Just Above Sunset
April 10, 2005: CNN and the Death of Serious TV News - The Inside Story

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In the L.A. Weekly, an interview on how the news business works – a bit of history from the former Nightline executive producer Leroy Sievers over at ABC, where he “laments the death of serious TV news” and suggests CNN has much to answer for.  And in the right-hand column below, Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, and regular contributor to Just Above Sunset, sets him straight.  Rick Brown was in at the start of CNN.  He was there.  He knows.

I sent this to Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, and regular contributor to Just Above Sunset, mid-week –


Goodbye to All That

Former Nightline executive producer Leroy Sievers laments  the death of serious TV news

ALIX LAMBERT - LA WEEKLY -  issue of APRIL 1 - 7, 2005


So when did it start going to hell?


I think it was gradual. I think CNN came in and really dumbed it down. It's funny, because when CNN first started, everybody felt really sorry for them.  We'd give them tape, we'd give them equipment and stuff; we basically subsidized them, and had we known, we would have done none of that. They used to steal stuff too, anything on satellite they used to take off and air. And they were sort of funny, but they sort of came in with this attitude - "Well, if we didn't get it right this time, we'll get it right the next time. Or if we don't get it right the next time, we'll get it right the next hour, and we'll throw up whatever pictures we've got, it doesn't really matter" – and they started  making money. And about the same time - this is mid- to late-'80s - all the networks were sort of taken over by businessmen, who didn't care either. And we would say, "But look, we worry about every word, we craft every shot, you know we put such care into it."


My question to my friend?  Rick, was that YOU?


And this? –


One of the things that happened at Nightline was that we did a focus group, first time since I've been there. In a bunch of different cities, and one of them was in Dallas, and they showed a whole bunch of different pieces. One of them was a day in the life of the John Kerry campaign. And it came back: Biased report. Well, how can it be biased? We were unscrupulously fair. They said, "Well, you covered John Kerry." We said, "yeah". They said, "So it's biased" Something's happened with the public, and that's why I go back to "You get the media you deserve."


The other key observations? 


There was news on TV, and it was respected and well thought of and people paid attention to it. We were the good guys. You could do good.  Now we're scum. I got in trouble one time at a forum because I said: "People sort of get the news they deserve."  If they weren't watching it, all this crap would go away.


On who was running the networks before …


I think at least people who cared about it. News was thought to be… it was an annoyance to some extent, but it wasn't a moneymaker, it was a responsibility, both legally and morally. Legally, to keep your license, you had to have news. Well, gradually that went away. Well, then you have to make money. And we were like, "What? We don't make money. We're above all that. We spend money in huge amounts." And some of that was our fault - I remember if  you were going into a city that you hadn't been to before, you'd get a hotel guide, you'd open it up and pick the most expensive hotel in town and that's where you would want to stay. But all of a sudden it was like you have to make money and the only way to make money was to start slashing costs. So you ended up in this spiral. Your resources for the news got crappier, and so fewer people watched, and then I think, you know, FOX came up, MSNBC came up, talk radio came up and the country changed. Talk came on and it was like argument … I mean, you got a bunch of people yelling at each other. That costs nothing.


Is there any news left?


I think the definition of things has changed. I mean, there's more quote news than I think there's ever been, but at the same time there's less good reporting, there's less story telling. Where I think it's headed as a business is news on demand. You know, you're going to say, 'I'm interested in the weather, I'm interested in film, I'm interested in the beach, I'm interested in Iraq." And so your computer will simply give you those stories. What's being lost now, it's just about gone, and it's going to be lost when all that happens, is the idea that there are stories out there that you don't know about, that you don't know you're interested in, but you will be interested in. 60 Minutes did that, Nightline did that. I mean, lots of people used to do that. It's like, just give us a couple of minutes and we're going to take you someplace you've never been and show you something you've never seen, and it's going to be really interesting. Well now, unless you know ahead of time what exists, you don't even know what to ask for. So all that storytelling is going to be lost, and you're going to come down to basic facts and figures. Again, it's just stuff you know. And it's a huge tragedy.


Maybe it is a huge tragedy – or so it seems to some of us.


But do we blame CNN?



-          Rick Brown



Sorry for the delayed response to your notes; I've been laid up all week with a couple of kidney stones, whether in the hospital or doctor's office or sitting around hopped up on painkillers at home with this road kill expression on my face, I'm sure.  (And it has to happen, of course, when the kids are home on Spring Break.)


Is CNN going that way (see The Art of Controlling the Interview, and the Craft of Selling Advertising Slots from last week’s issue)?  Maybe.  I don't know. I don't work there anymore, and unless I'm in so much pain that I can't sit at a computer, I must admit I don't often find much time to even watch it. (In fact, I just saw some CNN last night and noticed "Crossfire" is still on!  Didn't they cancel that show?)


But yes, I do see the industry trend toward seeking out "outrage" in the news, although from whatever CNN I do get to see -- usually in the morning at lunchtime -- I don't necessarily see that much of it there.


Apropos to our previous discussion, by the way: I should use this opportunity to call attention to the fact that even NPR, arguably my favorite broadcast news source, ran a story a week ago in which their reporter volunteers to take a hit from a taser gun, and immediately confirmed, on mike, CNN's Rick Sanchez's observation, something to the effect that, "Whoa!! That HURTS!!"


As for "CJRdaily is constantly ragging on CNN," with all my reading them during the 2004 election campaign, I never became convinced most of those folks over there know much about the TV news business from the inside. Can't remember specifically which things they said that I thought was horse manure, but I do remember those things were legion.


As for this interview with Leroy Sievers, I first should say that, barring what he says about the early days of CNN, I agree with almost everything he thinks about where the business is going and how it's getting there.


Unfortunately, my agreement even extends to his opinion that the arrival of CNN, probably to no fault of their own, somewhat helped "dumb down" the news business. For one thing, CNN's success helped along the "empowerment" of some pretty bad local news, a development the association to which I do not brag.


From the very beginning of of my working there -- or at least whenever we were lucky to get home in time -- Jane and I would try to catch all the network evening news shows, feeling that these folks, with the deep pockets and talent that we sorely lacked, put out superior gems of news product every single night.


But at some point, CNN began to surpass them, especially with our extended live coverage of big stories that our (pardon the expression) "news hole," as big as the day is long, allowed us to do. And shortly after that, when they tried to compete with us on techniques we more or less pioneered, their product began to decline -- lots of live debriefs of reporters come to mind, something you can't do in your only half-hour news show of the day without ending up wasting too much of everybody's time.


Then again, our presence did spur them to cover stories they might otherwise have ignored. For instance, on our very first day on air (June 1, 1980), the networks scrambled crews to Key West to get shots of Cuban refugees coming ashore, reportedly after some networks bigwigs watching CNN's debut demanded "to know why OUR guys aren't covering this."


Having myself started in the network news business back when it really wasn't one, I agree with what he says about the days when the networks were "above" worrying about either making or spending huge amounts of money, on the consideration that news was a public trust, and that the network bosses would hold back on nothing in order to make sure it was done right.


But being a 24-hour news network with a minuscule audience, CNN knew it couldn't long stay on the air with that attitude. In early 1980, months before we went on the air, we set up a school at a local Atlanta motel that we called "CNN College," in which we who knew how to do this stuff gave classes to the new hires.


My wife and I ran a joint class, she emphasizing how to get the news covered and me on how to feed the coverage back home to Atlanta. But one thing we both stressed to the students, whether they came here from networks or locals, was that those heady days we over -- that from now on, when it came to booking crews and flights and hotels and lines and satellite feeds, they would have to learn how NOT to spend money. (By the way, for the record, we did NOT discuss finding better ways to MAKE money; that was something Turner Corporate had to worry about.)


Persuading them was no small problem, especially for the folks we later sent into the field who would often, to their embarrassment, arrive on a story sometimes as nothing more than what we called a "one-man band" (one reporter, armed with camera and edit deck, shoots video, writes the story, aims the camera at himself and tapes a standup, edits the piece, then feeds it home.) The other networks, sometimes with as many as fifteen or twenty crew-types on scene, would sit around and laugh when they saw us coming; it was reportedly a soundmen from ABC who, on seeing a CNN crew arrive – and to mirth all around -- coined the phrase "Uh-oh! Here comes 'Chicken Noodle News!'" (I still think that's funny! But then again, I could afford to, since I didn't very often travel in the field.)


In fact, I do remember Becky Mendenhall, CNN's assignment producer in the 1984 campaign, coming to me to complain that every time she asked the pooling network how much some feed was going to cost before we would commit to joining, the other networks never knew the answer. In fact, one time, she told me that CBS's roducer, Susan Zarinsky (who later consulted on the movie "Broadcast News," and on whom the Holly Hunter character was based), told her, "Listen, Becky, you CNN people will have to learn to play like the Big Boys and stop asking about the cost of everything -- assuming, that is, that you want to survive in this business," to which Becky replied (per my previous advice), "No, Susan, someday you 'Big Boys' will have to learn to do it the way WE do it -- assuming, that is, that you want to survive in this business." And of course, it wasn't too long before Becky was proven right.


But I do disagree with Leroy on this incessant -- and, to me, still annoying -- belief by those working at the other networks that CNN was always stealing stuff. (And yes, this gets a tad technical here, but I do want to set the record straight.)


To my knowledge, CNN never once, in its first five years, which is when I worked there, intentionally stole any material from anyone -- although, in fact, I do have personal knowledge of the other networks stealing CNN material.


Part of the problem arises from the pool arrangement with the networks, originally set up by Reese Schonfeld, CNN's founding president, back in the days when he ran ITNA (a TV news affiliate service that was CNN's predecessor.)


Reese, who was trained as a lawyer, knew that the networks were all in probable violation of federal trade laws, mostly in their affiliate syndication operations (possible illegal "tying," as I understand it), but also in their "network pool" cabal (anti-competitive and unfair trade practices). Rather than sue them himself or join an ongoing suit against them by Westinghouse Broadcasting, Reese made a deal with them: Allow us access to any domestic pool material of yours for just $100, and any foreign pool for just $1000, including feeds. They agreed.


This sweetheart deal, which most lower-down network employees neither knew about nor understood, continued for a short time after CNN was founded, but (as I understand it) after Westinghouse dropped its suit, the networks stopped cooperating. It was after Reagan was shot in 1981, and White House granted the three networks and the network pool prime camera locations in Washington, that Reese sued both the three networks and the White House ... and he won! After that, the networks were forced to allow CNN membership in the network pool, but only at a financial cost it could afford.


The networks did not "basically subsidize" CNN with "tape" and "equipment and stuff". The truth is that -- although the various HQs in New York, Washington and Atlanta were not supposed to know about this -- a certain amount of under-the-table horse-trading in the field was tolerated, but along certain guidelines: If a network showed up for a story and found it's camera was broken, for example, another network on scene (including CNN) might agree to help out, either with gear or sometimes even footage, knowing the favor would be returned at a later date.


But the rule was this: The network in trouble had to be on the scene to qualify. For example, I remember one instance where all the networks refused to help CBS (the network for whom Sievers may have been working at that time), since CBS's "camera problem" turned out to be that it was several hundred miles away, CBS having decided at the last minute to cover that story.


Another problem came from the networks' constant refusal to understand that CNN had a right to buy material from local network affiliated stations, and the networks could not legally compel their affiliates not to sell to us.  Nor could any network that had agreed to share its transmission with any other network refuse to allow CNN (or any other that network, for that matter) access to that feed.


In fact, on our very first day of air, NBC refused us access to its three-network pool uplink out of Toledo, Ohio, where President Carter was visiting Vernon Jordan in the hospital after an assassination attempt. It was my wife, Jane, running the assignment desk that day, who supplied a legal education to Alan Statsky on the NBC desk in New York; after huddling "knee-deep in news executives" (as one NBC source reported that day), Alan reluctantly added us to their feed.


Still, I will concede one problem that I would notice from time to time.


Editors on CNN's national assignment desk sometimes didn't seem to understand that, even though we had legal access to a station's news material, we had to ask permission to join a unilateral network feed being uplinked from that affiliate. Often this came about because folks at the station would tell us, "Sure you can have the material! Just grab the feed we're sending out in five minutes! It's on Westar 3, transponder 10!"


But once I noticed these feeds in my transmission log -- especially those, like this one, on an ABC-owned transponder -- I put a stop to it, demanding that no downlink would be taken off a network feed unless we had the name of a person from that network who granted us permission.


Then again, although the times this happened might lead a network worker bee to think we had stolen material we actually had access to, in fact the only real crime being committed was in not paying a share of the downlink charge, (often amounting to no more than $6) or, having been refused permission to join that feed, to book our own feed on the CNN transponder, which, in that case, would have cost us nothing.


Yes, CNN happened to take a network's unilateral material moments after Reagan's assassination attempt, but that turned out to be corrected quickly after we learned the particular network was not the pool camera, as we had been mistakenly been informed during the chaos in Washington.


At another time, we were accused by the networks of stealing live coverage of a plane crash at the 14th Street Bridge in Washington, being uplinked by (I think it was) ABC affiliate WMAL. But in that instance, Reese took the material as payback for the station previously stealing our material, an agreement that had been prearranged with the station's General Manager, who did not object.


On the other hand, I do know that, during the release of the hostages held by Iran, CBS stole some of our material from our own feed after pleading "protective" permission to add on to our feed -- something I allowed, just as networks often allowed us to add to their feeds protectively, a trust we never once betrayed. (In fact, George Miller, the CBS feed producer in New York, apologized to me later, confessing that his bosses apparently needed the material and couldn't figure out any other way of getting it.)


As for his accusation that CNN took the attitude, "Well, if we didn't get it right this time, we'll get it right the next time. Or if we don't get it right the next time, we'll get it right the next hour, and we'll throw up whatever pictures we've got, it doesn't really matter," I think CNN would proudly plead guilty.


In fact, this was another example of CNN's changing the way news was covered and reported -- "for the worse," one might argue, although I don't, mainly because CNN always trusted its viewers enough to keep them in the loop, constantly reminding them that what they are watching is "news in progress" -- to stay with us, that it ain't over until it's over, and maybe not even then.


This is not to say we were just an open spigot, without journalistic controls. In fact, information was not released until it had been double-checked, and safely multi-sourced, sometimes to our dismay when our competitors would beat us to air. At least we did not get caught on air with our pants down during the Reagan shooting in the way that ABC's Frank Reynolds did when he reported erroneously the information that James Brady had died in the shooting, something he later had to retract angrily on air.


My favorite anecdote from the early days of CNN about how the cable network changed the way the world got its information involves not some huge national story but some briefing -- I think by the Agricultural Department, announcing something about price subsidies, or some such -- that CNN happened to be taking live-to-air one early afternoon.


Our coverage included an official closing the meeting with an announcement of a "news embargo" on the coverage until after the network shows were done airing that night -- a standard practice in DC, at least back then, especially on Fridays, when everyone wants to get out of town before the fireworks begin.


Someone then informed the man that he can forget the embargo, his whole discussion had been on live TV. He didn't know what that meant. Someone had to explain it to him.


Official Washington was more careful after that.


So this concludes today's hazy meander down Memory Lane.  I suppose I could blame it on the fact that June 1 of this year will be CNN's 25th anniversary, and nobody seems to be celebrating what we did, things that I'm proud of. But probably a better explanation is that my pain killers are beginning to wear off.


- Rick



Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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