the network, and the chairman all owned TiVos, which enabled them to zap past the commercials that paid their salaries. “It’s such a great gadget. It changed my life,” one of them said at a corporate affair in the Saturday Night Live studio. It was neither the first nor the last time that a television executive mistook a fundamental technological change for a new gadget.

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

6 January 2008 at 2:51 pm

Posted in Media

2 Responses

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  1. I enjoyed the article — it was well-written — but I couldn’t help but take it with a grain of salt. After all, he was let go by NBC, it could be that he departed with sour grapes.

    Like

    Simon Owens

    7 January 2008 at 5:04 pm

  2. Could be. OTOH, one looks at the recent TV record of political and news reporting…

    Like

    LeisureGuy

    7 January 2008 at 5:20 pm


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