After watching last Thursday's Nightly News, I was convinced that it was the worst single evening news broadcast that I had ever seen. Eleven minutes and fifteen seconds--more than half the broadcast--was devoted to Brian Williams's ridiculous round table discussion with George H. W. Bush and members of his administration (at the Bush Library in College Station, Texas). The discussion did not contain a single question, answer or comment that had not already come up a thousand times in the past twenty years. This discussion seems to have been orchestrated for the sole purpose of allowing Brian to say, "Look at me! I'm sitting with very important people! I'm so important!" But in reality, it had the opposite effect. Brian's appearance at the table actually made Dan Quayle seem to have gravitas by comparison. Here's an idea: Instead of covering stale news from two decades ago, why doesn't Nightly News cover some current news stories? You know, important stuff. How many real news stories were ignored so that Brian could feed his ego by asking silly, rote questions to a former president, who in turn gave rote answers? And I have to admit that I'm more than a little disappointed for another reason. I would have expected Brian's roundtable discussion to include some of the people he spent the most time reporting on over the past few years: Bruce Springsteen, Susan Boyle, Jackie Evancho, Chelsea Clinton, Kate Middleton, Chesley Sullenberger, George Clooney, Lindsey Vonn, Shaun White, Bono, Michael Douglas, the Chilean miners and all those NFL players who are "Making A Difference" by helping to promote NBC's Sunday Night Football. Why weren't they at the table?
Thursday's broadcast featured woefully little in the way of actual news. There was the obligatory Gabrielle Giffords story, although there was nothing new to report. We got a two-minute story about a woman who tracked down her birth parents after being kidnapped shortly after she was born. Interesting, but not really news. Then Brian spent thirty seconds narrating a story about a huge organized crime bust in the northeast. This seems to be the one story on the broadcast that was actually newsworthy, but it got only half a minute. After that it was time for Brian's shameful 30-second plug for Walmart's healthy new food policy followed by yet another story about a "Winter Blast". I wish that I had had the foresight to copyright the term "Winter Blast". Nightly News uses the term so often that I'd be rich from the usage fees they'd have to pay me. After a minute spent talking about the inaugurations of Presidents Kennedy, Reagan and Obama, Brian ended the broadcast with more of his roundtable discussion. Naturally, before signing off, Brian further plugged his discussion with President Bush by telling us we could see more of it on Today, Dateline, MSNBC and MSNBC.com. And that was Nightly News for Thursday, Jan. 20.
Yes, after watching that broadcast, I thought it was the worst evening newscast I had ever seen. Until I saw Friday's Nightly News. Brian reported from Tucson, telling us that, "We've returned here tonight to check back in on this community...." Well, actually, he had been in Texas the day before, so it wasn't exactly a schlep to fly to Tucson. He was sort of in the neighborhood. And instead of eleven minutes of a presidential roundtable, we got thirteen minutes on Gabrielle Giffords. First, we learned all about her move from Tucson to Houston. Look at all those people lined up on the streets waving flags and giving her the thumbs up sign! Nightly News followed her motorcade so closely, I thought I was watching the Zapruder film. After four minutes of that, it was time for Brian's interview with Suzi Hileman, who had brought Christina-Taylor Green to the Safeway on Jan. 8 to meet Giffords. It's obvious that Brian's interview was designed to elicit emotion, rather than to provide information. Because emotion generates higher ratings than facts. And Brian got exactly what he wanted--Hileman broke down and cried. That's the money shot--just ask Barbara Walters. Of course, Brian could have edited Hileman's crying out of the interview, but was there really a chance of that happening? Tears are always good for a few extra ratings points. Brian's exploitative, overlong interview with Hileman was followed, of course, by a promo for more of the interview on Sunday's Dateline. Hileman was all over the news this weekend, and Bob Woodruff's interview with her on ABC was much more dignified and thoughtful than Brian's interview. I guess Woodruff is more concerned with news than with ratings. After the break, we saw a 1:40 story about President Obama appointing GE chairman Jeff Immelt to head up his new economic advisory board. How much time would Nightly News have given this story if it didn't involve Immelt, the soon-to-be-former boss of NBC's parent company? After that, we saw a story about Sasha Obama speaking Chinese to President Hu. Funny thing--I recall that on Jan. 5, 2009, Brian solemnly vowed not to do any stories on the Obama children unless there is a compelling reason to do so. Promises, promises. Next, Brian told us of the death of another Medal of Honor winner. It's amazing to me that Brian is allowed to serve on the board of directors for the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation while he regularly reports on Medal of Honor winners (and other military matters) on his broadcast. That is a glaring conflict of interest. But Brian doesn't care. No one at NBC seems to care. Yet another story on the weather was followed by a 2:15 story about Sunday's Bears-Packers game. You'd think that since NBC isn't televising any more NFL games this season, Nightly News wouldn't be interested in doing any more stories about the NFL. I mean, why do a story if it has no promotional value for the network? But NBC is thinking long term. Their next NFL game is only eight months away, and let's not forget that NBC is airing the 2012 Super Bowl. It's never too early to start promoting next season's Sunday night NFL games on NBC. The broadcast's final segment began with a minute of footage of Brian shmoozing with Rep. Giffords's staff. Look how well he mingles with them! They really like him! Afterwards, Brian made sure to tell us, "Notice they're all wearing those ribbons for their boss?" Which is just Brian's humble way of telling us that he noticed something that we didn't because he's so much more perceptive than we are. Brian then introduced the "Making A Difference" segment: "And again we came back here to Tucson to see how this great place was doing after that terrible day two weeks ago tomorrow"--yes, we know, he already said that at the beginning of the broadcast--"and what we found is the most extraordinary and ordinary acts of kindness popping up everywhere you look--everywhere people could use one and so many people have stepped up and really are making a difference." Does Brian know that Nightly News is a news broadcast? Someone really should tell him. The "Making A Difference" segment featured a man who plays the violin in honor of Gabrielle Giffords, a woman who acts as caretaker for the memorials that people have left and a cashier in the Safeway who gets hugs from customers. They should have attached a "breaking news" banner to that story. Lee Cowan's closing line was, "Turns out that soundtrack of grief is also a soundtrack of hope. There are lots of angels in this field of sorrow." Is he kidding us? This isn't news, it's a soap opera crossed with a Lifetime movie. Brian spent the final 45 seconds of the broadcast reading promos telling us that we can see more of his interview with Suzi Hileman on Dateline (where we can also see more of his roundtable discussion with President Bush), and also on MSNBC and on MSNBC.com. That 45 seconds could have been used for a real news story, but Brian thought it was more important to promote himself. Of course, the entire broadcast did not contain a single bit of actual news, so why should the final 45 seconds be any different? This was an appallingly grotesque display. An entire Nightly News broadcast without a shred of actual news. What a waste of time. Just imagine all the news they could have covered in those 22 minutes. Brian and his producers should be ashamed of themselves. But they're not. This is what they wanted to put on the air. Emotion gets higher ratings than facts. They prove that every night. And that's the story of the single worst evening news broadcast that I have ever seen.