Living in Infamy


Nothing to fear…..

On the morning after the Virginia Tech shootings, the morning news anchors all rushed down to Blacksburg to do their live remotes. Matt Lauer, from the Today show, turned to the camera and announced that yesterday had been ‘a day that will live in infamy’.

Who writes this stuff?

And why are they still working?

Broadcast journalism (with a very few exceptions), has always had terrible writing.

Turgid, banal, pointless, constipated.

Those are all good adjectives.

Where did this come from, the TV news voice?

When you fly on a commercial airliner, the pilot gets on the PA and announces stuff like “we are currently flying at an altitude of 40 thousand feet…” He does it in that Texas twang. You know what it sounds like. Pilot talk.

‘Pilot talk’ came from Chuck Yeager, the man who broke the sound barrier. The model for ‘the right stuff’. The consumate test pilot. “uhhh the wing has just broke off but I am attempting to land the plane unassisted… stand by…” You know the sound of that voice. It gives you comfort. If you got on a plane and the pilot came on with a heavy Brooklyn accent, (“vell, ve’re up here…hoo boy… pretty high…”) you would fly white-knuckled all the way to LA. Chuck Yeager became ‘the voice of flying’ and everyone has immitated it ever since.

Edward R. Murrow became the voice of broadcasting. “This… is London”. The black hair, the dark eyes. The trench coat. The cigarette (when that was acceptable).  As Yeager was to pilots, Murrow was to ‘correspondents’. Looking at Peter Jennings you saw Murrow reincarnated. Without realizing it, every on air reporter now channels Edward R. Murrow…. (unless they’re Lauer who apparently channels FDR).

But Murrow was on the radio sixty-five years ago.


Let’s say you spent the day at the dog hospital. And while you were there, a 5-year old girl came in cradling Fluffy, a small puppy. The dog had just been hit by a car. She turns to the vet and looks up at him…

“Mister… can you save my dog?” she says plaintively.

The vet takes Fluffy from her arms, rushes into his operating room, and miraculously saves the dog.

Fantastic story.

At the end of the day, you come home to your wife.

Over the dinner table, she says, “anything interesting happened today?”

You lean across the table and tell her. You say, “you won’t believe what I saw today. This kid came in with a dog that had been hit by a car, and I swear to God, I thought the dog was dead… and then this vet saves the dog’s life. It was unbelievable!”

“You’re kidding” she says, suddenly captured by your story. (And why not, it’s a great story).

This is how we tell the story to our wives over the dinner table.

But if, when your wife said, ‘so what happened today’, you sat up, ramrod straight (in suit and tie) and said, (in the best ‘Edward R. Murrow broadcast voice you can manage), “More than 2500 dogs are struck by cars every year in our town. Fluffy was one of the lucky few”.

She would stare at you for a moment.

Then she would ask if you had taken too many prozacs.

No one… no one talks like that.

Except people who work in TV news.

It is weird, alienating ….creepy.

That is how we talk to our audiences all the time.

But not how we talk to our wives, our husbands, or friends and family.

Which is fine, except…. our audiences are our wives, and our husbands, our children, and our parents and our friends.

We should talk to them on TV exactly the way that we talk to them over the dining room table.

But we don’t.

And that is part of the reason why the total of network news ratings are collectively lower today than the ratings for just CBS News thirty years ago, (when the population was 100 million fewer than it is today).

It is also the reason that the web ‘talks’ to people in a far more compelling way than ‘the anchor’. Its the reason people, particularly those under the age when they even knew who Edward R. Murrow was, are leaving television news in droves and headed for the web.

As FDR (or Matt Lauer) might have said, “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself ….and the fact that last year 10% of ad revenues migrated from broadcasting to the web.”


5 responses to “Living in Infamy

  1. Manuel Gonzalez

    I totally believe that News Anchors don’t talk conversationally. Especially when their status grows to the proportion of not dealing with the regular people. They tend to forget what a regular conversation sounds like and focus on ambiance of their script.

  2. “Where in the World is Matt Lauer?” Who in the world cares?

    What I want to know is whether these talking heads actually recognize how lame their jobs really are. Do they believe the crap they’re spewing or are they secretly counting their money behind the scenes and chuckling that they get paid obscene amounts to fake it every single day?

    I don’t think I’m ready for “news” to start out with something like, “Dude — you won’t believe what happened today!” But I am ready for something new, something real, something organic.

  3. A paradigm I’d like to see more of is that used by ABC’s overnight news. It’s far from “You won’t believe what I saw today,” but it’s casual, unscripted to a degree, and in its way more intimate than the primetime and late evening newscasts.

  4. Who writes that stuff? My ex-husband for one. He’s been writing for a certain “large communications company,” for their anchors I should say, for over 20 years. He rarely EVER does more than go to work, crank the product (news copy in his case), and go home. Gets up the next day and does it all over again…. day after day after day. Every now and then he goes to the grocery store. Last time I checked, he may now know that scanners are being used there, but I doubt he knew what, for instance, Facebook was until the VT murders. He had to ask me how to turn on a podcast I linked him to yesterday, and he only asked because it happened to feature his own kid.

    Again, he works for a “large communications company.”

    You can lead old media to the Internets, but you can’t make ’em click a damn thing on if they damn well don’t want to. They simply “don’t get it.” And they won’t ever need to “get it” until their jobs are yanked out from under them.

    It’s very sad in a way… they really don’t know what’s hit ’em, and the older ones who’ve made no effort to ever “network” a thing in their lives, because they’ve never had to, or they’re simply anti-social and would rather just sit and write copy, or they thought social media was something just for teenagers, are really going to suffer the most.

    Some, such as my ex, have marketable skills, as their knowledge base in, for instance, historic implications of news events, is quite broad and deep. But they’ve no idea how to market them, not in this DIY broadcasting environment we are now gravitating towards.

    Maybe their kids can help…

  5. The “anchorspeak” you talk of is a bastardiezed version of what came out of the newspaper strike in San Francisco in the late 1960s. KQED, the public television statoin, began “Newsroom on the Air” with striking print folk and for the first time ancors were talking with each other rather than just reading the news. By talking, I mean they were debriefing each other and cameramen who came ion from the field with fresh stories (like the Berekely riots). Unfortunately this degenerated into the brainless “happy talk” we hear today. So here’s a fine example of a great idea (real news people discussing the important events of the day) being co-opted bh commercial television and becoming brainless banter.

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