Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘CBS This Morning

Time versus Carefulness

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program-clock

There was an interesting conflict between broadcasting necessity and journalistic necessity this morning on CBS This Morning.  Susanne Craig and David Barstow, both reporters of the NY Times, co-wrote a story which they broke about the taxes of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

Apparently, Ms. Craig discovered three pages of Mr. Trump’s 1995 tax return in her NY Times mailbox.  After she and Mr. Barstow verified the authenticity of the pages with the tax professional that actually prepared the return the pages seemed to come from, the reporters released the story.  The reporters were asked if they feared legal consequences for writing the story based on documents Mr. Trump’s campaign said were obtained “illegally”.  They responded that a  tenet of journalism is that if a reporter does nothing to solict the receipt of such documents and they are verified as true, they can report the story as factual and be held harmless.

Ms. Craig spoke succinctly and briefly about how she got the documents, while Mr. Barstow was extremely measured in how he talked about conversations with staff attorneys, odd presentations of numbers on the form itself and getting the preparer to verify his work.

But because he took so much time carefully going through those aspects of the story, Charlie Rose and Gayle King began getting cues from their director that time was running out and that they need to wrap so the show could go to a break.

It was ironic that the journalists at that table, all of which were seeking the truth in the spirit of the First Amendment, were also essentially at odds over the amount of time available to tell that truth.

The chasm between TV news and newspaper reporting has been an open secret for decades.  If you notice, TV people are often reading stories written by newspaper people.  Newspapers reporting has been and remains the backbone of American journalism while TV is the compromise that adds pictures and speeds things up while removing much of the useful nutritional information.

I understand the program clock.  I understand affiliates down the line waiting their turn to insert local news, weather and traffic.  And I understand the need to make sure advertiser’s commercials get aired since ultimately, that’s the fount from which everything flows.

It just made me a little sad that such an important story was abbreviated.  To read the full, fascinating article at your leisure, visit http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/02/us/politics/donald-trump-taxes.html

The Video Appears to Show an Explosion

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Dubai Explosion

Has TV news and its newscasters become so pre-occupied with qualification that they don’t trust anything?

This morning, Charlie Rose of CBS This Morning was reporting on the explosion of a Boeing 777 in Dubai.  The circumstances of why the jet was on the tarmac with apparently broken landing gear was unclear.  It was explained in an earlier report that the jet has an excellent safety record.  In that report, the correspondent said that only an analysis of the black box would show what happened.

But, a jet with its fusalage on a runway would appear to indicate a very hard landing.  Of course, since we don’t know why the fusalage was on the ground, there are other possibilities, like maybe the landing gear failed during a normal landing.  If you’ve seen the video though, you might be thinking, “That’s ridiculous.  Of course a hard landing broke the landing gear.”

Yes, of course.

So, later in the report, when Mr. Rose says “Video appears to show an explosion …” as the the left wing is blown into the air and the fusalage is engulfed in flames, I realized my head was tilted in confusion.

Appears?  Was the video a YouTube fake?  A computer simulation?  Nope, it’s pretty clear that this was an actual jet airliner blowing itself to smitherines and burning itself to a crisp.

There is a criticism of news these days of how, in order to be “balanced”, it presents both sides of an argument even if those argurers are not equally yoked, credentialed or experienced.  A crackpot is paired with a scholar in an effort to appease everyone in the audience and meet the ideal of journalistic objectivity.  This wrinkle in professional broadcasting ethics is still being worked out.

But when something explodes with smoke and fire and 300 people escape from it before it kills any of them, that’s not appearances.

That’s real.

Written by Interviewer

August 3, 2016 at 22:37

You Gotta Be Schitting Me

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Shit Creek

American culture can be weird.  For example, the second season of the CBS comedy, “Schitt’s Creek” was previewed in an interview with its two top billed stars, Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara on CBS This Morning.  The show name was plastered on plasma TV screens all over the studio.  Yet everyone at the table, including three professional journalists, were straining to avoiding saying the title, which is a wordplay on a profanity.

Americans love to be tittilated (whoopsie).  Whether it’s going to the ballet to see who’s going to fall, watching sports waiting for the next big hit or following political debates to see who is going to have the next Lloyd Bentsen moment.  But this is a little confusing, because in this case, tittilation would be if the actual word, “shit” was being used or skirted, not a substitute for the word.

I used to live in Utah, and its residents had the same relationship with the word, “fuck”.  In my twelve years there, I saw the substitutes for “fuck” mutate from “flip” to “frick” to “fudge” – all “f” words.  It seemed that as a version got too closely associated with the real profanity, a new one replaced it and moved into the vocabulary.  I used to fantasize that someday, it would return to “fuck”.  I wonder what it is now.

The late George Carlin, a master at comedy that emphasized such wordplay, used to eat this stuff for breakfast.  Carlin, as you may remember, was named in a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court case between the FCC and the Pacifica radio network that forever enshrined the seven dirty words you couldn’t say in broadcasting.  They are, for the record and in mostly alphabetical order, “cocksucker”, “cunt”, “fuck”, “motherfucker”, “piss”, “tits” and of course, “shit”.

In an HBO comedy special, Carlin himself made fun of people’s discomfort with the actual words, commenting that at one point, a man asked him to remove motherfucker from his routine.  Carlin said, “He says motherfucker is a duplication of the word fuck, technically, because fuck is the root form, motherfucker being derivative; therefore, it constitutes duplication. And I said, ‘Hey, motherfucker, how did you get my phone number, anyway?'”

He later added the word back to his routine, claiming the bit’s rhythm didn’t work without it.  Carlin made fun of each word; for example, he would say that tits should not be on the list because it sounds like a nickname for a snack (“New Nabisco Tits! …corn tits, cheese tits, tater tits!”).

Maybe, after the Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction” during the 2004 Superbowl and the subsequent hiking of indecency fines by the FCC from 35-thousand dollars to more than 300-thousand dollars per violation, U.S. radio and TV networks got religion and all forms and flavors.  But it’s a little like the Simpsons episode where Bart is in the back seat yelling the word “bitch” and Homer grits his teeth because Marge says, “Homey, it is the name of a female dog.”

Hey CBS, own it.

Real News

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Thigh Cream

This is a quickie.

The National Zoo in Washington DC helped its panda, Mei Xiang, give birth to two panda cubs overnight.  CBS This Morning has spent a lot of time covering that story, repeating it each hour and dedicating several minutes each time from it’s reporter Jan Crawford, who is covering the story.  Guest anchor Anthony Mason, after one commercial break, began by saying something like, “In our ongoing panda coverage …”.

Anyone who has spent anytime in TV might wonder if what he’s really saying is, “Is this real news?”

This is a perennial conversation in newsrooms.  I remember back in the early 90s, when I worked at WKRC, Channel 12 in Cincinnati, there was a story about thigh cream.  The manufacturer claimed that using this cream would reduce wrinkles and fat on a woman’s thigh.  At the time, reporters were furious that a business product was being elevated to a news story.  And afterwards, it became shorthand for a ridiculous story that masquaraded as real news.  Some people might have accused CBS of doing the same thing a few years ago when “This Morning” featured the new Dyson bathroom hand dryer.

How does this happen?  Sometimes, the news cycle is thin and assignment editors and news directors are looking for anything to fill time.  Sometimes, the more strategic intention is to try to appeal to an important demographic.  And sometimes, (although no one will admit it) the sales department drops a bug in a news director’s ear because a business has just purchased a lot of commercial air time.

Ms. Crawford’s story, however, was likely in none of those categories.  When CBS went to her, she responded to Mr. Mason in her intro by saying the panda story was indeed important because these were the first babies born in captivity in many years.  And she said that because such panda cubs rarely survive, the zoo was essentially in a life or death struggle to keep them alive in their first few hours.

Was it breaking news?  No.  Was it thigh cream?  No.  But this story and many others like it are fuel for the ongoing argument on both sides of the screen.

What is news, exactly?

A Stumble at the Gate

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Horses at Gate

Jay Carney, former White House press secretary, showed why the transition from government to private business spokesperson isn’t always a smooth one.

Carney was interviewed by CBS This Morning in response to a New York Times article by reporter Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld about “dystopian” working conditions at Amazon. The report talked of employees in tears after meetings or at their desks. And although Kantor spoke about some of the positive aspects of the company, including its innovation, she defended the reports that Amazon’s culture encouraged employees to tear apart each other’s ideas in a effort to create an atmosphere of “unreasonably high” standards.

Carney told the anchor desk that he has held the job of corporate spokesperson at Amazon for five months. But he said neither he, nor Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos or many of the other people with whom he works recognized the company portrayed in Kantor and Streitfeld’s report. That mirrored the language in an Amazon press release but was not a firm enough rebuttal of the allegations for anchors Gayle King and Clarissa Ward.

Carney stumbled often as he defended Amazon’s role and history as an innovator. When Ward and King pressed him on whether the allegations were true, Carney essentially said that employees who didn’t like the culture at Amazon were free to leave, noting that the attrition rate for the company was similar to the attrition rate for other large American companies.

When King specifically addressed a charge in the NYT story that Amazon does not offer maternity leave to its women, Carney admitted that there was no maternity leave but justified that by the fact that 80% of US companies also do not provide it.

When Carney was a White House spokesperson, his responses were crisp because government spokespeople tend to be limited by government officials in what they can say. Saying too little or just enough in press conferences is the rule of the day because it reduces the amount of backtracking or embarrassment if they’re wrong later. As a corporate spokesperson, the crisis communication goal is to try to get ahead of the story and smash as much defense into an answer as possible, no matter the question. Several times, the anchors tried to stop Carney from the all too common corporate defense ramble.

But the message itself was a problem. Parents may recognize Carney’s responses to Amazon’s issues with attrition and maternity leave in conversations they have with their kids. “Everybody else is doing it”, is not a justification for a company that constantly claims to hold itself to a higher standard.

Jay Carney was the 29th White House press secretary. He served in that position from September 2005 until November 2008, and he was a regular contributor in the “roundtable” segment of ABC News’ This Week with George Stephanopoulos. But as this CBS This Morning interview shows, some skills are not as transferable as they seem.

The Death Toll Continues to Rise

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Chinese Explosion

This is a quickie.

At 7 a.m. PST, the West Coast version of CBS This Morning reported on the explosions at a chemical plant in China.  They said that 50 people had been killed.  At 1 p.m. PST, NPR News reported the death toll at that chemical plant was 50 and climbing.  At 7 p.m. PST, NPR News reported again that the death toll was 50.

The later newscast didn’t say the death toll was climbing and it didn’t give a higher number of deaths.  In fact, as of the later NPR newscast, the death toll seemed to have remained unchanged throughout the day.

But it is the earlier NPR newscast I am writing about.  If a death toll is 50 “and climbing”, how did NPR News know it was climbing?  And if it was climbing, shouldn’t the number have been some greater number other than 50?

It is very likely that there are people in extremely critical condition who probably will not survive.  But as of the later newscast, they apparently hadn’t yet died and their deaths hadn’t been reflected in updated numbers.  So I don’t know why, against available evidence and reporting, NPR News said the number was climbing.

Written by Interviewer

August 14, 2015 at 10:11

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.