LeDuff: Monkeys and Mannequins -- How TV News Really Gets Made





Charlie LeDuff is the author of "Sh*tshow!: The Country’s Collapsing . . . And the Ratings Are Great," coming May 22 from Penguin Press.

By Charlie LeDuff

David Smith, chief executive newsman of the Sinclair Broadcast Group, doesn't like newspapers, doesn't trust them, says the print media "serves no real purpose." It's a curious statement from a guy who owns or controls 193 local television stations across the country. 

Though he will never admit it during his regional Emmy acceptance speech, every local TV news executive and reporter in America knows that he cannot exist without the newspaper.

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Anchors from Sinclair Broadcast Group

Once the roll-over car accident story has aired; once the murder du jour has been beamed into the suburban kitchen; once the puppy dog saga has had its run; the print media is exactly where Smith's well-quaffed and poorly paid TV people purloin their news stories to fill out the evening broadcast. They commit this thievery, as a general rule, without attribution.

Nevertheless, Smith made news recently when he railed that print media is a fetid pit of liberal bias. "So left wing as to be meaningless dribble," were his exact words, if the print media is to be believed.

To make this point absolutely clear to the 'ordinary' American, Sinclair's executives required anchors to recite a "must read" editorial last month, blasting mainstream media as fake newsers who pimp unsubstantiated facts and opinions. You know, drivel about Syria, Brexit, trade wars, the Facebook data mining and Flint water and Trump investigations.

The website Deadspin produced a spooky video mash-up of Sinclair anchors from across the heartland reciting the same lines in a soulless, marble-eyed cadence reminiscent of a scene from 'The Stepford Wives."  

“We’re concerned about the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories plaguing our country,” the Sinclair script read. “Unfortunately, some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control exactly what people think. This is extremely dangerous to a democracy.”

I know people who work for Sinclair. Some are even my friends. Not one of them is happy about the anti-media monologue. They feel manipulated, they told me. But not one of them has quit because integrity doesn't pay the rent. The Founding Fathers may have enshrined freedom of the press, but they forgot to enshrine us a paycheck. Besides, reading lines written by other people is exactly what news anchors do. It's considered the pinnacle of the profession.

And to be fair, Smith has something of a point. Bias has undeniably leached from the editorial pages into the news stories. Faced with an ever fading audience, editors and writers have traded objectivity for ratings, rooting around for clicks like pigs to a truffle.

Facts Matter

Still, those print stories are rooted in facts. And facts are hard to do.

I worked for a dozen years at the liberal New York Times and a half-dozen at the conservative Fox Television Group. Having worked in both print and broadcast journalism, I can reliably say that newspaper people are the superior class of reporter. They are smarter, more savvy, better informed and better-prepared. They actually read things and sometimes they are brave.

But writers are wholly unlikable. They tend to be surly, nervous, homely, nail-bitten, prosecutorial and poorly dressed. And technology has done them no favors.

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Instantaneous internet deadlines have reduced too many of them to laptoppery; the filing of reports from the scene of the crime or the press conference even as the story continues to unfold before them. This leaves little time for literary flair, metaphor, context or the accrual of detail. (Look, the judge's fly is open!) Their stories become half-loaves of unleavened dough, containing grammatical errors and B-matter copied and pasted from yesterday's report

There they sit, nowadays, in the front row rocking to and fro, stressed-out, tapping away like a troop of Rhesus monkeys attempting to augur the sequence that releases the banana chip. Primate research has shown that such behavior is symptomatic of the onset of insanity brought about by the deprivation of meaningful sensory stimulation.

Add to this, their editors' demands for cellphone photography and live video. Nobody actually watches these live videos, except for the put-upon reporter and his mother, who both quickly realize he looks little better than a shifty-eyed character in a police line-up.

Ken and Barbie News Dolls

Ironically, the writers' most loyal followers are the Ken and Barbie TV news dolls. These well groomed people stand next to the writers at these media confabulations playing Candy Crush or shoe shopping on their smartphones while waiting for a news alert to tell them the writer's report has been posted. The more prestigious of these TV correspondents often have stand-ins and fluffers who will hold a spot for them in a press scrum so their makeup and ensembles stay crisp.

The TV dolls will in turn report the writers findings as if they were their own; having never read the indictment, executive summary or stat sheet. Again, the more prestigious of these personalities will have producers read the reports and write their lines for them.

As a consequence, the newspaper writers' reports are distilled and bleached to their bare bones and these copy-cat derivative stories clang around the echo chamber of TV and the internet as the new gospel. Others pick up on it. Flappy-mouthed TV roundtables take it from there. Cliché wins the day. Shallow news. Superficial news. Fake news. Chose your adjective. 

The newspaper people look upon Cable Ken and Broadcast Barbie with both hostility and envy.

How do I get a piece of the Big Time, they wonder? The answer is devilishly simple: hair product and teeth whitener.







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