Oh How Things Change In the World of News
Text of Journalist Bella Shaw's speech at the recent Newsmakers Awards.
As a former anchor at CNN, and current host of Time Warner Cable’s “Local Edition”, I’d like to share my thoughts about the First Amendment, freedom of the press, and the liberties taken thereof!
Okay, I’ll date myself a bit, but when I started out in the broadcast news business, reporting on hog and steer prices for an Oklahoma City farm show, (I was fresh out of college, and thought it was glamorous at the time) I didn’t have teleprompters and all the fancy digital gadgets of today. I was sort of a one man band, and shot, produced and edited my own stories, using film! Most times, while the film was being processed, usually taking about 45 minutes, I would have time to write my story and verify the facts.
That is, until video tape came into the picture and changed everything. Suddenly, by way of a microwave dish perched atop a news van, I could broadcast live, any time, any where, from any location that picked up my stations’ signal! No more film processing! No more waiting! It became a competition among the local stations to see who could get to a story first, and “go live” no matter how much information we had! Hence the clichéd news phrases you often hear from uninformed and ill prepared reporters, “Details are sketchy at this hour” or, “We will continue to update this late breaking story, once more information becomes available.”
Live became king. Film, an old dinosaur. Soon after my “farm” days, in 1980,
Ted Turner launched CNN, “the world’s most important network”. And 28 years later, CNN, hasn’t skipped a beat. Twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, broadcasting the news via satellite all over the world. And therein lies the problem with the “liberties taken thereof”. This “news in an instant”, “rush to be first” technology has, in some cases, made a mockery of the First Amendment, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press.
Case in point. A few weeks ago, I had an opportunity to interview Oxnard Police Spokesman, David Keith, concerning the shooting of a student at a junior high school, just up the 126 from here.
With the school under lockdown, and the outside scene reaching chaotic and surreal proportions, CNN reported the victim of the shooting, 15 year old Lawrence King, had died. This was false. Miraculously, after being hit both in the back of the neck and the head, he was alive and conscious. In fact, when transferred to a hospital and placed on a respirator, he was able to communicate with investigators, using hand signals.
Keith was both shocked and stunned such a credible network like CNN had broadcast such erroneous and unverified information. He called CNN headquarters in Atlanta, and demanded a retraction. It turned out, CNN’s sole source on King’s death, was a secretary in some city office, and based on rumor and hearsay. Although the death had not been verified or confirmed, it was “sweeps” week, and stations were going full throttle in an effort to boost their ratings. (King later died
from his injuries)
This “rush to be first” in breaking news, put CNN in an embarrassing situation. But CNN wasn’t the only one to blame. As Keith put it regarding newspapers,
“I’ve even had reporters tell me, just give me what you’ve got…even if it’s speculation on your part. I’ve got to get it up on the website within 30 minutes. My editor is after me on this.”
Sadly, this digital technology has spawned a new age in reporting philosophy….
Never let the facts gets in the way of a good story! Is this what our father of the
First Amendment, James Madison, had in mind when he penned the Bill of Rights? Being first is more important than being accurate? That it is more important to entertain than inform? And what would he think about the press’s obsession with non-news stories, such as the “tabloidification” of celebrity stories like Brittany Spears, Lindsey Lohan, Paris Hilton and the Olsen twins?
I can remember arriving in Los Angeles from Atlanta, and staring at my television set, mouth agape in astonishment and disbelief, when my favorite daytime soap, “The Bold and the Beautiful” was interrupted for a late breaking story. I heard the urgent bulletin type music….dun,dun,dah,dun. I thought the world, as we know it, was coming to an end. We interrupt this broadcast to bring you a bulletin from CBS NEWS in Los Angeles. The anchor man, flushed from running to the set, in fact bleeding just a bit above the lip, possibly from a razor nick, barely reached his seat, and scrambled to find his mike. He buttoned his jacket as a small bead of sweat began to set up shop above his brow, as he announced in all seriousness…
“We have this just in to our newsroom. CBS News has learned, through reliable sources that actor and comedian, Billy Crystal, has been tapped to serve as host of this year’s Academy Awards show. But what really got under my craw, (what is a craw, by the way?) was the fact I missed the Friday afternoon cliffhanger on my soap, and would have to wait until Monday to find out what happened.
But I didn’t stay angry for long. Billy Crystal hadn’t worked in a while, and this could be the tonic he needed to get his career rolling again. At least the more titillating stories of violence and crime had been shoved aside for a while.
But for how long?
You, the future generation and newsmakers of tomorrow, have the ability to turn things around. Take us back to the old days of truth in reporting, fact verification, discipline and integrity! When heroes were glorified, instead of ridiculed. When serial killers and murderers weren’t given star status, and plastered on the covers of newspapers and magazines, inspiring other criminals. When convicted felons weren’t booked and given air time on “Larry King Live”. When criminals couldn’t write books and profit from their felonious ways.
So, I encourage each and every one of you. Instead of being newsmakers….be noisemakers! Take it from the movie “Network” and say, “We’re not going to take it anymore!”