Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Things to do in DC, Bucket List edition, for those who need these things

1)   Climb to the top of the U.S. Capitol
2)   Sit in on an oral argument at the Supreme Court
3)   Paddle a boat in front of the Jefferson Memorial
4)   Exercise on the west steps of the Lincoln Memorial
5)   Visit the Frederick Douglass Historic Site
6)   Visit the Lincoln Cottage
7)   Participate in a drum circle in Malcolm X Park
8)   Eat a half smoke at Ben’s Chili Bowl
9)   Walk, bike, or drive on all 50 State streets within DC
10)  Visit one of the remaining Civil War forts or fortifications
11)   Visit the Navy Yard or Fort McNair
12)   Attend a concert by the US Marine Band on Barracks Row
13)   Spend an afternoon at DMV
14)   Go to the National Building Museum
15)    Ice Skate on the Canal
16)    Visit an Embassy
17)     Sneak into one of the private clubs around DuPont or Farragut
18)     Visit the National Geographic complex
19)      Help out at Mitch Snyder’s CCNV
20)      Visit the Basilica of Washington
21)      Spend an afternoon at Gravelly Point
22)       Go to the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial …….. at night
23)       Ride a Metro train after midnight or before 6am
24)       Do a DC Scandal Tour, or at least a pilgrimage to any one of the sites
25)       Have an overpriced drink atop the W Hotel
26)       Go on a tour of the Treasury Department to see the Cash Room
27)       Enter the Watergate complex, legally
28)       Climb up and down the Exorcist Steps
29)       Visit Teddy Roosevelt Island
30)        Protest (or celebrate) in front of the White House
31)       Bonus points for accessing the catacombs beneath the Lincoln Memorial and extending out under the Reflecting Pool

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Book Review: That's the Way It Is

That’s the Way It Is: A History of Television News in America
Charles Ponce de Leon
University of Chicago Press
352 pages
ISBN: 9780226472454 (cloth)
ISBN: 9780226256092 (ebook)
May 2015

Reviewed by Jonathan Ebinger

The history of television news in America is not a small topic. In many ways it is a history of America. Of who we are. And what we’ve done. Or at least what we’ve done over the last half of the 20th century. And then some.

That’s The Way It Is walks us down this memory lane. It covers most of the major stories over the years. But it’s not as much a book on TV News as it is an assessment of the news. It reminds us about the business of news on television. And that news is a business. So whether it’s the advent of cable news, the prominent role of network anchors, or the powerful position that local news still maintains in our communities, we are cycled back with regular reminders of the role of the public, and the market, in helping to decide what we see, and what is presented to us each day on air.

Cal State Long Beach historian Charles Ponce de Leon dips in these topics, among others, in this readable history. Though he regularly cites the Federal Communication Commission as a significant influencer on how television news is delivered, he repeatedly reminds us that news is not so much a public trust, as it is a private business. And with the exception of PBS, about which he spends a chapter documenting the history of public broadcasting, he delivers on that reminder, noting how each network would jockey to either get ahead of another, or stay ahead of a third. Or how CNN would come to compete not only with the traditional three news networks of ABC, CBS, and NBC, but with the likes of MTV and ESPN as well. A final chapter that leads into the role of the internet tries to extend this further, but a history that attempts to discuss the future is a history best left unwritten.

In an appropriately titled chapter ‘News you can use’ we learn how the network news model, one that still exists over a generation removed from it’s creation, evolved from once being in the hands of a few men based in NY to what we have today, with corporate ownership and stock value all in play.

While this book is very much about the evolution of TV news, and who managed the business, and who anchored the shows, and which shows led the ratings race, and which federal rules led to the creation of programs, and how technology advanced delivery, and which executives battled which news managers, and ultimately, which corporations bought which news divisions, it is a history that virtually any among us can follow, and appreciate.

Regardless of how one views television news today, we understand it maintains a role in our consciousness. Whether you’re one of the few still watching an evening newscast, or among those who sustain local news as the most popular news delivery medium in the country, or perhaps someone who sees the news parody programs on cable as more than mere entertainment, you call upon TV news as the baseline for how you access visual news media. There are certainly many other methods to see content these days, but news still processes the media and presents it to us in a relatively palatable and certainly understandable way.

And that’s precisely how Ponce de Leon presents the past 70 years of visual media. Whether it’s the early days when network news barely reached beyond an elite few in New York, or the significant role that TV News had at political conventions in the 50’s, or in covering the 1960 Presidential debates, or the civil rights protests of the 1960’s, or the war in Vietnam, or the space race……you get the picture. Television was there, evolving alongside us as we learned to accept the form, and then demand more from it for our more discerning taste.

But tastes change. And by the end of the 20th century, those of us old enough to remember recall the wall-to-wall coverage of a handful of salacious stories. And near the end of the book, it’s this reference to the Clinton-Lewinsky saga that helps bridge us from where news was, to where it has been going since. With it “the line in the sand….that had begun to blur in the 1980s and early 1990s and was particularly erased during coverage of the O. J. Simpson case – was completely obliterated. The networks, cable news channels, and tabloid infotainment programs now covered the same stories, often in very similar ways. Incipient trends in reporting and production dating back to the 1960s and 1970s, once held in check by the scrupulous exercise of ‘professional news judgment’ and the dictates of the FCC, sprouted and blossomed with alarming speed.”

Today, relatively few in the business would disagree with this dour view. With few exceptions, it’s harder today to distinguish between media than it once was.

While this is primarily an academic work, complete with extensive footnotes, Ponce de Leon’s research provides us with moments that advance beyond what interests scholars and news producers.  He cites a memo written in the late 1960’s by then NBC News President Reuven Frank, calling for tv news to deliver a narrative within which “every news story, without sacrifice of probity or responsibility, display attributes of fiction……structure and conflict, problem and denouement, rising action and falling action, a beginning, middle, and an end.” This nugget explains more than just tv news. It explains who we are as news consumers, and how producers, reporters, and anchors hew to this tenuous link in order to bring us in to the viewing tent, and then hold and at times even command our attention. 

Much has changed since the early days of news. Yet the words of Reuven Frank ring true, more than we would like to imagine. And reading this engaging history reminds us that despite the look of the newscast, or despite the anchors hairstyle, or the length of her skirt, there’s still a common thread that carries us from the black and white news coverage of the 50’s to the 24/7 full color always live cable coverage that we have today.

Jonathan Ebinger is a former network news producer who spent 10 years with ABC News Nightline. He teaches journalism at The George Washington University, and hopes today’s journalism students do not repeat the errors of their predecessors. 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Doing the Right Thing

The discussion over the past 48 hours over the resignation of an RT anchor is misplaced. Sure, a face at the US based television network owned by the Russian government publicly resigned over Russian policy in the Ukraine. 

Good for Liz Wahl. And good for her fellow anchor Abby Martin to condemn Russian actions in Crimea.

They are certainly entitled to their opinion.

At long as it doesn’t affect their work. And in these instances, it has.

Simply put, opinion has no place in reporting.

If you have an opinion, share it.  Off air.

What is fascinating is the surprising support on ethical grounds shown towards the two American journalists who made what they say are individual decisions over what, ultimately, is a difference of opinion with corporate policy.

Anyone in American television working for a news organization works for a corporation. Whether that’s the Corporation for Public Broadcasting over at PBS, News Corp for FOX News Channel, or Disney for ABC News.

And it’s virtually impossible for anyone to agree completely with the decisions of a corporate overlord. You can pick your examples, but you know the result.

Should Disney bend to the interests of the Chinese government when seeking to sell and promote a film across that populous nation. Should NBC News self promote entertainment coverage of sporting events, or even late night talk shows, on their primary news programs.

The answer to each is pretty clear, even though we have seen each come to bear in recent years. Some repeatedly.

But no one resigned in protest, let alone resigned in protest on air, over these corporate decisions.

What’s different here is that RT is owned by a government, not a publicly traded US based corporation. And that distinction matters. And it also places RT, along with France24, Deutsche Welle, Al Jazeera America, CCTV, and the myriad of other foreign government owned channels, in their own category. They are arms of the governments that own them, no different than the US owned Al Hurra, or even the Voice of America.

Each is a visible manifestation of the soft diplomacy that each nation presses in our age of constant and dueling media.

Any journalist working for these networks, in any capacity, should recognize this going in. For someone to act as Ms. Wahl has trivializes her, the independence of journalists, and the trust, as limited as it may be, that the public has in all of those who deliver the news on air.

I don’t say this out of spite, or any animus. I don’t know Ms. Wahl. I had not heard of Abby Martin before this week. And, yes, some of my best friends in the business work for some of these organizations. 

Journalism jobs are hard to come by. Good people often leave the three alphabet networks, and the cable universe. But if you want to hitch your wagon to a government run train, you better be prepared for those wheels to come off at some point. Skidding along a railway sure leaves a nasty burn, not to mention the splinters.

Lauding someone for a self-inflicted wound sure seems to miss the point.

A personal note:  I was recruited by one of the foreign owned networks, CCTV, to talk with them about heading up one of their primary US programs. Let’s just say the conversation took a decidedly sharp turn after I questioned how a story on religion would be covered by CCTV, let alone whether they would consider a series on the role of religion in America. And I remain pleased with the fact that I raised this in an interview, which included the American emissary for CCTV, someone who has also not communicated with me in any form since that meeting.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Yerrr out. Just say no to a national holiday....for baseball

The very concept of a national holiday for Major League Baseball's Opening Day is a foolish idea wrapped in a PR exec's box of dreams.

While baseball has long enjoyed its perch as America's Pastime, and America's Game, that mantle has been passed over to football, which will probably hold onto this until it totally screws up the concussion issue more than it already has.

So baseball isn't even the national game any longer.  And the ongoing effort to create a false holiday for a Monday in April to memorialize the glory days of the game is an enterprise that should be ignored by Congress.

There are already 11 national holidays. 11. Does that make baseball more deserving of recognition than the causes and individuals around whom holidays have been sought, but not won, for years.

Should baseball come before Cesar Chavez Day? There is no national holiday honoring any Latino. Baseball before our largest minority, and soon to be plurality? Really? Advocates for Chavez Day have long sought March 31 in his honor. How would they react to a day for a game coming a few days after the birthdate for this American.

Should baseball come before a holiday honoring contributions of any number of others, whether that's a President still to be determined, or a hero still to be honored.  Hell, I’m sure there are nuevo-billionaires out in Silicon Valley who envision a holiday for Steve Jobs, or even Mark Zuckerberg. 

Perhaps, instead, we should reduce our national holidays, in order to accommodate baseball. Remember, there are 11. So why not give up MLK Day. That would go over well, given the fights that arose over those intransigent states, particularly Arizona, unwilling to recognize the contributions and efforts of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Or drop Columbus Day. There's already quite a bit of discussion in some communities over dropping a holiday recognizing the exploits of a man widely recognized not only for travelling westward, and proving that the earth was not in fact flat, but for spreading disease, illness, and a host of generational issues upon the indigenous peoples he and his men came across on their expedition. I'm sure the Italian-American community would gladly step aside and allow Columbus Day to be relegated to the dustbin of holiday history.

Or eliminate the day after Thanksgiving. That has become a business holiday, or a holiday intended to spur people on to business, or at least to holiday shopping. What with online shopping, and the move by many US retailers to open on Thanksgiving Day itself, perhaps this holiday no longer has relevance, and it too should be jettisoned, sent back to the Chamber of Commerce for some dusting and repurposing.

In 2007 baseball gave up its long privileged position as a tax-exempt entity.  Since then, revenues have risen to over $8 billion, and estimates point even higher for this coming year. 

Baseball doesn’t need a holiday.  For many fans, attending the game provides a holiday, provides a respite from the goings-on outside the game.  Instead, what baseball should do, is have teams pay for their own facilities, build their own stadiums, and avoid leaning on financially strapped municipalities for resources better placed in education and transportation, among other areas.

Now that would truly be a gift for the American people, and something for which we would all be thankful.