Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘mistakes

Radio Silence

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Flatline

At about 6:43 p.m. PDT on April 28, 2016, listeners to KOPB in Portland stopped hearing American Public Media’s “Marketplace” and instead, listened to about 15 minutes of buzzy static.  When the program returned, the board operator didn’t make any mention of the technical problem.  I’ve worked evenings and nights at a public radio station.  I know that after quitting time, there is a skeleton crew, if any, in the building with you.  I also know that problems with a network feed are pretty much out of a board operator’s control.  At my station, there was a “B” line that we could switch to if there was a problem with the “A” line.  I don’t know if the board operator tried that, or if that option was even available.

The point of this post, however, is about the non-comment over signal loss after the signal returned.  And admittedly, I don’t know if there was any kind of explanation for the signal loss later in the evening.  Maybe there is no protocol, i.e., no generic script in place for board ops to read in case of a signal loss like that.  Though, anyone who has grown up with American TV and radio knows trouble slides and trouble music are as much a part of broadcasting in the U.S. as test patterns and the National Anthem.  So, why no mention?

My suspicion, and it has been my suspicion for awhile, is that stations don’t want to draw attention to their problems, whether those problems are in or out of their control.  It makes sense.  Radio is an ephemeral medium, meaning it’s designed so that you only hear something once and then, it’s gone, on its way to Alpha Centauri, forever.  Just like there is no crying in baseball, there is no repeating in radio.  So a mistake made a second ago deserves to die there.  The audience will forget it a second from now because there is always new stuff filling up their ears.

But, although that rationale might work with commercial stations that repeat formulated playlists every 90 minutes, I think the public radio listener is more of a challenge.  And, ironically, they’re more of a challenge because they’re public radio listeners.  We’re told they’re smart, they’re politically active, they have long memories.  All of the things public radio stations wax romantic about during pledge drives.  It’s why they wax romantic – public radio listeners are special.

So if they’re so special, don’t they deserve to know why stations have flubs?  If they’re supporting stations with their hard earned dollars in tough economic times, if they’re constantly referred to as “shareholders”, don’t they deserve to know when the machinery breaks down and what’s being done to fix it?

When I lived in Utah, KCPW, one of several public radio stations that served Salt Lake City, went through a period when for up to half an hour at a time, the station would inexplicably play the same :30 second commercial over and over.  Or, there would be long stretches of dead air.  I was a loyal listener and contributor and I can’t remember hearing an explanation.  Eventually, I had to contact the station directly, where they told me about a technical problem that involved their then sister station – KPCW.  Anyway, even though the interruptions continued for months, I decided to keeping listening and giving because I understood the issue.

But that I had to call, and them not volunteer to tell me, really chapped my ass.  And the thing about being taking for granted like that, over time, the effects become cumulative.  One could start to feel like stations really don’t care about how their behavior affect the audience.  And that is a mistake.

Someone said, “I’ve come to expect it.  Stuff happens.”  And yes, that’s true.  Why should we care?  I ask instead, what good, really, are calipers or scales or rulers or, for that matter, standards if they can be always be fudged?

Hey, I’m that loyal, smart listener, remember?  Own up and start talking to me about everything I’m helping support.  When stuff like this happens, tell me something rather than try to make me feel like it never happened.

It’s a little thing, but not really.

Written by Interviewer

April 29, 2016 at 10:06

How to Be Smooth

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Wireless Microphone

This is a quickie.

TV and radio are technical professions.  Everybody depends on everybody else for a smooth outcome.  Mistakes happen; lights burn out, things fall over, the wrong button gets pushed, a graphic disappears, a computer crashes.  But when they happen, people work to make them as unnoticable as possible.  That doesn’t always happen.  Reporters, anchors and hosts get caught off guard by flubs, both those of other people and their own.  They might apologize, do double takes, start something over, laugh or do any one of a thousand things people do when they’re surprised.

But being smooth is part of being professional, and sometimes, someone is so simply casual about fixing a fix that you have to admire them for it.  Such was the case with KOIN’s Sally Showman this morning.  At the 8:30 local news, traffic and weather break, the camera cut to her giving her weather forecast.  Her lips were moving but nothing was coming out.  There was a problem with her audio.  And smoothly, almost unnoticably, she reached around behind her own back, switched on her wireless microphone, and, as they say in the Army, “continued to march.”

How did she know we couldn’t hear her?  Possibly someone on the studio floor motioned to her that her mic wasn’t working.  Maybe (if she was wearing an earpiece), the director told her to turn it on.  But considering the blooper tapes I’ve seen in my life, even pros can sometimes make something as simple as pushing a button look like a Steve Martin routine.

Live broadcasting is an acquired skill.  It is a dance; gear, people, timing and electronics all choreographed while you drink your coffee.  You’ve seen so many dances that you, discerning audience that you are, know when somebody is stumbling.  So, when there’s a problem, it’s not enough to just fix it.  The fix must also be as ordinary as it is elegant.

Smooth.

Written by Interviewer

February 11, 2016 at 00:01

Journalists Do Good Work Until They Don’t?

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Brian Williams

The flap with NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams is not unique to Brian Williams, to broadcasting or to the 4th Estate.  The halls of journalism are littered with pockmarks from shots taken at reporters for not upholding the standards to which they supposedly pledge themselves.  Cast your memory back a few short weeks and it was CBS 60 Minutes reporter Lara Logan and questions not only over her reporting of a 2013 story on the US Embassy attack in Benghazi but her return to on-air reporting at the network.

About Williams, he claimed more than 10 years ago that he was in the second of four helicopters that was attacked in Iraq.  That seems to be mostly true.  The question is how it was attacked.  When he first told the story, he said the lead chopper was hit by a Rocket Propelled Grenade but both were taking small arms fire.  Over the years (and masterfully explained by NPR Media Critic David Folkenflik – http://www.npr.org/2015/02/05/384119679/brian-williams-criticized-for-exaggerated-iraq-story) the story changed to William’s chopper being the one that was hit by the RPG.

Brian Williams has been sitting in the NBC anchor chair since 2004.  He began his career in 1981 at KOAM-TV in Pittsburg, Ks.  From there, he worked at WTTG in Washington, DC, then WCAU in Philadelphia.  In 1987, he began broadcasting from WCBS in New York where he remained until 1993 when he joined NBC News.  Wikipedia says he anchored the Weekend Nightly News and was chief White House correspondent before serving as anchor and managing editor of the News with Brian Williams, also broadcast on MSNBC and CNBC.  His career has been extensive and his climb up the network ladder has been long.

But this is in no way a defense of Mr. Williams, Ms. Logan or any journalist that has gotten sloppy.  And that seems to be what has really happened here.  Whether it’s a refusal to do the deep checking a complex story requires, or a subtle need to “be the story” rather than just report on the story, sloppiness is the result.  Back in the day, it was harder to fact check the details of blockbuster stories because those resources weren’t as available to the general public and there was no venue for the public to say a reporter had gotten it wrong. But in the 70s and 80s, the subjects started fighting back.

Remember ABC vs. “Food Lion”, NBC and the exploding gas tank of the General Motors pickup and CBS vs. General William Westmorland?  Since then, with the advent of social media and the taste of blood increasingly on everyones tongue, no iota of information goes free from scrutiny for reasons that range from payback to schadenfreude.

In some ways, Edward R. Murrow, Woodward and Bernstein, Uncle Walter and the untainted others hang like the Sword of Damocles over every modern journalist, as well they should and here’s why.  Former CBS Executive Sam Roberts told Folkenflik these incidents fuel a public already skeptical about media reporting. “Oh you guys just make it up,” Roberts said. [People will say] “See I told you.  Look at what Brian Williams did.  We’re going to hear that over and over from people who are skeptical about the media”.

All a reporter has is his or her ability to tell stories and his ability to convince people to believe them.  Once that is gone, they are no longer a reporter.  Society is quick to take that away.  But reporters tend to be harder on each other regarding this kind of thing than the general public, maybe because of what Mr. Roberts told Mr. Folkenflik.  These incidents only make it harder for us to do our jobs.  Thanks, Brah.

But I certainly appreciate forgiveness and I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t.  People make mistakes and, oddly, some of those same people aren’t very forgiving of the mistakes of others.  Journalism is human recipe of storytelling fact and fiction.  And journalists are a social construction of gumshoe and celebrity.  Absolutely every reporter is subject to getting a fact wrong or embellishing a story a little too much.  Because they have a mouthpiece most others don’t, they do have a special responsibility to do everything they can to tell the transparent truth.  When they make honest mistakes, they need to own up to them quickly.  And everybody, audience and reporters, need to remember their hard work over the years before we kick them to curb for not being perfect, as so few of us are.

It reminds me of an episode of the hit TV show, “Scrubs”.  Chief in Interns, Dr. Percy Cox is telling the residents, including J.D. Dorian “Each and every one of you is going to kill a patient. At some point during your residency you will screw up, they will die, and it will be burned into your conscience forever.”

The pep talk continues …

“The point is, the harder you study, the longer you just might be able to hold off that first kill. Other than that, I guess cross your fingers and hope that the guy you murder is a jackass with no family. Great to see you kids. All the best!”

Journalism can be like that.

Falling From Grace

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Falling from Grace2

I love Scrubs. But there is one episode that I particularly like. John McGinty plays Percival Cox, Dr. Perry Cox. He’s Resident Supervisor and all around asshole. He makes life miserable for new doctors Elliott Reed and John “JD” Dorian, as well as other staff, management and the general public at large. He good, very good. And that makes him arrogant, very arrogant.

So one day, a dying patient comes in. And doctor Cox sees an opportunity to save three patients with the organs of this one dying patient. So, he barks to his resident staff and the surgical teams to do three transplants. Problem is, Cox misdiagnoses the dying patient and puts organs infected with rabies into them. All three die.

Cox is demoralized and devastated. And because the hospital is a family deep down, all of the staff decide to set up a round the clock visitation at his home because he won’t leave his couch, he won’t shave, he won’t talk. He is a broken man.

Cox mentors JD. So, of course, he is constantly humiliating him because, in his own way, he sees it as making JD tough. JD loves it, like a puppy looking for the next belly rub. And because he idolizes Cox, it’s hard for him to admit the mistake Cox made. So he avoids his mentor while the rest of his friends cycle in and out of the big man’s apartment.

But finally, he shows up. He sits down, and you can see JD is the only one Cox really wanted to see. And JD tells him he was scared to see him fallen. The point of the visit was for JD to tell Cox how proud of him he was. He says, “after 20 years of being a doctor, when things go badly, you still take it this hard. That’s the kind of doctor I want to be.”

Sometimes, after doing years and years of something, you can forget what it took to get there. You can forget the ethical struggles and the technical hurtles and the learning curves. You can forget the stupid mistakes and the need for forgiveness. You may be an expert, yeah, but you didn’t come out of the clam shell that way. You start to take what you do for granted. And then, something happens. The Indigo Girls relate to this in their song, “Watermark”, when they sing that every five years or so, you circle back to something you think you conquered only to realize it’s just a more complicated version of the same problem.

Sometimes, you need to be hit with a cruise missile of a problem that comes out of nowhere to remind you that, no you aren’t God. You aren’t even a lesser God. And it is at that point, I think, that you get real all over again.

Written by Interviewer

August 1, 2013 at 00:36