Why TV and Radio Journalists Can't Be Like Murrow Anymore

No it's not your imagination, the media does suck, and here's why. With some action you can take. - Todd

It's a fact: Media conglomerates' labor practices are harming the quality of TV and radio news.

A CBS television newswriter says: "We take a lot of stuff from 'Entertainment Tonight.' We watch it at 6:30 and decide what to use."

Most Americans still get their news from "old media" like newspapers, TV and radio. There's concern about how Rupert Murdoch will gut the Wall St. Journal when he gets his hands on it.  MSNBC Anchor Mika Brzezinski recently tried to burn a script on air in frustration over being asked to lead the day's news with a story about Paris Hilton rather than Richard Lugar's declaration that Bush's Iraq strategy is failing. Who can we trust to tell us what's really going on? Now, a new study of broadcast journalists from the Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE) gives an inside look at how the media conglomerates are destroying broadcast news quality with the same tactics other big companies are using against their workers. Replacing full-time newswriters with part-timers and temps, cutting staff and resources, and requiring more and more "multi-tasking" in the newsroom, equals bad news for the public. Literally.

The question to ask is "Can you believe what you see on CBS?" A recent article in New York Magazine about Katie Couric noted that CBS' Evening News budget was cut almost in half from 1991 to 2000 ($65 million to $35 million). CBS has cut the number of full-time news staff by about 60% since 1980, replacing many of them with temps and part-timers. In 1989, CBS network television news employed 28 researchers; by 1999, those positions were all gone. But what do these staff cuts mean to the public? Half the WGA members reported that at least several times a week, they use no more than a single website to check the accuracy of stories. I wonder how often that single website is Wikipedia. Some WGA members work "off the clock" to ensure that they are up-to-date on news developments and that facts are properly checked. Members tell lots of stories about how management pressures them for more fluff, more often. In fact 49% of all WGA members responding to the survey said that hard news stories were bumped for fluff or puff at least once a day.  For local news outlets, that number went up to 57%.

It is clear that the TV and radio news stations, "in an attempt to save money," are undermining their own ability to report on issues that matter to the public. Broadcast stations are failing to live up to the responsibility that they were charged with by the Telecommunications Act of 1935, which required broadcasters using the public airwaves to "serve the public interest." Our study asked WGA members "Do you think your news outlet spends enough time and energy making sure that your audience has enough information to make sound judgments on issues relevant to public life?" 72% of members responded "Not enough" or "Not nearly enough."

You've probably heard of Video News Releases (VNRs) - video press releases from corporations, government or NGOs that TV stations often present as "news" without disclosing their sources. As one member explained, "[VNRs] are used to fill the time because we are short-staffed." Some members cited "daily" and "chronic" use of video news releases, only rarely identifying them as press releases - not objectively gathered, independent news. Others said they were used at least once a week. Even at stations that cut back after the Center for Media and Democracy fingered them for relying on VNRs, usage is creeping back up due to even more staff cuts. In order to keep the public from being subjected to advertisements masquerading as news, news shows need to have enough staff to do real reporting or else they are breaking the public's trust.

The problem of replacing full time, unionized employees with low pay, low rights "permatemps" has damaged news quality as well. It's clear how turning good jobs into permatemp gigs is bad for the employees, but did you know it also undermines the quality of your news? In the survey, the members who reported speaking out on news quality were three times more likely to be full-time staff than temporary employees. Some permatemps have worked at ABC or CBS for 15 years, yet never achieved full-time status or benefits. It's unfair to the employees and unfair to viewers too. The media is supposed to be a watchdog, but how can staff operate that way if they can be fired at the drop of a hat for speaking out?

The full study is online at the Writers Guild of America, East's website. I know you don't fully trust the news establishment - that's one reason you're reading this blog. But television and radio news continue to be the primary way that the vast majority of people get their news. There is something we can do to improve news quality (and maybe even get you watching and listening to again). Media conglomerates' labor practices are harming news quality. Station owners get away with it because they think people don't care. Let them know it matters.

Write to Sean McManus and David Westin (news chiefs at CBS and ABC, respectively) to demand that they stop union-busting and deliver the quality news the public deserves. Write to the FCC to express yoyour views on the deteriorating news quality and the public interest requirement. And call or write to your Congressman to make sure he or she is taking action.

Tags: ABC, CBS, FCC, journalists, Media, MSM, news, news quality, permatemps, policy, Radio, reporters, studies, television, Unions (all tags)



Re: Why TV and Radio Journalists Can't Be Like Mur

It's funny that the stats from the relatively better times, 1981, still come years after the movie Network (1976, proven with a single website, IMDB, too!) lambasted all this Entertainment Tonight masquerading as news.

I just finished reading the long piece by Peter Fallow from 1996, Why Americans Hate the Media. It's funny that I really came across its hundreds of clones through Digby, Atrios, and all the rest.

http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/199602/am ericans-media

He goes on about the meaningless short term horserace stuff replacing anything close to an issues-based discourse. It's so depressing, coming onto posts like these that basically spell it out - it's the money, stupid! No cash for fact-checkers, corporate heads who use whatever integrity remains to flagships like the WSJ for their own petty baronial ends, it's so simple.

On a personal note, the people I knew in college who were journalism majors were (well, after the dozens who didn't know what else to try or were trying to parlay their horde of trivial sports info into a high paying gig) pretty faces who sorta-kinda gave a crap about stuff. If at all, future local TV news anchors.

The people who were wise to this side of things were a few poli sci majors not anxious to go to law school, and more often than not decided for mindless self indulgence. But then I might be being a bit too autobiographical here.

by DupinTM 2007-07-30 09:09AM | 0 recs
Re: Why Journalists Can't Be Like Murrow Anymore

DupinTM: Thanks for sharing your personal experience. You know, one of the WGA members quoted in the report said, "I feel like I am living in 'Network.' The entertainment division has taken over!"

Another described a management policy that each four-minute newscast couldn't contain more than three news stories, and that "half the newscast should be light stuff, features."

Frightening, isn't it?

by Michael Winship WGAE 2007-07-30 10:17AM | 0 recs
Re: Why Journalists Can't Be Like Murrow

Great diary Michael - thanks!

by annefrank 2007-07-30 10:41AM | 0 recs
Re: Why TV and Radio Journalists Can't Be Like Mur
Outfoxed - a brilliant documentary. Anyone who hasn't seen it, go to your public library immediately (or whenever, you know, not to seem pushy or anything) and check it out. There is no news on television anymore. Television is an entertainment medium only. While it's possible to derive some knowledge from television, any accurate information in any show (including Discovery Channel, History Channel, etc.) is incidental.
Today's front page news: Paris Hilton loses her inheritance. Wow. That's news? I guess so. Maybe the definition of news has changed...
http://www.news.com.au/story/0,23599,221 57708-2,00.html
Drew Curtis calls Gramps a hero.
by writerlynorse 2007-07-30 01:23PM | 0 recs
Remember how and why Murrow left CBS

This is a very complex issue and a lot of the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of the viewers who like Entertainment Tonight far better than they like the kind of journalism done when there were only three networks and those networks knew they had a responsibility to provide hard news.

We have choices today and we make bad ones in many ways. Our national obesity and our propensity to prefer Paris over Petraus are two sides of the same coin.

by PBCliberal 2007-07-30 01:34PM | 0 recs
Re: Why TV and Radio Journalists Can't Be Murrow

I have a friend who pursued her dream of becoming a TV on-camera reporter, which cut her income in half from print journalism.

She followed the job from local market to local market across country, and was slapped into every story that came down the pike -- although her print background was as an entertainment reporter.

Apparently, only anchors in local markets make a decent salary, the competition for on-camera reporters is such that ten years into her career, she's still only paid 100 dollars a day.

Low salaries, unprepared reporters -- what could go wrong?

How the hell can

by judybrowni 2007-07-30 03:31PM | 0 recs


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