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.
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.”