The Boozy, but not Newsy, Mass Media

by Walter Brasch

The Big Story this past week was the Golden Globes awards.

The Golden Globes, sponsored by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and broadcast by NBC, drew 21 million viewers for the three-hour ceremony, preceded by a one-hour Red Carpet gush-fest hosted by “Today” show personalities. There wasn’t one TV or film personality the hosts didn’t fawn over.

Tamron Hall several times excitedly told the viewers that last year she watched the Golden Globes on TV, and now was so thrilled to be on the Red Carpet to interview fellow celebrities.

Hosts praised the gowns of the women; the women returned the compliments to Hall and Savannah Guthrie.

No one said anything about the spiffy tuxes that Matt Lauer or Carson Daly wore. However, more than just a few viewers noted that Lauer began the telecast watching celebrities through a pair of sunglasses. Lauer, who long ago transitioned from journalist to $25 million a year celebrity, justified the Jack Nicholson look by saying the sun was in his eyes. It’s possible the director, producers, lighting technicians, and camera operators couldn’t figure out how to position Lauer and the pulchritudinous multitude without having the sun affect them. It’s also possible that someone from the Honey Boo Boo family will become a five-time “Jeopardy” champion.

To make sure the viewers knew the Golden Globes were not the staid Oscars, the hosts and some of the celebrities referred to the amount of drinking before, during, and after the presentations. There is, apparently, a correlation that the Golden Globes are a looser, much more fun ceremony because the stars can sit at dinner tables and shine all night long. Some of the TV and Golden Globes staff, and probably some of the stars, may have even chosen to get a Colorado high before the ceremony. Cate Blanchett, who won a Golden Globe for “Best Actress in a Drama,” navigated to the stage and declared, to no one’s surprise, “I had a few vodkas under my belt.”  By the time Jacqueline Bisset got to the stage to accept her award, the orchestra had already begun to play the “Your time is up” music. Emma Thompson, seeming to bond with college sorority girls, came onto the stage with her shoes in her right hand and a martini in her left hand. She was there to present the Golden Globe for Best Screenplay, proving that actors will always upstage writers.

Boozers Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford stayed in New York, preparing whatever wine or other liquor they would feature in their one-hour “Today” show gab-fest the next day.

The day after the Golden Globe awards, newspapers ran innumerable color pictures of actresses, making sure to identify whose designer gown they were wearing. There is nothing wrong with that. The people in the TV and film industry, whether star or gopher, work hard and are every bit as professional as any doctor, lawyer, or cosmetologist. However, there are questions about the professionalism of the news media.

During the week of the Golden Globes, there actually was some hard news.            Forty-five homes were evacuated in New Brunswick after a 122-car Canadian National train derailed. Seventeen of those cars, carrying propane and crude oil from North Dakota, burned. Only because the wind was blowing away from a populated area was a major disaster averted. It was the sixth major derailment since July of trains carrying the toxic and highly flammable crude oil from the Bakken Shale of North Dakota.

In West Virginia, Freedom Industries spilled almost 8,000 gallons of the chemical Crude MCHM into the Elk River near Charleston. That spill caused more than 1,000 residents to go to emergency rooms for a variety of ailments, including rashes and breathing problems. The 300,000 residents who were affected had to rely upon bottled water for at least a week. The contaminated water, which traveled down the Ohio River, was too toxic even to be boiled, cooled, and then used.

In Chicago, four persons were murdered this past week. In Baltimore, there were 16 murders in the first two weeks of the year. Across the country, more than 200 Americans were murdered last week.

There are several ways to determine news media priorities. You can count column inches or air time; the Globes easily won in that category. You can check placement of a story, whether on a page or in the TV line-up. Chalk another win to the Globes. But there’s also another way to determine what the media think are important. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association handed out more than 1,200 press credentials. This would be probably at least 10 times more media personnel than those who covered the train derailment, the chemical pollution, and America’s preoccupation with guns.

More than 4,000 media credentials were issued in 2005 to the press to cover the celebrity trial of Michael Jackson in ocean-beautiful Santa Barbara, Calif. The International Olympic Committee is issuing 2,800 press credentials for the Sochi winter Olympics; about 6,000 press credentials were issued for the 2012 London summer Olympics.

It’s just a reality of the entertainment-driven news media that thinks it’s being relevant by splashing soft puff and entertainment news all over its good-for-one-week porous sheets of newsprint or the air time it leases from the FCC.

[Dr. Brasch’s latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth investigation of the environmental, health, and economic effects of horizontal fracturing to capture natural gas. The book also includes extensive analysis of the collusion between corporate interests and politicians.]

The Fluff Factor: Today’s Journalism

by WALTER BRASCH

Will someone please buy gags for Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford?

It makes no difference what the color is.

Plain or polka-dotted.

Painted or sequined.

Scented silk, Egyptian cotton, or an auto mechanic’s oil-soaked rag.

Just as long as it can be stuffed into their mouths.

When their mouths are open, the personality-drenched hosts of NBC’s fourth hour of “Today” are swilling cocktails, blathering about themselves, or interrupting their guests.

It makes no difference who the guest is. Cookbook or romance author. Relationships or nutrition expert. A-list actors. No one gets more than a couple of seconds without cross-talk with one or both of the hosts. They may think it’s funny. Or, maybe, like authors who are sometimes paid by word, or doctors who are given bonuses for scheduling myriad lab tests, these babblers have to justify their seven-figure annual incomes by the jabber rate of words per minute. It may be time for NBC to move all four hours of the “Today” show from the news division into the entertainment division.

Almost as bad as the GabFest at 10 a.m. is what has happened to news shows. At one time, news anchors, assisted by newswriters and producers, went into the field, got the news, wrote it, edited it, and then broadcast it. They sat in anchor chairs because they were excellent journalists. But broadcast journalism-and those two words should seldom be put next to each other in the same sentence-with a few network and regional exemptions devolved into yet another mess of Reality TV.

The co-hosts, known as anchors, are usually a tandem of a wise middle-aged older man and his pretend trophy wife, both of whom spend more time in Make-up and Hair Dressing than they ever spent in journalism classes. Their reporters and correspondents may have studied journalism in college, but their interests were undoubtedly more focused upon voice quality, delivery, and personality than source building, probing, and fact checking.

On air, the anchors open with something serious. A fire. A mugging. A supermarket opening, reported by freshly-scrubbed 20-ish field reporters and recorded by videographers with digital cameras and almost no knowledge of what video is. In all fairness, it’s hard to know what videotape is when your best friend is an iPad.

If a story doesn’t have a “visual,” it probably won’t air. That’s one of the reasons why stories about the foolishness of state legislatures aren’t broadcast. The other reason may be that Public Affairs Journalism isn’t usually a required course for college students majoring in Broadcast Journalism. By the end of the first news block, the co-hosts lighten up. Coming back from commercials-there are eight minutes of them in a 30-minute news cast-the co-hosts may have more news or a script that directs them to “throw it to Weather.”

For four or five minutes, a college-educated meteorologist or a “weather girl”-on some stations it makes no difference-using the latest visual technology tells us the highs, lows, barometric pressure, storm fronts, and the history of weather.

One of the responsibilities of the weather people is to make sure they get names into the broadcast, probably because some overpriced media consultant told them to do so. A simple sentence like, “It was in the mid-80s throughout our region” is replaced by telling us it was 84 degrees in Snowshoe Falls, 85 degrees in Dry Gulf Junction, and 84 in East Swamphole. To make sure our bodies can tolerate the whimsies of Mother Nature, weathercasters predict what will happen a week away, usually with about the same success as a drunk with the Racing Form.

Time for more commercials.

At least twice, the anchors “tease” the viewers with some celebrity scandal they will tell us all about if we just keep watching until the end of the show.

Next up is about four or five minutes of Sports. The latest fad in sports reporting is to be a part of the story. So, we see sportscasters doing push-ups with the football team, learning how to shoot an arrow, or reporting from inside a race car. Apparently, they believe that gives them credibility, something they probably learned from anchors’ ride-along on fire trucks and Blue Angels flights.

By the end of the newscast, the co-hosts, weather people, sportscasters, and field reporters have turned the news into the Happy Time Half-Hour Aren’t We Wonderful Show. They wasted our time chatting informally among themselves, tossing one-liners they think are cute and might get them work in a Comedy Club-as a cook. Take away the Happy Talk, tighten up their reporting-how many times do we need to hear that a “community is in shock” about a fire, death, or that the fireman’s carnival had to be cancelled-and the 22 minute news show might be only 15.

At the National Conference for Media Reform four years ago, Dan Rather-who for more than a half-century has been everything a news journalist should be-explains what has contributed to the decline not just TV news but all journalism as well: “Media consolidation, the corporate news environment, ‘message discipline,’ media cowardice, news-for-profit, celebrity fluff, ‘so-called human interest stories,’ sensational trials, gossip, ‘news you can use,’ [and] partisan shouting matches.”  

There are a few journalistic highlights, like “60 Minutes” and Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show,” which he modestly calls fake news, but which makes far more sense than anything else permeating the airwaves. Nevertheless, most news operations-local, regional, broadcast or cable-have been compromised by exactly what Dan Rather said.

Maybe it’s time for all of us to join Hoda and Kathie Lee and drink our way through what passes as the news.

[Walter Brasch proudly calls himself a journalist, and has been for more than 40 years, in radio, TV, newspapers, and magazines. He was recently honored with a lifetime achievement award from the Pennsylvania Press Club. His latest book is the critically-acclaimed Before the First Snow, which looks at the establishment and alternative media, as well as the public relations industry.]

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Walter M. Brasch, Ph.D.

Latest Book: Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution

(www.greeleyandstone.com)

www.walterbrasch.com

www.walterbrasch.blogspot.com

www.facebook.com/walterbrasch

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v…

Booze, Schmooze, but Not Any News: The “Today” Show Fourth Hour

by Walter Brasch

The most important media story this past week is that the Kardashians were guest co-hosts on the fourth hour of NBC’s “Today” show. One Kardashian sister per day, plus mother Kris and stepdad Bruce Jenner.

It isn’t bad enough that talk shows, which have descended into a morass of being publicity mills for celebrity hucksters, adore them. It isn’t bad enough that the E! cable network, owned by NBCUniversal, throws millions to create and promote their reality shows that are as real as unicorns and fairy dust. Now we have Kardashians in NBC’s Studio 1A, the window on New York City.

The three sisters are Kourtney, 32; Kim, 30; and Khloé, 27. Their mother is Kris, 54. Other than Jenner, whose career stems from having been an Olympian gold medalist and Wheaties box icon, the rest seem to have few discernible talents or skills, other than being celebutantes, socialites, and models. Even their various businesses exist only because they have the Kardashian name, earned because of Robert, a high-profile lawyer, who became a household name by defending O.J.

Upon their name, the three sisters wrote an autobiography and once again are about to leap to the best-sellers chart with a novel. There is no evidence that any of the three can write; there is evidence that bookstores and Americans buy books because of name recognition rather than talent.

But the real loser during Kardashian Week may be the integrity of NBC’s News Division. News, not Entertainment, produces the fourth hour, co-hosted by Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford. At one time, Kotb was a good journalist. Now, with a larger paycheck and her hair dyed an unnatural blonde, she and Kathie Lee Gifford, herself an excellent singer/writer, co-host the fourth hour.

That fourth hour is filled with diets, makeovers, fashion, food, relationship advice, and celebrities huckstering their latest films, TV shows, and books. There are frequent short segments devoted to displaying semi-wild animals, the “ahhhh” factor in TV entertainment. But since Hoda, who has covered wars and natural disasters, seems to be afraid of any animal less cuddly than bedroom bunny slippers, those segments seem to be inserted into the show not as information but to give the audience an at-home laugh track to Hoda’s reactions. It makes little difference anyhow, since Hoda and Kathie Lee usually talk over whoever is trying to explain a little bit about each animal.

A typical show begins with Hoda and Kathie Lee interrupting each other with a few minutes of chatter. The chatter and interruptions occur throughout the rest of the hour. The guests, in rapid sequence, may actually have something important to say, but the endless babbling and cross-talk seemingly leave them little more than chum in a swirling pool of drunken steroidal fish.

Drinking is part of the fourth hour. Every day has at least a few seconds, often an entire segment, with the two co-hosts talking about booze and liquor, and then having demonstrations of how to make mixed drinks. Even the days are named. One day is “Booze Day Tuesday”; another is “Thirsty Thursday.” Guest co-host Seth Rogen two weeks ago had said he had never had a drink that early on TV. Hoda, joking it up, responded on the show’s Facebook page that the “operative words” were “on TV.” It isn’t too outrageous to believe that by the end of the Today’s final hour, even AA mentors are tempted to take a swig just to ease their pain.

Because the “Today” producers are “with it” and “one with social networking,” they underline the on-air show with audience contact through Facebook and Twitter. During the hour, Sara Haines conveys fan email to the co-hosts and occasionally discusses technology. There is no evidence she is a technology guru, just as there is no logic why she, like the two co-hosts, are bottle blondes.

Legendary TV pioneer Sylvester (“Pat”) Weaver created the “Today” show in 1952, filling a daily two-hour program with news and features. Two years later, now NBC’s president, he created the “Tonight” show.

For all but eight years of its 59 year run, “Today” has been the ratings leader in its two-hour time slot, mostly following the basic formula that Weaver established.

In 2000, NBC added a third hour. In September 2007, NBC expanded “Today” to the fourth hour. Kotb was the original co-host, along with Ann Curry and Natalie Morales. Gifford replaced Curry and Morales a few months later. After a dip in the ratings, the fourth hour again took over its time slot, adding to the News Division’s profit, a reason why it would do everything possible to stonewall any attempt to move that hour into the Entertainment Division where it belongs. The show itself is little more than an amalgamation of the worst parts of Cosmopolitan, Us Weekly, and just about any TV entertainment-and-gossip show.

Kardashian Week may have brought in greater ratings. It’s also why middle-class America willingly bathes in the limelight of the rich and famous, even those with little ability other than having created a following who make them famous for reasons no one yet understands.

[Walter Brasch is an a award-winning syndicated columnist and media analyst. His latest book is the fast-paced mystery Before the First Snow.]

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Walter M. Brasch, Ph.D.

Latest Book: Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution

(www.greeleyandstone.com)

www.walterbrasch.com

www.walterbrasch.blogspot.com

www.facebook.com/walterbrasch

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v…

 

Blood on the Lens

“If it bleeds, it leads” is local TV’s aphorism that dictates its belief that fires, car crashes, and shootings lead off the nightly newscast. These stories, of course, are more “visual” and easier to cover than poverty, worker exploitation, and the health care crisis.

But, now and then, it’s hard to find an assortment of adrenaline-enhanced stories. And so it was that WOW-TV’s panicked station manager met with his news director late one afternoon to go over the final line-up for the 6 O’clock news, which, with few variants would be the same news the station would run in its “expanded news coverage” shows over the next 24 hours. The station manager wasn’t happy.

“What do you mean leading off the news with a report that some jokers at the Public Health Service found the cure for AIDS? Weren’t there any accidents? Fires? Murders!”

“Sorry, Boss, there’s nothing out there.”

“NOTHING?! ‘Nothing’ as in ‘no accidents,’ or ‘nothing’ as in ‘You’re about to get a job at Kwik-E-Mart’?!”

“Boss, we really tried. I have five camera crews running around right now.”

“Think you can get two of them to run into each other? We’d pay the hospital bills.”

“Boss, don’t you remember? The union made us agree to a six-month moratorium on stories that involve us maiming our crews just for the sake of ratings?”

“Some union,” the station manager huffed. “Doesn’t even want its members to get more air time.”

“It’s only for six months,” said the news director. “After that, maybe we could cut the brake linings on Unit 3 and have Unit 4 cover it. But for right now, the news scanner is dead.”

“What happened to that fatality on Honeysuckle?”

“By the time we scrambled the chopper, the drivers had exchanged insurance numbers and left.”

“Left!?” thundered the station manager. “No one leaves when there’s a camera crew on the way!”

“Best we could figure out, it was just a few paint scratches.”

“Any of the cars red? If you got there faster, it might  have looked like blood. Check the cops again. They might be covering up something.”

“Sorry, Boss. Even Philly’s not reporting any murders in the past 24 hours.”

“Then go out and shoot someone!” the station manager demanded.

“Sorry, Boss, I can’t do that.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” said the station manager. “Tell Susie Sweetwater to do it. Her ratings are down. This should help.”

“Susie’s in the middle of her reading class right now, and you know how she hates to be disturbed when she’s learning new words.”

“Then Heartthrob! Audiences salivate whenever he’s on. The public would back him even if he had assault weapons and made welsh rarebit out of the Easter Bunny.”

“It’s an hour until air,” the news director reminded the station manager. “Hearthrob’s already in Makeup. They’re darkening his hair tonight.”

“Celebrities!” shouted the station manager. “Audiences love train wrecks, and celebrities do it better than anyone! Find me Lindsay Lohan!”

“We have two crews on her now,” said the news director, “but all she’s doing is drinking and partying. Besides, we’ve done that story five times this month.”

“What about the Jersey Shore morons.”    

“They’re currently destroying what’s left of the Roman civilization, and we can’t afford to send a crew.”

“Get me a fire! Forest. Trailer. Stove. I don’t care!” the station manager demanded, smashing his coffee mug against his desk, and cutting his wrist. “BLOOD!” he shouted. “We have blood!”

“It’s only a scratch,” said the news director.

“It’s blood! And it’s good for a grabber. Grab a producer. Come in with an extreme close-up full-frame, and then pull back to a medium shot. Dissolve to some of the footage of the Vancouver fans rioting when their team lost the Stanley Cup. Here’s your lead: Violence in Canada leads to blood-letting in America.” He paused a moment. “Make sure you run teasers on this every five minutes.”

[Walter Brasch, who once worked with TV, says it’s much safer in print journalism. His latest book is Before the First Snow, which is receiving critical acclaim for its look at the American counterculture.]

You Betcha Sarah Palin Has a Higher Calling

by Walter Brasch

           Sarah Palin said she had a “higher calling” that required her to resign 17 months before her term ended as governor of Alaska, and not to seek a second term.

           I have no idea where this “higher calling” came from, but I suspect it could only have come from two sources. The first one is God. I don’t know what God said to Sarah Palin, but I suspect it might have been something like this:

           “Sarah. I am a patient God. But, you have tried my patience. You are an embarrassment to my ideals, to yourself, to the people of your state, and to your country. Me, and my wolves and moose, would like you to please resign and devote the rest of your life in spiritual embrace of a better life. Oh, by the way, I knew a Sarah, and you are no Sarah.”

           The other possibility of her “higher calling” is from the Sultan of Greed. I also haven’t talked to him about Sarah Palin’s “Higher Calling,” but this is a possibility of that conversation:

           “So, Sarah, what do you earn as governor?”

           “About $125,000.”

           “Would you like to earn more? Lots more?”

           “You betcha! Half my salary is already taken up on clothes and jewelry so I can be the best darned governor in these here greatest United States of America!”

           “Resign as governor, sign with me, and I’ll get you a book deal worth millions.”

           “But I’ve never written nothing before.”

           “All you’ll have to do is talk into a tape recorder. We’ll correct some of your facts, add some stuff, take out some stuff, and make you sound as if you were Hillary Clinton but without all that liberal nonsense.”

           “Maybe you could put in a lot of pictures. If there were a lot of pictures, I wouldn’t have to have as many words.”

           “We’ll give you the best writers and fashion photographers. You’ll be in the Best Sellers list the day our-I mean your-book is published.”

           “You would do that for li’l ole me?”

           “Not only would my team do that, we’ll get you speaking engagements.”

           “But I already give speeches. All the conservatives want my opinions.”

           “It isn’t your opinions they crave, but that’s another story. I can get you speeches at maybe a hundred thousand each.”

           “And it’s all mine!”

           “Minus expenses, administrative fees, and commissions.”

           “You’re taking a cut of my wisdom?”

           “Trust me, Babe, we don’t want your wisdom, but that’s how this business works. You want to ride, you have to pay the operator. Now, about punditry.”

           “But, Sultan, I’m not so good with puns. Maybe-”

           “Not jokes, Darlin’! We’ll get you a radio gig. Couple of hours a day. You just say whatever you want into a microphone.”

           “That sounds tough. I might have to spend time researching issues, and reading something, like maybe a newspaper.”

           “You ever listen to talk radio?”

           “No research and reading?”

           “It’ll only hurt your credibility. Once we get you a radio contract, we’ll move you onto TV.”

           “Do you think I’ll be able to do TV?”

           “You’re a beauty queen. Miss Wasilla. America’s favorite hockey puck.”

           “Hockey mom.”

           “Whatever. You’re photogenic, nothing else matters. First, we get you a gig as a paid guest commentator on Fox-”

           “Like, wow, that’ll be the ultimate!”

           “Sweet Cheeks, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet! Make the audience salivate when they see you on air, and we’ll get you a regular slot. An hour, maybe more every week night.”

           “Wow! Like my idols Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly? Will Fox pay for my wardrobe? That’s important. My contract has to have a wardrobe and jewelry clause. And makeup. I’ll need my own makeup artist. And hairdresser. I can’t be seen not looking like a superstar.”

           “No problem, Honey Bunch. Fox will probably throw in a personal trainer to make sure you don’t gain any weight. It knows talent when it sees it.”

           “And I can make millions, just like Rush and Glenn and Bill, the greatest Americans ever!”

           “Not as much as them the first year, of course. Maybe only a couple of million. But, hey, aren’t I the Sultan of Greed? Am I not the one to lead you to the promised land, where you can rant all you want about high-paid celebrities and the government-controlled media? Did I not lead you to believe you have a higher calling than being a governor? Sign with Greed International, and we’ll get you anything you want!”

           “Can you make my ethics problems go away?”

           “Hey, Doll, you’ll be bathed by the media. Ethics won’t be a problem.”

           “Sounds just gosh-danged wonderful, Sultan, but do you know what I want, what I really really want?”

           “Whatever you want, we’ll get. You’re a money machine. So what can we get you?”

           “Maybe a full time babysitter for Todd and the kids. They might be lonely without a wife and mother.”

           [Walter M. Brasch is a university professor of journalism, social issues columnist, and the author of 17 books. His current book is Sinking the Ship of State: The Presidency of George W. Bush, available from amazon.com, bn.com, and other stores. The book was a winner in the politics/social issues category of USA Book News awards, and a finalist in the Independent Book Publishing Professionals Group awards. His weekly column was this year’s winner in contests sponsored by the Pennsylvania Press Club and the Society of Professional Journalists; his column received honorable mention in competition sponsored by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. Forthcoming in August is the third edition of Sex and the Single Beer Can: Probing the Media and American Culture. You may contact him at brasch@bloomu.edu or through his website, www.walterbrasch.com]