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“True” War Stories at NBC News

10 Mar 2015

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.