Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Archive for April 2015

The “Larger” Problem

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Passing the Buck

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, in talking about what happened to Freddie Gray on CBS This Morning, spoke in a way that I’ve heard a lot of leaders speak in the last few days.  When asked about issues of transparency or police conduct or protester frustration, they don’t talk about the specific incidents of specific individuals but instead, put them in the larger context of a national or cultural or social problem.  They speak of it in a way that implies it is a problem that belongs to all of us.

That is quite a flip.

Back in the day, when authorities faced civil rights issues, there was never an acknowledgement that they were a societal problem.  Back then, nobody wanted to admit that black people were even part of society, let alone an issue society needed to address to be more equitable and cohesive.  But hearing that being mentioned so often as the “real” problem each time questions are asked about the circumstances of specific victims, it starts to sound to me like a get out of jail free card.  It starts to be used as an opportunity to divert talking about the problems in their town since their problem is really part of a “larger” problem.  So, passing it off as something that is so all encompassing that it’s beyond their control sounds reasonable while it also acknowledges the problem – a twofer.

Which is all well and good except that larger problem isn’t being successfully solved either.  Consider that if the larger problem is represented by a collection of similar, smaller problems and many of those problems are also contextualized the same way, it becomes a circular argument.

Reporters need to bring leaders and spokespeople back to the granular and not let them escape into the realm of the systemic.  There is safety in the ambiguity of policy and procedure.  Responsibility gets effectively diffused in the layers of bureaucratic anonymity.

Instead, reporters need to stay focused; policeman X shot person Y.  When will the report be released.  What will the Mayor do now.  What must the community do here?

Local, personal and immediate.

Spinal Injury or Broken Neck?

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Broken Neck

It matters what words reporters use.

Charlie Rose of CBS This Morning has been the only news person I’ve heard use the words “Broken Neck” to refer to the injuries received by Freddie Gray.  In case you don’t know, Gray was arrested by Baltimore police a few weeks ago for a misdemeanor.  But by the time witnesses saw him being moved to a police vehicle, he was being dragged.  His body was rigid and he was screaming in obvious pain.

Police said they failed to summon medical help and they failed to buckle him in with seat belts as they transported him.  Hearing that, I’m not sure if they were saying the unrestrained ride caused his injuries and they then failed to call for medical help, or he sustained injuries during the arrest and their failure to buckle him down before the ride aggravated those injuries for which they failed to call medical help.

Regardless, he died in a hospital shortly there after from what the media tended to describe as everything from a neck injury to a spinal injury to a partially severed spine.

It also matters why reporters use the words they use, which makes this is a good place to talk about sanitizing language and what I consider a most egregious use.  “Sever” is a French word derived from an older Latin word which means to “remove by or as if by cutting.”  Unless police tried to cut Mr. Gray’s head off with some sort of blade, his spine was not severed.  But sever sounds a lot softer than saying his neck was broken.  Police breaking necks sort of puts them in the category of Family Guy or Robot Chicken episodes, which doesn’t do a lot for public relations.

If making people feel better is the point for media, why don’t we call school shootings “secondary educational institution incursions” or call plane crashes “compromised airfoil equipment incidents?”

Do some media not want to inflame passions in the streets?  Do they not want to the call out those “bad apples” who admittedly don’t follow procedure, until a final report is issued?  Do they not want to cause more pain and suffering to friends and family of victims?

Or are some truths just too truthful?

It would be nice if our designated media wordsmiths actually used the right ones.  Thank you Mr. Rose.

Written by Interviewer

April 30, 2015 at 00:38

Eyes Wide Shut on the KGW Rally

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KGW Pioneer Square

A Google search as of 4/28 at 4 p.m. reveals eleven results with the search terms “KGW, IATSE, IBEW, SAG AFTRA and rally”.  Of those, one is a blog post from me, two are from NWLaborNews.org and the rest are a collection from Facebook, YouTube, IBEW and a few scattered others.  Even a search of the Oregonian, a non-broadcast medium, shows no coverage of Saturday’s event.  Perhaps the alternative weeklies will have something about the rally when they go to print in a few days.  But it seems no local, major TV or print media have yet produced anything about the event.  A search of those terms at the online archives of KATU, KGW, KOIN and KPTV show no stories about the rally with some search efforts showing no results for IATSE and SAG AFTRA acronyms.

What this tells me is that the public seems to see no story here and so the stations don’t cover it. Media companies in general and TV stations in particular are economic animals.  If the market wants it, they’ll begrudgingly report it even if doing so is against their interests.  But if the market doesn’t show any interest, and especially if that reporting works against owner interests, such a story won’t see the light of day.  And I know some people may think that a story like this one is surely in the public interest and so, stations have an obligation to cover it.  But again, the FCC has designated stations like KGW as the ultimate gatekeepers of the public airwaves and those stations have always determined what “in the public interest” ultimately means.  Because I can find precious little about a rally for employees of a television station, it reminds me how much of an insular racket commercial broadcasting actually can be.

I can imagine that the employees themselves are stunned at the completeness of the blanket media companies have dropped on them and their issue.  That they had to go to the center of the city and essentially scream at the top of their lungs because they knew they wouldn’t get an electronic megaphone speaks volumes to the power of media corporations rather than of media workers.

Thinking about the general public now, I don’t understand how so many people can benefit from unions but not do more to learn more about unions and what they are facing from a business climate that places efficiency and shareholders above all else.  But conversely, I’m sure a lot of those same union workers have 401K plans with Gannett or Clear Channel bundled somewhere in their asset mix.  And the closer they get to retirement, the better they want that portfolio to perform.  What a miserable conundrum.

One thing for sure … what ever happens, we’ll get out of it exactly what we put into it.  Here’s what I put into it.  The story begins at 27:28.

BTW, I tweeted that I’d produced that story to the three unions mentioned in the piece and, separately, to the local TV stations with employees who could be affected by KGW’s union fight.  As of 4/29 at 9 a.m., I have 253 impressions that seem linked to the unions and 25 impressions that seem linked to the the TV stations.

Written by Interviewer

April 29, 2015 at 23:27

Gannett No Good for Portland

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TV Tower

This was the title of a press release issued by three union locals representing professional broadcasting; the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the Screen Actor’s Guild – American  Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA). I called IATSE spokesperson Dave Twedell to learn more.

Essentially, these unions are worried by changes media corporation Gannett wants them to agree to, primary of which is allow “amateurs” or people not represented by the union to do union jobs.  This means, according to Mr. Twedell, bloggers, podcasters and possibly independent videographers would begin doing the work of professional writers, producers and field camera operators under what’s called a “Non-exclusive jurisdictional contract”.   And this is feared to lead to other changes, including:

(1) The firing of local television engineers at Channel 8 and turn local engineering responsibilities over to Gannett’s automated Master Control facility in Jacksonville, Florida,

(2) The possible elimination of Ch. 8 news altogether because Gannett may sell away the station’s bandwidth (including part or all of Ch. 8’s frequency) at the next FCC auction.

Mr. Twedell said the purpose of a planned rally at Pioneer Courthouse Square on Saturday is to distribute information on the proposed changes by Gannett and give the public a chance to make their concerns known to Gannett.

I asked Mr. Twedell if he expected any of the “talent” (any of the Channel 8 anchors or reporters) would show up.  He said he can’t speak for the SAG-AFTRA part of the coalition, since this event focuses more on the photographers and video editors side of TV operations.  But he said several SAG-AFTRA members are “active participants in our campaign” and we’ll see what we’ll see.

The release was issued on April 20th.  Let me know if you’ve heard anything about it on any news broadcast.

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Here is the full text of the release:

“Ever since Gannett took over KGW in late 2013, things have progressively gone downhill, including cost-cutting by bringing in amateurs and outsourcing work to machines located thousands of miles away.  That isn’t right”.

“KGW is a vibrant part of the community.  Because KGW is licensed to broadcast in the public interest, the public has a right to know what the new corporate owner, Gannett, wants to do with KGW”.

“The city goverment relies on Channel 8 to provide reliable real time information during emergencies.  The station’s advertisers rely on it to provide a large audience and the large audience is made up of stakeholders who can and we believe should speak up about the Gannett business model”.

“On Saturday, April 25, join us for a rally and celebration of KGW in Portland’s iconic Pioneer Courthouse Square.  Help us protect quality broadcasting and family-wage jobs, and stand up to corporate media.  KGW must maintain its standards and identity.  This is OUR air”.

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The rally takes place Saturday, April 25th at Pioneer Courthouse Square from Noon until 2 p.m.

True Levity

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Countdown Clock

You often see TV news hosts chatting each other up in an effort to sound homey or accessible.  Sometimes, these fall flat and are marked by awkward silence or even more awkward conversation.  But sometimes, it’s sincere as it was this morning on the CBS This Morning newscast.

Host Jeff Glor announced a story introducing the upcoming NFL Football season and a graphic showing a countdown clock came up on the screen.  It showed that the start of the season was 148 days away.  As the music played and the digital clock counted, you could hear the incredulity in the anchor’s voices.

Their chatter was more like a cacophony as they talked over each other, unable to believe that the network was promoting the start of something that was almost six months away with the urgency that it was breaking news.

Yes, CBS is their employer, and yes, the NFL is a huge sponsor.  But this was so ridiculous that even they couldn’t take it seriously.

Now that was true levity.

Written by Interviewer

April 22, 2015 at 22:00

Anne State leaving KOIN

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Anne State

It was announced last night on the KOIN 11 o’clock news that anchor Anne State was leaving the station, effective immediately.  Jeff Gianola said Ms. State was stepping down from her co-anchor position to care for her ailing parents full-time, and that “We understand and support Anne’s decision,” and wish her “the very best .”  On Ms. State’s Twitter page profile, she says her father suffers from blindness and her mother, from Alzheimer’s disease.

Before coming to Portland, Ms. State was at WITI in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  She joined KOIN anchor Jeff Gianola in August 2014.  Together, they hosted the 5, 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts. In her statement, she says, “I appreciate the support that I have received from many wonderful people at KOIN,” State says in the press release.  “I am so grateful for their support and understanding of this decision.”

Written by Interviewer

April 16, 2015 at 01:22

Oh No

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Theater people know the brief look that was exchanged between new, Face the Nation host John Dickerson and reporter/anchor Nora O’Donnell on CBS This Morning.  Dickerson was talking about Hillary Clinton’s just announced campaign and Ms. O’Donnell was asking him a question.  Suddenly, there it was.  Dickerson and O’Donnell were locked in this momentary glance that can be called the “Oh No” look.

When you’re onstage and you and another actor are sharing a similar thought, it can be a knowing look.  It can also be a shared joke that can cause both people to start laughing.  Or, maybe the laughing starts for absolutely no reason at all.  But if you can’t break eye contact, then you have to pour cold water on the look, which can be really hard to do.  SNL and news blooper tapes are full of examples of what happens when the look takes over; actors and anchors start laughing which in turn, feeds more laughing that becomes uncontrollable.  Episodes of the Carol Burnett Show showing this breakup breakdown between comedians Tim Conway and Harvey Korman are legendary.

In American film, theater and TV, this is called “breaking character“.  On the British stage, it’s called corpsing and actors receive pretty substantial training on how to keep it from happening.  Some actors focus on clenching their fists or biting their tongues.  Others are told by their directors that “they themselves” are not what is funny happening in a scene.  Still other actors say that after they work the scene enough times, they just focus on the work and the lose the urge to laugh.

I knew the Oh No look was in play because the director switched from Ms. O’Donnell’s face to Mr. Dickerson’s, and both were frozen in that sort of bulging eye horror of knowing they were each about to lose control if somebody didn’t do something fast.  The director, Randi Lennon, has probably seen this a lot and quickly went to and held the camera on Charlie Rose long enough for both Mr. Dickerson and Ms. O’Donnell to regain their composure.

I’ve mentioned something like this before, namely the bad marrying of a funny story to a terrible, follow-up story that can twist the anchor up sometimes.  What happened this morning is a reminder to TV people of something theater people know well – the Oh No look is a trap and one of the many hazards on a news set in the handoff between reporter and anchor.

Written by Interviewer

April 13, 2015 at 22:58