At the Tyndall Report we spend most of our time studying the serious news. I claim to be the only person in the world to have watched every single one of the weekday half-hour nightly newscasts by the three broadcast networks since the summer of 1987. Other people take vacations. I just leave my VCRs on timer and catch up when I return.
Not all television news is as solemn as the nightly newscasts, however. So on a lighter note, I would like to turn my attention to the networks' morning programs: NBC's "Today," ABC's "Good Morning America" and CBS' "Early Show."
It is wrong to complain when things conform to their nature. It is wrong to complain that Shakespeare's tragedies are too gory ... or that the giant panda cub at the National Zoo is too cute ... or that baseball players spit too much. So, it is wrong to complain about the essential nature of these morning programs: that they choose many stories according to the demands of demographic targeting rather than intrinsic journalistic interest; that they value the tabloid traditions of celebrity gossip and true crime melodramas; that they focus to the point of obsession on weight loss, self help and affairs of the heart; that their anchor teams share way too much personal information with us viewers.
So let's just stipulate that the form of journalism practiced in these programs -- especially after their first half hour has finished -- has more in common with Marie Claire, "Entertainment Tonight" and "America's Most Wanted" than with NBC's "Nightly News," ABC's "World News Tonight" and CBS' "Evening News."
Obviously, when we spend so much face time with these anchors, personal tics can become gnawingly annoying. For example, it is just tasteless for "Today's" Katie Couric, the most fabulously well-paid journalist on the planet, to tell us how frugal she is. And "GMA's" Diane Sawyer may think she comes across as "jus' folks" when she introduces a topic with a generalization such as "everybody has been talking about ..." or "we all know that ..." but in reality it just sounds presumptuous. And it would be easier on the ear if "Early's" Julie Chen rehearsed her script one more time before reading it out loud so that she did not ... slow ... down ... in ... the ... middle ... of ... a ... sentence ... she ... did ... not ... understand ... and ... give ... equal ... emphasis ... to ... every ... single ... word.
Tics aside, there are two trends that should be corrected.
First, we find entire stories in which the five W's of journalism -- who, what, when, where, why -- are shunted to one side.
On "GMA's" interviews, the directors routinely ignore the time-honored practice of using graphic titles to identify their guests and their relationship to the story. Often no-name people are labeled only by the issue they represent. What about the "Who"?
A recent trend on "Today's" pre-taped feature packages about social issues is to pep up the production with clips from fictional movies and television. A segment about dating trends is illustrated with clips from "Friends" or "Sex and the City." A segment about coping with in-laws shows us "Meet the Parents." This is not journalism! Just because a screenwriter in Hollywood makes a joke about a situation does not mean it concretely applies to actual people in the real world.
And check out almost any interview on the "Early Show." Anchors regularly leapfrog over the W's to zero in on the "E" for emotion. Their priority is to find out how their interviewees feel about the situation they are in. Entire segments are devoted to eliciting expressions of heartbreak, grief, terror, gratitude, despair, hope, love.
To watch the morning shows, one would believe that the key problem of U.S. policy in Iraq is not nation building over there, but the anguish of military families back home. Proper five-W's journalism generates the emotional component of a story by laying out the facts of the participants' predicament. This E-journalism substitutes manipulation for reporting.
Which leads to the second troubling trend -- namely the stunted range of the emotions that the morning programs seek to elicit. Stated bluntly, most human interest stories are confined to two categories: the mawkish and the inspirational.
"GMA" viewers, for example, know they are headed for mawkish-land when solemn piano chords resonate on the soundtrack of a taped package. Odds are we are about to be told about a terminal illness or a disfiguring accident. When the story is told by way of an interview, the tone is registered by inarticulate sympathy on the part of the anchor. Each network has a specialist in saccharine sincerity in the face of personal crisis. On "GMA" it is Robin Roberts; on the "Early Show," Hannah Storm -- but no one is more staggeringly sincere than "Today's" Ann Curry.
As for inspiration, remember last year's true crime story at an Atlanta courthouse: a defendant shot a judge, escaped and held a woman hostage in her apartment until she persuaded him to surrender. Her tale of survival became yet more tailor-made for the self-help-friendly morning programs when it emerged that she had read passages from the devotional bestseller "The Purpose Driven Life" to soften his heart. That was as far as the reporting went in the wake of the drama. Later, and less prominently publicized, we discovered that it was not only the preacher's words that had moved the gunman's heart ... hostage and fugitive had also gotten high on her stash of methamphetamine. That added detail makes the entire drama a better story. It adds humanity, irony, moral complexity --and subtracts inspiration.
On the inspiration beat, "GMA" specializes in heroic parents caring for super-sized adoptive families. The "Early Show" lauds volunteerism, community service and selfless acts of forgiveness. A major virtue of "Today" anchor Matt Lauer is his cynical humor: sarcasm is a perfect antidote to inspiration.
Good reporting goes in search of those flawed all-too-human details. Too often the morning programs seem more interested in the moral lesson. Their inspirational tales seem less like journalism and more like self-help propaganda.