TV or Not TV

Broken News

I don’t mean to belittle what is happening today in Connecticut, because it is a tragedy. It is probably the worst shooting incident we’ve seen in recent memory, but it will probably not be the worst we see in the coming years… it might not even be the worst we see in the coming weeks. What I want to do is not necessarily discuss the tragedy, but — instead — discuss how broadcast news covers this and similar tragedies.

The coverage happens in stages, and — as each stage unfolds — the coverage gets worse. The problem is the coverage isn’t good to begin with, so when it gets worse, the train really jumps off the tracks.

Stage 1 — “We interrupt this program…”

Something has occurred. A 911 call has been made, police radio has been monitored. Specifics aren’t known, but in the race to be “first on scene,” details and facts take a backseat.

Stage 2 — “Reporter Trixie McBubbles is outside at the sight of the incident. Trixie, what can you tell us?”

Trixie can’t tell us anything, but now we have a camera on the ground. The concept of so-called Eyewitness News is just that — plop somebody at the scene who does little else beyond witnessing what is happening.

Stage 3 — “We go live to ‘Chopper Dave’ in the AirNews7000 helicopter…”

Now there are two camera angles the director of the broadcast can use to cut back and forth, even though the odds are neither camera will actually show anything.

Stage 4 — “Officials have confirmed…”

As the first set of facts and information is released by police and public officials, the facts and information will be repeated ad infinitum, as will the “best of” footage taken from the camera on the ground and the camera in the air. It never dawns on anybody in the newsroom to break away from coverage if there is no news to report.

Stage 5 — “We are speaking now with Skippy T. Skippy, who was here when the incident took place…”

Two things in life are certain: The sun will rise in the east tomorrow, and the first guy interviewed at the scene of breaking news will be an inarticulate boob. I don’t even blame the guy being interviewed — he just happened to be at a certain place at a certain time. But the broadcast news outlets, desperate for something on the air other than the two repeated facts they had thusfar been able to glean will throw any slack-jawed yokel in front of a camera or via telephone.

Stage 6 — “OK, let’s recap what we know so far…”

This is the longest of all the stages, when it is determined to be a public service to stick with a non-developing story. The metaphorical eye of a news storm serves to highlight the fundamental flaw of broadcast journalism, specifically that so few people know anything. This is when the reporters and anchors begin speculating and hypothesizing, reporting rumors and other unconfirmed statements, many of which will turn out to be untrue.

Stage 7 — “A press conference has been scheduled…”

This is the second longest of the stages, waiting for a scheduled press conference, continuing to repeat the same two facts, and replaying the same footage. I stated two things in life are certain, but if there is a third certainty, it is that a press conference never starts on time.

Stage 8 — “I’m Police Chief Bob Johnson…”

Especially when events occur in small, insular communities, law enforcement spokespeople are not prone to being overly wordy. The resulting statement released will be short, contain next to no new information, and basically summarize the same facts the newscasters have been summarizing, but through somebody else’s lips.

Stage 9 — “For those of you just joining us…”

The coverage has gone on for so long that it is assumed viewers got drunk, passed out, then awoke with no memory of what took place. By this point in the coverage, not only are there reporters on scene, but footage has now been edited into packages, and national figures in politics and the media are weighing in, expressing prayers and support for the victims, which doesn’t really add anything substantive to the coverage, but it sounds nice.

Stage 10 — “We finally have some new information for you…”

It is at this stage after enough time has passed that the information can be filtered and organized. The rumor and speculation is finally brushed aside, as the facts have been confirmed. The frenetic pace of the coverage will gradually slow, and “normal” conditions will take hold. Continuous coverage will eventually break away, and that will be that.

Stage 11 — “Let’s take a look at our social media to see what you have to say…”

This is the newest stage, and the most pointless. They used to do man-on-the-street interviews. Some better news organizations might have had editorials by people with informed opinions. But now anchors read texts, tweets, and Facebook posts. It is almost like news, but not.

That’s a big roadmap that doesn’t actually lead anywhere. After all of the above, all viewers really know is that something happened. That isn’t reporting, it is repeating. It scratches the surface of journalism, but it avoids the hard work of being a journalist. But I’m not the sort to merely whine about the pathetic state of media. OK — well — I am, but I’m also the sort to propose solutions. Allow me to present my revised playbook for covering breaking news:

Stage 1 — “We interrupt our regularly scheduled programing…”

If you look at the archives of coverage of the Kennedy assassination, you’ll see that CBS broke into regular programing (a soap opera) with a quick news flash, provided what little initial information there was and, since there was nothing else to report, cut back to regular programing. Hence the term, breaking news. That works for me. By all means, use the scroll text feature that news organizations love so much at the bottom of the screen during regular broadcast to repeat the basic information. Meanwhile, off camera, gather more information.

Stage 2 — “We have new information on a developing story…”

What were stages 2 through 6 are now a single stage, the majority of which occurs off camera. Because once you’ve been first, it is important to be accurate and to report only what matters. So during the second stage, cameras and reporters are dispatched, interviews take place, research is conducted, and facts are checked. None of that needs to happen live on the air. You go live when you know something, not what you think you know something, and not when you don’t know anything new.

Stage 3 — “We turn now to our team of experts for their input…”

Yes, I said experts. Men and women who have robust knowledge of a given topic. Back in the day, news organizations had experts in science, medicine, education, astronomy, economics, government, the military, and even sports. Reporters were assigned beats and had to stay up-to-date on what was happening so they could render an informed opinion. During stage 3, in a situation like today, experts in psychology needed to be called in so reporters could ask relevant questions such as, “What do we tell our own children about the events of today, and what are the right words to use?” Also using today as an example, bring in experts on guns and gun laws and talk about how such things affect the events of the day. After all, if there is a fire, experts are brought in to talk about the causes and materials involved in the fire, yet for some reason the news refuses to discuss guns when guns are used in a mass killing. Lastly in stage 3, the most recent census data I’ve seen indicates the overwhelming majority of Americans continue to believe in God, and for that reason I firmly believe there is a place for a panel of religious leaders on a modern newscast. I don’t mean divisive religious figures from either side of the political arena, but if the Dalai Lama or Bishop Desmond Tutu wanted to weigh in on the events of today and tell us how those with faith should be reacting in times of grief or crisis, I feel that is important and relevant. You’ll notice I’ve devoted considerable time to this stage, and that is because it is almost entirely absent from the way things are currently done in broadcast news. Due to budget limitations, there is little money for experts, and reporters must now float to wherever they are needed, even if they know nothing about the subject material. This trend must stop. We need to see smart people on television.

Stage 4 — “We will break back into regular programing when we have a better sense of what is going on…”

Yep, I’m suggesting breaking news doesn’t have to be non-stop, round-the-clock, blah blah blah. I’m suggesting when there is news to report, then report it, and when you report it, be thorough and professional and to the point. And once you have done that, there is no need to be repetitive. Because it is too short a leap from repetition to exploitation. The word “gathering” is in “newsgathering organization” for a reason. Gathering and verifying information is paramount and all-too-often ignored. How many hours today did the media report the wrong name of the shooter? How many times was the name repeated? Didn’t need to happen. Take however long it takes to get it right; if it is instantaneous, terrific, but if you do broadcast a mistake because you were too quick on the draw, expect to be called out as unprofessional and unethical when you do.

Stage 5 — “OK, here’s what we know…”

Take deep breaths, count to ten, then go back on the air and summarize things to the best of your ability. Here is when you include the press conference footage and the footage of national leaders. In theory, by stage 5 you know the Who, the What, the When, the Where, and the How. If the situation calls for it, here is when you attempt to explain the Why, but it must be a truly informed opinion. Stage 5 is when you attempt to provide context and subtext. Frankly, stage 5 is when journalists become journalists and actually add something to the conversation as opposed to merely regurgitating facts and figures and press releases. Stage 5 is when people are held accountable and made to answer for their respective roles in whatever tragedy has unfolded. Stage 5 might not even be completed on the same day as stages 1 through 4, because it involves a lot of labor intensive research and interviewing.

Broadcast news directors won’t like my “less is more” approach, to be sure. Because it gives them less air-time, and it makes them work harder, and it might even cost them more money. Too bad. If they took a serious look at the ratings, they’d see that viewers aren’t getting their news from broadcast the way they once did. If they want to treat the news as a race, the internet will defeat them every time. Instead, broadcast has to change the game, adopt a new strategy, and give viewers a reason to tune in.

I’m Dreaming Of An Alt Christmas

I like annual viewings of the traditional Christmas TV specials. It is hard to imagine the holiday season without seeing Charlie Brown futilely attempt to direct the school Christmas pageant, the Grinch attempt to get Max to pull his sleigh, or Rudolph attempt to speak with his nose plugged by a prosthetic. As my friends and I have been discussing on Facebook, none of these shows are complete unless they are preceded by a notification of exactly how special they are. But, believe it or not, other episodic TV shows have attempted the Christmas special, with varying degrees of success. Shocking but true.

If you are seeking something to watch to help put you into the Christmas spirit, I have a few modest suggestions, some familar, others obscure. Some family-friendly, others geared towards adults. Some exist to make you laugh, others to make you contemplate the true meaning of Christmas.

If any of these shows are new to you, in most cases you don’t need to know any of the backstory in order to appreciate the specific episodes. If available for purchase, I’ve included links to iTunes or Amazon (sorry Google Play, maybe next Christmas). If unavailable for purchase, I’ve tried to locate links to clips found online.

“Top Gear” Middle East Special (Series 16, Episode 1)

If you are asking yourself how a show ostensibly about cars could possibly do a Christmas special, you obviously haven’t seen “Top Gear.” In this episode, Jeremy, James, and Richard attempt to drive from Iraq to Bethlehem in open-top coupes, in search of the Baby Jesus. Along the way, they must find suitable gifts, disguise their cars to avoid getting killed, and one of them ends up in the hospital. An epic yuletide road trip through the original Bible Belt.

“Man Lab” Christmas Special (Series 2, Episode 5)

This series hasn’t officially made it to the US yet, but a UK friend tipped me off to it. Imagine a cross between “Mythbusters” and “The New Yankee Workshop,” where the focus is on outfitting the ultimate man cave (erected inside a wherehouse), and related masculine activities. Hosted by James May from “Top Gear,” the Christmas episode features how to use explosives to “cut down” a tree, how to make it a White Christmas by cloud-seeding (indoors and outdoors), how to decorate a massive tree in minutes instead of hours (using a homemade mortar), and other yuletide experiments.

“West Wing” In Excelsis Deo (Season 1, Episode 10)

Obvious to any fan of the series, writer Aaron Sorkin worked overtime to make holiday episodes special. For the first Christmas special, the White House Communications Director Toby Ziegler unexpectedly gets involved when a homeless Vietnam veteran is found dead wearing Toby’s coat. Meanwhile, the President slips out of the White House to do some last minute Christmas shopping. Richard Schiff as Toby gives a heartfelt performance in this episode.

“Titus” Houseboat (Season 3, Episode 6)

The sitcom “Titus” never did anything normally. The family takes the notoriously Scrooge-like Papa Titus out on a houseboat in an attempt to force him to celebrate the holidays. He is reluctant at first, but when his friend gets drunk and seemingly falls overboard and drowns, the rest of the family uses it as an excuse to con Papa Titus into being merry. In a series of comedic backfires and misunderstandings, everybody learns a valuable lesson, specifically: Don’t mess with Papa Titus.

“The Tick” Tick vs. Santa (Season 2, Episode 10)

A sinister man dressed as Santa Claus has a freak electrical accident, causing him to replicate himself whenever exposed to electricity, the Tick is powerless to stop him because he simply cannot bring himself to punch the face of Santa. Eventually, the original S. Claus appears to give the Tick the spirited pep talk he needs.

“Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” The Christmas Show (Episode 11)

Another of Aaron Sorkin’s Christmas episodes, this time from a lesser known series that takes place behing the scenes of a sketch comedy show based in Hollywood. It is Christmastime, and the cast and crew are finding it hard to get in the spirit of the season when it is 90 degrees outside and the internet exposes several myths about the holiday. But while one producer attempts to work through his feelings for a woman, another producer promises to bring Christmas to Hollywood in grand fashion.

“Lovejoy” The Lost Colony (Series 5, Episode 14)

Ian McShane is best known as either Al Swearengen in “Deadwood” or Blackbeard in the most recent of the Pirates of the Caribbean series of movies. But he also held the title role in a British series called “Lovejoy,” in which he played an antique dealer with an inate gift at differentiating the real thing from the forgeries. In this, the second of the show’s two Christmas specials, Lovejoy journeys to America to uncover a con job and stumbles upon some long lost members of his own family. As he was also a recurring guest star on the TV series “Dallas,” McShane was able to recruit some of that show’s actors to appear in the episode.

“Little House on the Prairie” A Christmas They Never Forgot (Season 8, Episode 11)

This episode of “Little House” should have been granted Christmas classic status, but somehow fell just short of the mark. I call attention to it because it is partly a clip show, but it also features some inspired short stories about Christmases in post-Civil War America. You will laugh, you will cry, and you will be absolutely convinced that life was just better back then.

“Animaniacs” Christmas episodes (Season 1, Episodes 49 & 50)

This animated series was groundbreaking for many reasons, but in their two-part Christmas episode, they really managed to breath new life into some classic Christmas stories. Most notably in this day and age is “Little Drummer Warners,” which offers their touching yet humorous take on the story of Jesus in the manger. That a mainstream, daytime, children’s cartoon would incorporate the Biblical story is both remarkable and reminiscent of Linus telling Charlie Brown what Christmas is all about.

“Mystery Science Theater 3000″ Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (Season 4, Episode 21)

Joel and his robot pals are forced to endure one of the worst Christmas movies ever made. To muddle through somehow, they try to find humor and happiness where they can. This includes the introduction of a new Christmas carol, inspired by the Patrick Swayze movie “Roadhouse.” Sadly unavailable, but the “Cinematic Titanic” version featuring many of the MST3k gang is for sale.

“Blackadder” Blackadder’s Christmas Carol (released between Series 3 and Series 4 as a standalone TV special)

I’ve never liked the writing of Dickens, and perhaps my least favorite of his works is his story of Scrooge. But this series twisted the story on its ear as it presented Ebineezer Blackadder, a kindly merchant whom everyone in town takes advantage of, until he is visited late one Christmas Eve by a spirit who shows him what other Blackadders have gained by being decidely less than Christ-like. This is dark Christmas comedy at its best.

So that wraps up my Christmas list. If you have your own suggestions, leave them in the comments section. And have a Merry Christmas.