Saturday, October 23, 2010

Manifesto--Part I

If I were in charge of NBC Nightly News, here are the changes I would make to the broadcast:

1) No more "Making A Difference" stories. There has never been a single MAD story that contained even a sliver of news. This is supposed to be a news broadcast. There is no place in a news broadcast for stories about people who coach little league, cook food in hospitals or teach kids how to dance.

2) No more stories about the deaths of Medal of Honor winners, unless there is a separate, compelling reason to report them (such as if the person was well-known for some other reason). If a person is awarded the Medal of Honor, that's news. If a Medal of Honor recipient dies, that is not news. In truth, these stories are just vanity pieces for Brian Williams, since he sits on the board of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation. If Brian Williams was on the board of the American Plastics Foundation, he would be bringing us several stories a week about the great new innovations in the field of plastics technology.

3) No more gratuitous stories about celebrities. Nightly News is constantly running "news stories" about celebrities and their favorite foundations or charities. These stories have no news value--they are just an excuse to pander to the viewers by putting Will Ferrell, Sally Field or Jon Bon Jovi on the air. Unless a celebrity robs a liquor store or runs for political office, there is no reason to do a story on them.

4) No more news stories promoting sponsors' products. Nightly News frequently airs reports about products that advertise on the broadcast or on other NBC shows. Examples include McDonald's, United Airlines, Lifewater, Requip, Chrysler, Boniva, Cheerios, Aleve and many pharmaceutical products made by Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline. It's obvious that Nightly News is only reporting on these products as a way to thank their sponsors.

5) No more sponsored segments. Nightly News segments like "Making A Difference" or "What Works" are often sponsored. Since Nightly News is often required to report on a product or company that has sponsored a segment, this is a huge conflict of interest. Furthermore, sometimes the Nightly News producers allow Pfizer or GlaxoSmithKline to sponsor segments about the pharmaceutical industry. That is an appalling violation of the viewers' trust.

6) No more protecting sponsors. Nightly News will often refuse to report a negative story about one of their sponsors. Sometimes they will hide a sponsor's product during a story to avoid giving it negative publicity. An example of this was the 11/30/09 story about harmful BPA levels in plastic bottles and canned food liners. Tom Costello told us that the chemical was present in "brand name foods from vegetable soup to tuna fish, green beans to corn and chili." But the accompanying graphic showed only generic cans labeled "chili", "vegetable soup", "green beans" and "tuna". Where are the name brands? There were none--the producers obscured them all to protect the manufacturers.

7) No more stories culled from Dateline or CNBC specials. These stories have no news value and are run on Nightly News simply because they present a ready-made way to eat up a few minutes of news time. The producers have no business promoting these specials on Nightly News. These segments take up valuable news time that could be used to report real news stories.

8) No more stories promoting NBC Sports. Nightly News is not the promotional arm for NBC Sports. It is appalling that a news broadcast acts as a shill for its parent network's sports programming. On Sept. 9, Brian Williams shamelessly anchored Nightly News from New Orleans just so he could promote NBC's season-opening Vikings-Saints game later that night. In February, Nightly News aired 160 minutes of Olympic-related stories solely to promote their Olympic coverage. The entire Nightly News operation moved to Vancouver. The job of a news broadcast is to report the news, not to promote its network's sports coverage.

9) No more stories promoting NBC's entertainment programs. Nightly News frequently inserts gratuitous clips of shows like "30 Rock", "The Office", "The Tonight Show", "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" and "Saturday Night Live" into news stories in order to promote those shows. During the lead-up to the Leno-Conan changeover, Nightly News promoted those shows relentlessly. In May, they did four stories about the cancellation of "Law & Order". In August, they did two stories about a contestant on "America's Got Talent". It is inappropriate and unprofessional for a news broadcast to promote its network's entertainment shows.

10) No repeat stories. Nightly News often does multiple stories about a subject when one story (or none) would suffice. Over a ten-month period beginning last October, they did six stories about an Afghan orphanage. In July, they did three virtually identical stories about a pet shelter in Louisiana. At the end of 2008, they did four stories about Nick Nelson, a nine-year-old boy who had his legs amputated. By running multiple stories about a subject, Nightly News is just patting itself on the back for what it wants us to think of as their great work.

11) No promoting charities. Nightly News will often run a story about a charity, and then tell us to go to the website for more information. It is not Nightly News's job to promote charities, either on the air or on their website. Anyone who wants to find information about a charity can easily do so by doing a computer search. This is simply an underhanded way to draw traffic to the website.

12) News broadcasts aren't radio stations. Nightly News often plays pop songs going into or coming out of a commercial break. This is just another crass way of pandering to the audience.

13) No more summits. NBC News recently held an "education summit", and then heavily reported on it as if it was actual news. It is the job of a news network to report news, not to hold summits. This was just a self-promotional gimmick that accomplished nothing. The "education summit" consisted of a bunch of people whining about the American education system. That's not news.

14) No titles. Nightly News begins each story with an on-screen title. This is completely unnecessary. People are smart enough to understand what a story is about by watching it. They don't need idiot titles to help them.

15) Spelling and grammar matter. Nightly News is constantly making errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation, math and other areas (such as calendar pages). This is inexcusable for a news broadcast. They also often misquote people. When you use quotation marks, you are obligated to reproduce the words exactly. A broadcast that makes this many errors cannot expect to have any credibility as a news source.

16) No more lying to Nielsen. When the Nightly News producers expect a particular broadcast to have lower-than-expected ratings, they submit it to the Nielsen ratings service intentionally misspelled as "Nitely News". That way, the lower-rated "Nitely News" broadcasts are counted in a separate category and don't detract from the higher ratings of the "Nightly News" broadcasts. This is the equivalent of giving the police a fake name so they won't know about your prior arrests. It is deceitful and dishonest.

17) No doctoring footage. Nightly News often doctors news footage to make it appear older. They add lines, hairs, cigarette burns, stains, flickering light and specks of dust to the film. They have done this dozens of times over the past few years. This is deceitful and self-serving. A news broadcast that alters footage to suit their needs cannot be trusted. What other footage is Nightly News altering?

18) Nightly News is not the propaganda arm of the U.S. military. They constantly air stories meant to glorify the armed forces. These stories are two-and-a-half minute flag-waving, eagle-soaring, hyper-patriotic misty-eyed tributes to our "brave men and women in uniform". The correspondents and anchors are constantly using loaded terms like "wounded warriors" and "fallen heroes". This is completely inappropriate. Those are subjective value judgments and they don't belong on a news broadcast. A news broadcast is supposed to be objective and report the facts, not pander to the viewers by appealing to their base patriotic instincts.

19) No more movie clips. It seems that almost every night, Nightly News includes one or more movie clips in their broadcast, ostensibly to help "explain" a news story. In truth, this is just another way to pander to the viewers by feeding them entertainment instead of news. If the Nightly News producers and writers can't adequately describe a news event without using a movie clip, then the executive producer needs to find employees who are more competent.

20) Graphics do not make a story good. Nightly News stories frequently contain fancy high tech graphics. The producers should spend more time providing information and less time on graphics. Graphics are not a substitute for reporting.

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