Friday, September 21, 2007

Dan Rather: The Six Million Dollar Newsman

A few thoughts about Dan Rather's heroic (Quixotic?) assault on CBS.

The recent $70M lawsuit brought by Dan Rather against CBS is being billed as a violation of contractual obligations, but it actually stems from a change in broadcast journalism standards that moves the audience's focus from the news story to the news reporter.

I worked at CBS News in the early 1980s when it was tolerated as a cost center but was still the jewel in the corporation’s crown. More specifically, I worked indirectly for Dan Rather as a budget analyst for CBS Reports before it was axed as a non-revenue producing program by new CBS owner Lawrence Tisch. Prior to 1982, the reportage of CBS News was based on a print model where certain standards of journalism were acknowledged, if not always adhered to. Tisch believed the new information environment of broadcast journalism required a subtle (or perhaps not so subtle) change in journalism practices. This is to say that CBS News, under William Paley, aspired to the print model of journalism, while CBS since Lawrence Tisch has adopted broadcast standards that have more to do with ratings than with writings. Along with Rupert Murdoch and other media moguls, Tisch decided to exploit the gap between what the public wanted to know and what the public needed to know.

My son, a graduate of the New York University Film School (formally known as the Tisch School of the Arts - no kidding), recently pointed out to me the differences in the narrative biases of print vs. broadcast media. Print allows the author to create a scene, to develop a narrative based on complex situations and subtle character interactions. Film and broadcast narratives don’t have time for this. Instead, they focus on creating a hero.

Dan Rather, who once was featured on the cover of Time Magazine as CBS News' "Six-Million-Dollar Man," ascended to the CBS anchor chair during this "print to broadcast" transition period. While he almost always tried to stay true to print journalism standards, the pull of broadcast narrative biases was strong. His early work on CBS Reports adhered to the earlier standards of print journalism. His stint as a highly paid anchorman often descended into personal heroics.

Rather once walked off the news set when his time was pre-empted to carry the end of a sporting event. He thought he was making a stand for journalistic standards, but it was generally interpreted as a celebrity hissy-fit. The stress of working under new broadcast assumptions led Rather to end his nightly broadcasts with the admonition "Courage." Compare that with Edward R. Murrow's "Good night and good luck" or Walter Cronkite's "And that's the way it is."

It is ironic, though not unexpected that, in being pilloried by the CBS brass, Rather has followed the path of the hero (see Joseph Campbell) and now returns to tilt at the corporate windmill.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Humpty-Dumpty at the New York Times

As the New York Times attempts to navigate the unfamiliar waters of the internet, they risk "swimming with the fishes."

Today the New York Times abandoned its efforts to create a two-tier access system for its website. The article announcing this capitulation can be found here.

Vivian L. Schiller, senior vice president and general manager of the site,, noted that they didn't anticipate the amount of traffic to their site that would be generated by Google, Yahoo and the like. Many would-be subscribers were getting around the firewall by using these search engines. Projections for revenue growth favored advertising over pay-per-view.

Had the New York Times consulted any Media Ecologist at the start, they would have been told that attempting to control access to some of their content by charging a monthly fee ignores the nature of the internet as a communication environment. In reality, the Times is not competing for subscriber dollars, they are competing for subscriber eyeballs. With many other free information sources, it didn't make sense to pay a fee to the New York Times. In addition, the Internet environment has changed the relationship of publishers and readers. As Marshall McLuhan noted, in the age of print newspapers people didn't read their newspaper, they submerged themselves in it as in a warm bath. The difference with the internet is that the reader wants to respond, to publish, to interact and to critique the press. Rather than entering a warm bath, the internet reader dives headfirst into the news pool and swims with the correspondents school.

In discussing the nature of an existing media environment when threatened by a new configuration, McLuhan wrote:

“The structural features of environment and anti-environment appear in the age-old clash between professionalism and amateurism, whether in sports or in studies. Professional sport is environmental and amateur sport is anti-environmental. Professional sports foster the merging of the individual in the mass and in the patterns of the total environment. Amateur sport seeks rather the development of critical awareness of the individual and most of all, critical awareness of the ground rules of the society as such. The same contrast exists for studies. The professional tends to specialize and to merge his being uncritically in the mass. The ground rules provided by the mass response of his colleagues serve as a pervasive environment of which he is uncritical and unaware.”[1]
Substitute “journalism" for “sports” or “studies” and we can begin to understand the new information environment fostered by the internet. It is interesting that most major media outlets are dismissive of web-based journalists as biased and amateurish at the same time that they have abandoned many of the most fundamental journalistic practices. Mainstream media journalists are not generally self-critical, nor do they adequately fulfill their responsibility as a fourth estate, holding politicians accountable. As agenda-setters, news and broadcast editors substitute sensationalism for substance. When bloggers and other “amateurs” rightly question the professionalism of the mainstream media, they are subject to ad hominem ridicule rather than confronted on the merits of their criticisms.

The mainstream media are broken. The New York Times, trying to put Humpty Dumpty together again, has tried to recreate the old media environment, but has only succeeded in making it the content of the new. Citing Humpty-Dumpty, McLuhan noted:

“The impact that resulted in his fall brought into play a massive response from the social bureaucracy. But all the King’s horses and all the King’s men could not put Humpty-Dumpty back together again. They could not recreate the old environment, they could only create a new one. Our typical response to a disrupting new technology is to recreate the old environment instead of heeding the new opportunities of the new environment. [2]

For example, I worked as a financial analyst at CBS News in the early 1980’s when it was a cost center, but still the jewel in the corporation’s crown. I participated in cost-cutting moves intended to make CBS News generate a profit, just like other CBS divisions. Prior to this, CBS News was based on a print model where certain standards of journalism were acknowledged, if not always adhered to. The new information environment of broadcasting required a subtle (or perhaps not so subtle) change in journalistic practices and created a gap between what the public wanted to know and what the public needed to know. This gap, being environmental, was largely invisible until the advent of the internet. The “amateurs” of this new media environment have brought this gap to the foreground, focusing our attention on unquestioned compromises of mainstream media news that have little to do with real journalism.

Established blogs such as Daily Kos, Eschaton, and yes, the Drudge Report have demonstrated how hanging onto a story neglected by the mainstream media can bring it to the foreground. Glenn Greenwald has shown how a little fact and precedence checking using Lexi-Nexus can go a long way. The live bloggers at set new standards for real time reporting.

As the New York Times attempts to navigate the unfamiliar waters of the internet, they risk ending up "swimming with the fishes." They would profit by embracing the critiques of the digital natives already working there, rather than rejecting them.

[1] McLuhan, M. “The relation of environment to anti-environment” in Marshall McLuhan – Unbound (04), W. Terrance Gordon, ed. (Corte Madera, CA: Ginko Press, 2005), p. 8-9

[2] Ibid, p. 9-10

Sunday, September 9, 2007

A Parable For Our Times: Goldi-Dinosaur and The Three Bears

Once upon a time there were three Bears who lived in a beautiful little house on the edge of the wood. They were the Papa Bear, the Mama Bear and the Baby Bear.

One morning Mama Bear made hot cereal for breakfast. As the cereal was too hot to eat right away, the Bear family decided to take a walk in the woods until it cooled down.

No sooner had the Bears disappeared into the woods than Goldi-Dinosaur appeared on the lane. She had had also gone out for a walk that morning before breakfast, and the smell of hot cereal suddenly made her very hungry.

She meant to just take a small taste from one of the bowls, but she misjudged the size of the kitchen window. Smashing a huge hole in the wall, she swallowed all three bowls of hot cereal in one gulp, as well as the kitchen table and all the chairs.

Her hunger now satisfied, Goldi-Dinosaur blundered through the wall into the living room where a few ill-placed steps soon reduced the furniture to splinters.

Goldi-dinosaur felt sleepy and, spying the three Bears’ bedroom, she made her way carefully through the living room wall, and lay down across all three beds, bringing them crashing to the floor. There she fell asleep.

At this moment, the three Bears returned from their walk in the woods. Papa Bear regarded the large new opening leading into the kitchen and said, “Somebody’s been eating my cereal.”

Mama Bear looked at the empty space where the table and chairs had been and said, “Somebody’s been eating my cereal.”

Baby Bear looked at his mother and father and said, “What are you talking about? Can’t you see that somebody has knocked a huge hole in our house and made off with our kitchen table and chairs?”

The Bears passed through the hole in the kitchen wall to the living room where they surveyed the damage there.

“Somebody’s been sitting in my chair,” said Papa Bear.

The Mama Bear picked up a fragment of her favorite rocker. “Somebody’s been sitting in my chair.” She said.

“What is wrong with you?” said Baby Bear. “Can’t you see that all our furniture has been smashed to smithereens?”

Then the three Bears climbed through the new entrance to their bedroom.

“Somebody’s been sleeping in my bed.” Said the Papa Bear.

“Somebody’s been sleeping in my bed.” Said the Mama Bear.

“I don’t believe it!” shouted Baby Bear. “Can’t you see that there’s a huge dinosaur asleep in our bedroom!”

At this Goldi-Dinosaur woke up, and was so frightened that she crashed through the wall on the opposite side of the bedroom, ran down the lane and was never seen again.

As for the three Bears, they finally realized that it was time to cut their losses. They put what was left of their house up for sale and moved to a condo in San Diego.