Saturday, January 29, 2011

Nightly News Producers Act Unethically

On Tuesday, Nightly News ran a 2:10 story about this year's Oscar nominees that featured multiple clips from the favored contenders. Let's forget (for the moment) that the Nightly News producers are constantly peppering their newscast with movie and TV clips in order to pander to the viewers who like their news to be less Nicolas Sarkozy and more Nicolas Cage, less Angela Merkel and more Angelina Jolie. I'll get to that later. During Tuesday's Oscar story, there were several clips each from "The King's Speech", "The Social Network", and "True Grit". In the first three "True Grit" clips, Jeff Bridges was wearing his eye patch on his right eye. But in the last clip from that movie, Bridges's eye patch was on his left eye. Obviously, the Nightly News producers flipped the image for the sake of convenience. They wanted Bridges to appear to be looking at Jesse Eisenberg, whose character from "The Social Network" was also on the screen. This is appallingly unethical. News producers are not permitted to alter photographic or video images for the sake of convenience. They are not allowed to flip images, they are not allowed to add or remove any subject matter from images (unless it is to block inappropriate subject matter such as violence or nudity) and they are not allowed to doctor images to make them appear older (a favorite tactic of the Nightly News producers). A news broadcast has an obligation to show news images as they actually appear, not as the producers want them to be seen.

The Nightly News producers' inappropriate flipping of Bridges's image raises serious ethical questions. How often do they alter photos or videos? Do they add or remove people from photos whenever they feel like it? What else do they do? Did Friday's purported video images of protesters in Egypt depict what actually happened? Or did the producers use stock footage or alter the video to make the story more compelling? We don't know. If they would alter an image of Jeff Bridges, who knows what else they would alter? Once that door is open, it's hard to close. And by the way, not only wasn't it ethical to flip Bridges's image, it also wasn't very smart. Why on earth would the producers choose to flip an image of someone wearing an eye patch? That made their actions pretty obvious. Why didn't they instead flip Eisenberg's image to make him look at Bridges? Since Eisenberg's image was symmetrical, no one would have noticed.

It's certainly no surprise that Nightly News did a story about the Oscars. Without a doubt, Nightly News is the industry leader when it comes to using movie and TV clips in their evening newscast. In 2010, Nightly News used movie and TV clips in 110 of their 347 broadcasts. (Keep in mind that many of these broadcasts used multiple clips in different stories on the same night. For example, on May 24, Nightly News managed to include clips from "Blackhawk Down", "A League of Their Own" and "Law & Order" in three different stories.) At the beginning of the year, "Avatar" and "Up In The Air" clips were among the Nightly News favorites. Later in the year, "Inception", "The Social Network" and "The King's Speech" were popular. (Often, clips are featured simply because Brian Williams likes a particular movie or TV show. On Nov. 10, the broadcast featured clips from "Mad Men"--one of Brian's favorites--in two different stories.) On April 5 and April 8, Nightly News used two different Gene Hackman clips for different stories. (The April 5 clip featured Hackman in "Hoosiers" as part of a story about Butler University in the NCAA Final Four. Three days later, they used a clip of Hackman in "Crimson Tide" during a story about a smoking ban in Navy submarines.) Of course, the TV clips featured on Nightly News are predominantly from NBC shows like "Saturday Night Live", "30 Rock", "The Office", "The Tonight Show" and "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon". (And when the clips are from a show on another network, they make certain to obscure that fact as much as possible. On 11/12/08, a Nightly News story featured a clip of John McCain on David Letterman's show without showing a single image of Letterman himself or even mentioning Letterman's name!) After all, what's the purpose of having a news broadcast if you can't use it to promote your network's entertainment shows and DVDs? When "Law & Order" was cancelled, Nightly News did four separate stories about it, and all of them included clips from the show. A July 27 story about bedbugs featured Alec Baldwin's character from "30 Rock" screaming about bedbugs on a New York subway. A Sept. 1 story about office gossip featured a clip from--you guessed it--"The Office" (it's obvious that this story was contrived solely as a way to allow the producers to run the clip). Of course, these clips don't help the viewers understand the story any better, they just ensure that we keep watching. Any time a former NBC TV star dies (such as Merlin Olsen, Rue McClanahan, Pernell Roberts or Robert Culp), Nightly News makes certain to run an obituary (filled with old TV clips) because these shows' DVDs are still available for sale at the NBC/Universal store. Certain movie clips are featured on Nightly News (such as from the "Harry Potter" series or "The Blues Brothers") because they promote rides or events at Universal Studios theme parks. Naturally, the main reason why Nightly News shows film or movie clips is for the purpose of promoting NBC/Universal properties. But another reason is simply to maintain the viewers' attention. People are more likely to watch (and to watch again in the future) when they are bombarded by a constant stream of movie and TV clips. "Oh look, George Clooney!"; "Hey, that's Betty White on 'SNL'!"; "Cool--another 'Seinfeld' clip!" Brian Williams, Steve Capus and the Nightly News producers know that even during a newscast, people would much rather see entertainment than news. During a Dec. 18 Nightly News story about Amelia Earhart, they made sure to show superfluous clips from the "Amelia" movie that starred Hilary Swank, even though the story already contained a significant amount of actual Earhart footage. They didn't really need to show the movie clips, but of course they still did. Pandering to the viewers' love of entertainment is one of the ways Nightly News manages to remain the top-rated newscast. It's all part of NBC's strategy to make Nightly News indistinguishable from the shows that follow it: "Extra" and "Access Hollywood".

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