Monday, February 7, 2011

Nightly News Says There's Something About Mary

It is disgusting and appalling that Nightly News has wasted more than thirteen minutes of news time over six consecutive days--so far--telling viewers about the ongoing saga of Mary Thornberry, an American who was living in Cairo when the protests erupted. This isn't news, it's just a soap opera designed to attract viewers. On Saturday's broadcast, Lester Holt introduced that night's Thornberry installment by telling us that, "Today for the first time we see the frail 76-year-old Texan whose tough talk while living under siege captivated Americans back home." Is he serious? And I hope that members of the Peabody Award evaluation committee were watching when Holt asked Thornberry if she had taken her rolling pin with her when she left Cairo (a reference to Thornberry's vow to use her rolling pin to defend her apartment from looters.) I think I once saw Edward R. Murrow pose the same question to Eleanor Roosevelt. And on what basis did Holt find the nerve to proclaim that Thornberry's story had "captivated Americans back home"? According to what source? A few comments on the Nightly News/ web site? That's hardly an indicator of public opinion. Clearly, Holt was promoting Thornberry's story, rather than simply reporting it, in order to generate interest in her upcoming appearances on "Today" and on future editions of Nightly News. It's shameful to see such blatant self-promotion masquerading as news. Shameful, but hardly surprising. Nightly News does this all the time. They hype a story with no news value and then report on it day after day so that viewers will continue to tune in to the broadcast hoping to get more information about the story that didn't belong on the news in the first place. The Nightly News anchors and correspondents constantly plug stories from "Today" and "Dateline" (or CNBC and MSNBC specials) and promote NBC/Universal entertainment shows, theme parks, movies, DVDs and anything else that can generate ratings or income for their broadcast, their network or its parent company. Last August, Nightly News ran two consecutive "news stories" about 10-year-old Jackie Evancho who, not coincidentally, was appearing that month on NBC's "America's Got Talent". Ann Curry called her "America's newest singing sensation" and said, "Tonight that little girl behind that astonishing voice that has people shaking their heads in wonder all over the world." That's a commercial, not a news broadcast. And last Dec. 14, Kerry Sanders reported on the weather--from the Universal Orlando theme park where he plugged the new Harry Potter attraction! It's a sickening, grotesque cycle. Manufacture interest in a non-story and keep force-feeding it to the viewers. And it will never stop because ultimately, it's a successful strategy. Ratings mean everything to Brian Williams, Steve Capus (NBC News President) and the Nightly News producers, and their shameless self-promotion is a proven way to achieve these ratings.

Here's an interesting postscript to the situation: During Brian's overlong three-and-a-half minute rambling interview with Thornberry and her son on Monday's broadcast, we were shown the original email that her son had sent to the Nightly News producers. In the email, he said, "You could get a good story (via) a telephone interview...or a great story if you have a local reporter...rescue/interview her." (Parts of the sentences were not readable because they trailed off the screen.) Clearly, the Nightly News producers were only interested in Thornberry because they were promised a "good" or "great" story, not because they had any concern for her safety.

Meanwhile, there's something I'd like to ask the Nightly News producers. Saturday's broadcast was virtually identical to Sunday's. Both broadcasts were anchored by Lester Holt from Amman, Jordan. Both spent approximately twelve minutes on the Cairo protests and related stories. Both featured pieces on the Super Bowl, Mary Thornberry and Ronald Reagan's 100th birthday. Both included a smattering of domestic news items. As I said, virtually identical broadcasts. Yet Saturday's broadcast was heralded as a "special edition" of Nightly News, while Sunday's broadcast was not. So what accounts for the different descriptions? Did the producers have an epiphany? Did they suddenly realize that it was ethically inappropriate to arbitrarily declare that a Nightly News broadcast was a "special edition" simply for doing what it was supposed to do--report the news? Did they search their souls and seek guidance from the spectral legacies of Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor? Nah. I'm guessing that someone just pushed the wrong "audio intro" button at the beginning of Sunday's broadcast. They probably meant to call it a "special edition".

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