Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Why Start This Blog?

As you might have guessed from the title, this blog is dedicated to analysis and criticism of NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. I am starting this blog because I am sick and tired of finding that the moderators of the official NBC News blog (The Daily Nightly) refuse to print comments that are in any way critical of NBC News. And there is a lot to criticize.

Viewers might think that the primary goal of Brian Williams and Nightly News is to present the most important news stories of the day. Not true. The primary goal of Nightly News is to attract the most viewers, which allows them to earn the highest ratings and ultimately charge the highest ad rates. Nightly News is first and foremost a promotional tool for itself and other NBC/Universal properties (which include the TV networks CNBC, MSNBC, Bravo, Chiller, Oxygen, SciFi, Sleuth, USA and The Weather Channel, as well as Universal Studios and their parent company, General Electric). And make no mistake--Nightly News does attract the most viewers. They win the ratings race most weeks, although ABC's World News with Charles Gibson does win some weeks. Nightly News attracts the most viewers by pandering to their viewers' lowest common tastes. They offer lots of stories about funny animals, cute children and popular culture. These stories have no news value, but they succeed in drawing and keeping viewers tuned to NBC. In recent months, Nightly News has offered stories about skateboarding dogs, Spam (the luncheon meat, not the e-mail annoyance), kazoos, text messaging, left-handed presidents, the board game Clue and a man who sells vegetable peelers on the street. They have presented stories about centenarians, Michelle Obama's fashion sense and half a dozen stories about the movie "Slumdog Millionaire". In the past week, they did four stories about Tiger Woods, which was obviously related to the fact that NBC was televising Woods's first comeback tournament after his surgery. Keep in mind that Nightly News has only 22 minutes a night to present news, so every story they offer about skateboarding dogs means that an actual news story has to be omitted.

Here's another fact: Brian Williams and the Nightly News producers are dirty--like cops on the take. Nightly News regularly allows advertisers to sponsor news segments (like "What Works" or "Making A Difference"). Sometimes, an entire edition of Nightly News is sponsored by a single company. The most frequent segment sponsors are pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer or GlaxoSmithKline. And of course, when you allow a company to sponsor a segment, they own it. They likely have the right to add input to the segment, and perhaps even to determine which topics will appear in the segments. So on NBC, we have portions of the news being controlled by the big pharmaceutical companies. This sponsorship manifests itself in other ways, as well. Nightly News frequently uses their "news" stories to praise their sponsors' products. Medical stories are often designed to show Nightly News advertisers in a positive light. Similarly, stories that show sponsors' products in a negative light are rarely reported. When congress held hearings last year about the pharmaceutical industry's underhanded advertising methods, NBC News did not cover it. During last summer's Beijing Olympics, Nightly News (which was already devoting more than half its broadcast to promoting NBC's coverage of the Olympics) actually ran a "news story" about Olympic advertisers. This was, of course, just an excuse to give more (free) air time to Coke, Nike and other major Olympic sponsors. Last Aug. 21, Brian Williams devoted a good part of his Daily Nightly blog to heaping praise on United Airlines for the job they did in flying the NBC News crew home from Beijing. Not coincidentally, United was one of the biggest sponsors of the Olympics. And just this past month (Feb. 23), Nightly News did a story about how well United cleans its planes. This was nothing more than a two-and-a-half minute infomercial for United Airlines. It was NBC thanking one of their largest sponsors with some free air time. If you scratch NBC's back, they'll certainly scratch yours.

As managing editor, Brian Williams has a huge say in what stories make it onto the air. In effect, he controls the news. We know that Brian is a fan of American cars, so we see lots of rah-rah stories about the U.S. auto industry. On Jan 10, Nightly News ran a story about what a great time it was to buy a car. The story contained excerpts from Cadillac, Hyundai and Chrysler/Jeep/Eagle ads. It highlighted the great deals that were available from car dealers. The clear objective of this "news story" was to get people to buy more cars. That way, the car companies would have more money to spend on advertising with NBC. There is little that NBC News reports on that is not self-serving.

Any regular viewer of Nightly News is aware that they frequently misspell names and make other errors. Over the past months, they have misspelled the names of hero pilot Chesley Sullenberger, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, NTSB member Kitty Higgins, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Senator Kay Hagan, Gov. David Paterson, Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg. They also misspelled the names of the country of Colombia and the city of New Delhi. Brian himself (on his blog) misspelled the names of Alison Krauss and Condoleezza Rice. Another NBC anchor (Amy Robach) once misspelled Barack Obama's name on her blog--after he had been elected. It's like no one at NBC News cares the slightest bit about spelling. And this is a professional news organization? During a story about the increase in America's Latino population on tonight's broadcast (March 2), Lee Cowan told us that, "Wisconsin's Latino population has boomed to more than a quarter of a million." The accompanying on-screen graphic read "217,830". Sorry, NBC, but that is less, not more, than a quarter of a million.

On the Feb. 23 Nightly News (and on his blog), Brian sardonically reported that when Sen. Jim Bunning apologized to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for inappropriate comments about her recent pancreatic surgery, Bunning spelled Ginsburg's name wrong. Brian has some nerve commenting on Bunning's spelling! I would remind Brian that anchors who work in glass studios shouldn't throw dictionaries.

On the Feb. 22 Nightly News, a story on the development of a flu vaccine used flipping calendar pages to indicate the passage of time. Unfortunately, seven out of the twelve calendar pages contained errors. The April calendar contained only 29 days (instead of 30), and the September page contained 31 days, instead of 30. Some months had missing days, and in some months the same day appeared twice. Someone should remind the NBC producers that, "Thirty days has September, April, June and November. All the rest have thirty-one, except February which is great with twenty-eight. And in a leap year it's fine with twenty-nine."

I welcome all comments about NBC News, or any other news organization. It's really a shame what NBC is getting away with, and it's especially shameful that they refuse to allow criticism on their own blog. And it's certainly ironic that NBC News earns a ton of money based on freedom of information, yet they refuse to offer the same freedom to their viewers who want to post on the NBC News blog.

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