“True” War Stories at NBC News

New York Magazine has a superb piece on the recent chaos at NBC News. While there is little new information, the narrative’s clarity puts many pieces together. In short, trouble at NBC started well before Brian Williams forgot how to tell the truth.

Deborah Turness (NBC News President), Patricia Fili-Krushel (NBC News Chair) and Steve Burke (NBC Universal CEO) are at the center of an extended effort to strengthen NBC’s ratings within the news division, chiefly by tackling and reconfiguring NBC Nightly News, Meet the Press, and Today, the profitable morning show that subsidizes much of the rest of the news division.

Some themes are worth highlighting. It appears that few journalists, or former journalists, are part of the decision-making process at NBC News. The News division seems in constant search of “entertainment” people for ideas. For instance, the article references the brief flirtation between NBC execs and Jon Stewart over the possibility of reconfiguring Meet the Press around Stewart’s talents.

Even Brian Williams himself has contributed to this. According to the piece, he was interested in replacing David Letterman, and he had hoped that Rock Center, the “soft” news mag that Williams hosted for a couple of years, might develop into more of a variety show. Never much of a news heavy-weight, Williams was probably the wrong choice for anchor, at least substantively. Even though his ratings were strong up until his recent scandals broke, he favored broad stories and squashed scoops that were divisive and hard-hitting. He may still keep his job once his suspension is up, but let’s hope not.

Much of this is thoroughly unsurprising. The wedding of tv and news has gotten us to this point. All of Fox News’ female anchors are blonde and easy on the eyes. NBC News wanted David Gregory to feature live music on Meet the Press. TV news is stuck in an uncomfortable position. For those of us who are interested in actual news, it is far too viscerally driven and superficial to be of much value. For those of us who want to be entertained, tv news is boring drivel. So, it is getting very close to the point where television-based news is neither informative nor entertaining. Add to this the growing trend of cable-cutters, it is easy to see that things like NBC News may be shuffling toward extinction. The trail may be a long one, but it feels inevitable.

The way to cement an audience, of course, is to turn news into comfort food where stories largely confirm what your viewers or listeners wish to hear and think. Fox News has become a major player in the industry by catering to the right side of the spectrum in this fashion. But the “left” side is a more crowded space. MSNBC, CNN, and, to a lesser extent, the network news shows, all bend either more or less to the left. Though NBC’s ratings dwarf those of the cable shows, the differences are evaporating over time. How will those entities sort out their differences? How will they distinguish themselves from one another?

Finally, and not exactly a newsflash, television news, at least as portrayed here, is losing the ability to bring a critical and credible voice into our public discussions. In a free society, the “fourth estate” is only helpful if it can frame issues and inform  so that voters may be able to make better choices. Television news is such big business that those who practice it have been, for decades now, elites.

Elites, from what I can gather as an outsider, live differently. They fly privately. They vacation in exotic locales. They hob-nob with celebrities. They occupy, it seems, coastal, urban areas. Those that are educated, tend to go to the same schools and run in the same social circles. This sameness has to reduce friction and shrink the incentives to attack and expose differences and weaknesses.

Journalism works best when it is pointed and sharp. Journalists should question everything and assume nothing. They should poke and prod for misdeeds. They should be, ideally, outsiders who are not as dependent on the incestuous social networks that spring up around money and celebrity. Journalists should be willing to forego vacations on the Vineyard or dinner at Mario Batali’s latest venture in order to pick a sensitive scab.

There are lots of caveats I should probably add here. We do see the adversarial press at times, but it needs to be more consistent. Also, the news industry is undergoing a massive reconfiguration that plays into this. Newspapers are in the process of vanishing and websites have not quite caught up, so it is possible we will see the internet produce a better brand of journalism over time, even if it is not there yet. So, to some degree, it is understandable that every news outlet is scrambling for every dollar because of the massive uncertainty that still looms.

8 thoughts on ““True” War Stories at NBC News”

  1. Mark
    My only comment is that other articles I’ve read suggest this is really nothing new during the long history of journalism–in terms of catering to specific interest groups. I think one of the interesting things going on in ALL of life is the arrival of niche–with current and future technologies, every niche market can be profitable to some degree. In many ways this is not all bad. Niche ideas, interests and products are now all possible. That’s even the case with MSNBC.

    1. Jeff–it is not new, but it is a reversal of journalistic norms, at least back to the late 19th/early 20th Centuries. When mass printing started, publishers figured out they could make more money by creating objective news that did not alienate anyone, so they played it straight. Schools journalism created it as an ethic. That persisted, to a degree, for most of the 20th century. The niche element you reference is certainly one of the reasons the system has reshuffled. Maybe a harder question is whether niche profitability is enough to do good, investigative journalism, especially on the web. We will see.

  2. It is really weird I think that he would have lied about all the stuff he did. I do not know why he did and I also do not know how nobody caught him until now. He has been lying for years and nobody called him out or caught him? I do not get it. I definitely think it was the right decision for them to suspend him. I do not know if he should get his job back or not but definitely the right decision by NBC.

  3. I think that you make an especially good point regarding individuals turning to news stations that repeat beliefs or viewpoints with which they already agree. As a result I feel that we are losing much of the benefit of public debate, since people view news presented by their favorite news station as total truth and news presented by other stations as biased opinion.

  4. I liked your point that news are getting to the point where they are neither informative nor entertaining (due to their desire to please both audience groups), and so they will eventually fail altogether. They really do just need to stick to one or the other to please SOMEONE.

  5. It is hard to determine which news companies tell the truth, stretch the truth, or just lie. Even though the news does this, I believe people will still watch it in the long run because people love to know what is going on even if they aren’t sure if it is the full truth. Plus people do stick to their program and they will most likely not leave it despite how informing or entertaining it is just because of routine.

  6. The fact that television news is becoming more and more about “entertainment” is quite disappointing. News should be fact based and to the point, and that’s not what is occurring now a days. I do think that people will continue watching, but only because they don’t know of anything else to do.

    1. I totally agree with your point Olivia. News should be for information and not for entertainment. In addition, nowadays, we never know if the news are biased or not.

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