The industry has fallen so far since the days of Cronkite or even Rather. Here are just a few ways it’s gone wrong.
I confess that my notion of broadcast journalism was shaped by the likes of Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite and Eric Sevareid — and later Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw. Talented, professional newscasters they were, who knew how to write and deliver important stories. Cronkite was once voted the “most trusted man in America.”
So the bar is high. But the current crop of folks delivering the news not only cannot get over that bar, they can barely squeeze under it. The incompetence on television today is rampant, and not confined to any one station or cable outlet. It is virtually everywhere.
There are many failings, so I have sought to define each aspect of ineptitude. In no particular order:
• Fast talking: What … what did he/she just say? I didn’t understand a word. It was just a blaze of gibberish. Slow down if you want me to get your point. (Cronkite taught himself to speak at a comprehensible 124 words per minute.)
• Everyone talking: The worst of this ensues on panels of, say, four to six presenters. Suddenly it is out of control — about as informative as a gaggle of geese screeching and honking as they pass overhead.
• Interviewer or interrupter? Hey, let the guy finish his answer! You asked a question, didn’t you? Chris Matthews is the best example, but there lots of others.
• Arm wavers: Back to MSNBC for this one, too. Chris Hayes and Steve Kornacki are the best examples. I once saw them on together, and if you had turned off the sound, it would have looked like a prize fight.
• Question/oration: This is all over the networks. The host, moderator or panel member delivers an interminable question with half a dozen moving parts. “What do you think if … and because … now that the president has … considering that the senator decided … now that Congress has the bill?” The guest looks dazed, wondering which trap to avoid.
• Ummm, you know: The “ummms” are an absolute no-no among real professionals, which these presenters aren’t. The “you know” syndrome is a learned response from professional athletes, some of whom have become, you know, champions, using the crutch multiple times in a single sentence.
• Beat the story to death: You know what I mean. Once these Bush League news shows get onto the subject du jour, they won’t let it go. Grab it … chew it … repeat it … regurgitate it … grab it again, and on it goes like a dog with a rag doll. And then, on to the next subject du jour. Same treatment. A quick look at the BBC could illustrate that there are actually other stories worthy of exploring (many in other countries).
• Stories with legs: I guess as a male with prurient interests, this in my favorite. Indeed, it is the only reason to watch the worst “news” station on TV — Fox. Most people have learned this is not a “news” organization but the opinion pages of cable TV. It has provided sound bites to conservatives for years.
But what Fox does have to offer is a “model” for other “news” organizations: blondes with short skirts and nice legs. Fox makes no effort to disguise this — many of its presenters are seated where they can show some skin. Having a cute name like Megyn, Shannon, Kelly or Jamie seems to be a plus on Fox. These are newspeople? Not really. I have used the word “presenter” throughout, and that’s just what they are. They read the news or make inane comments on issues of the day, with a shake of their tresses, shapely legs, coy smiles and flirtatious manners.
If this sounds sexist, it is! But I am only reporting it — creating this product was Fox’s idea. I can envision one of these presenters describing something like the end of the world as she smiles into the camera and they run a close-up of her thigh.
As a small mitigating circumstance, there are innumerably more TV stations now than when Cronkite was on the air, and these stations are voracious in their need for talent. But the excesses, weaknesses, annoyances and failures are not so profound that they could not be improved upon. Until then, one suggestion is to watch TV Land and “The Golden Girls” — but a better one is to read your local newspaper.
Myles Spicer is a retired ad agency owner.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.