Telling It Like It Is

Author: Andrew H. Malcolm

What you thought was true may not be. But that’s no longer an excuse.

By Andrew H. Malcolm

One of my regular assignments as a rookie reporter in New York City in the late 1960s was to stand backstage in the NBC Studios at Rockefeller Center during the late afternoon taping of the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Whenever a scheduled guest like Mayor Lindsay carried the potential for making non-show-business news, there I’d be, hidden by the curtain, directly behind the seated guests as they chatted with Johnny about their recent travels, their new movie or the things Americans find soothingly profound at bedtime. Like viewers at home several hours later, I was amazed at how quickly Johnny spouted his comic comments.

One day as I eavesdropped, my eyes landed on a producer huddling nearby over a little lectern. Beneath the heat of the hooded bulb and his bespectacled stare, the man’s forefinger followed along a piece of paper, line by line. During a break, I took a peek. The pages were actually a rough script for the conversations unfolding, seemingly spontaneously, beyond the curtain.

Tapping his pencil (remember that mannerism?) Johnny would say someone had told him the guest was recently in Europe.
There it was, first on paper.

Yes, said the guest, somewhat surprised that the Tonight host had tracked his travels. What else did Johnny know? And the host’s raised eyebrows ignited the studio audience’s laughter — and time-delayed chuckles at home. But wait until Johnny heard the funny thing that happened to the guest’s luggage over there.

What, what happened? asked the host, the benign surrogate for millions of Americans clambering into their beds as the exchange aired in retiring time zones across the land.

And so the humorous little story unfolded, the onstage description closely matching the printed prediction on the lectern. No wonder Johnny was ever-ready with his signature quips. He knew what was coming.

I call that my collegiately naïve era, being so full of fresh academic facts and information and so simultaneously devoid of perspective. I know that most interview programs do the same, of course. The pre-interviews of guests for the Today Show, which I have undergone, can last an hour or so. An assistant collects the details and, like a reverse engineer, later produces the questions for Matt or Katie, who appear to elicit telegenic, entertaining answers that also coincide with the video available or that day’s program theme. This works for everyone: guests do not like early-morning surprises and the shows do not like meandering replies or dead air. Everybody wins except the innocent, unquestioning viewer sipping coffee, who trusts that what they see is all they’re getting.

It’s true, I was family-famous at age 4 for blowing the whistle on my grandmother’s Goldilocks storytelling, because she would skip important things like the second bowl of porridge in an effort to pack me off to bed on time. I do not tell this story as a crusade for change of a media system that now actively encourages story distortion to appease the all-important gods of Time and Entertainment Values. Humans have and always will twist and adjust reality to suit the dramatic needs of the moment.
Here’s my concern: As the relentless and increasingly rapid tide of technology moves on and on, we never make time to develop rules or intuitions to control it. So it controls us.

Before our minds were trained and patience trimmed by TV for TV, political speeches were entertainment and could go on for two or three hours; only Fidel Castro gets away with that now. Lesson: Some 20 years ago, video news sound bites averaged 40 seconds; now, as video consumers, we’re more easily bored. Ever watch Bill Nye, the Science Guy? No image lingers longer than five seconds. In the 1950s, Clarabell, the mischievous clown friend of Howdy Doody, couldn’t aim his seltzer bottle that fast. Now everything must keep moving. So today eight seconds is a long snippet of a talking candidate. Speech writers know that as they compose the lines they want lifted for the evening news to deliver the day’s message. And the 400 audience members sitting there on TV are just living props to package the scene for the invisible millions at home.

When I worked for a Belgian newspaper in the early 1960s, it was a marvel to see Chet Huntley live in New York as he spoke, at least until the satellite moved over the horizon. Now, we expect live coverage even from war zones as anti-aircraft shells seem to soar so slowly in the background (TV did not invent tracer bullets but appreciates their visual value). People can be digitally inserted or erased from real photos. By selectively showing film footage, as the U.S. military did during the Gulf War, it can look like almost every bomb hits its target. Anti-American demonstrators may fill the TV lens, even if they do not fill the street. So what we see is true, but the impression we get is false. Still, we watch on, applauding when the Applause sign comes on, cheering when they want us to cheer, and tut-tutting when the scandal outrage coverage begins.

In our free society we take communications for granted. Remember, communications has the same root word as community. You can’t have community without communications, whether the community is a continental nation, a local neighborhood or an individual family. That’s how important the process of spreading information is today. But as the ability to communicate — and mis-communicate — improves and hastens, we consumers still just sit on the couch and take what we’re given. Sylvester Pat Weaver is better known now as the father of Sigourney. But in the 1950s, this TV programming pioneer invented the Today Show, the Tonight Show and TV specials. Even then he denounced “the robotry of habit viewing.”

I fear too many Americans have become robot viewers, far too passive and undiscerning about what passes for the process of public communications in the world’s oldest, strongest and most important democracy. Taking what you get for a TV drama is one thing; taking what you get for news is something quite different. One is entertainment; the other is, too, but passes for education. Real education involves, well, involvement, developing perspective, learning to sense nuances. Other than the Tint control, nothing about TV is nuanced.

Those few hours of mine listening in an over-chilled New York TV studio marked the first time I remember realizing that what I saw or heard happening before my eyes in America was not all that was really happening before my American eyes. It’s one thing to drive a car and not comprehend its electronic and mechanical workings. It’s something completely different to maintain a residence within a democracy and passively float along on the communications and information stream that happens to be moving by at that moment.

As citizens in this democracy, especially now with fewer owners of the expensive means of public communications, we must become much more proactive seeking information, sifting it, looking for subterranean ties, making links, parallels and associations, discerning patterns in politics or economics, and simply asking ourselves, what’s missing here?

Think of it this way: As increasingly health-conscious consumers, many of us are now extremely wary of what we put into our bodies. We seek specific foods for certain attributes. We read labels to avoid certain contents. We mix and match for physical health desires as free consumers in an open society. And yet when it comes to filling our minds with information (and what’s more essential to good civic health than information?), we mindlessly pour in tons of unlabeled, undigested, unverified contents, accepting whatever depiction we happened to see.

Truth be told, we don’t even do the pouring. We sit there and are poured into, trusting strangers to feed our minds the all-important information that conditions our mental state and nourishes or demeans our democratic decision-making.

As someone who has now spent more than 35 years covering, writing and editing news events and then planning and shaping the news that would happen and attract the kind of coverage and viewers desired, I do not believe in any kind of news control or censorship whatsoever. The responsibility for change resides elsewhere.

Far too many Americans enjoy the benefits of life in a democracy, the freedom of speech, movement, religion, etc., while far too few seem prepared to invest the day-laborer intellectual sweat in, say, studying up on many issues, not because it might come in handy over lunch with a prospective employer, but because it’s your responsibility, like paying taxes and voting intelligently.

Today, slightly more than half of eligible Americans vote in presidential elections. And that’s the big turnout! Primaries, when the real scene-setting decisions are made, might draw a third or sometimes barely a fifth of eligible voters. Think about that for a sec. Count the debates, news stories, editorials and elections you’ve skipped because you’re too busy and they’re too boring anyway. What are we so busy doing that is so very much more important than the informed operation of one more citizen residing in — and presumably caring about — the longest-surviving democracy in history and your safe residency within it?

Individual Americans must assume a far larger responsibility to become informed communications consumers, not just on judging the price of satellite movie packages but on actively and thoughtfully judging the ongoing professionalism, bias and intelligence of our news providers and the content they deliver. The public needs to observe closely and judge harshly the alleged news organizations that do not deliver.

Try this: After a TV newscast ask yourself and your children what they said on the news. Chances are, the answer will begin, “Well, they showed…” Stop there. I didn’t say, “What pictures did they use?” I said, “What did they say?” Big difference. How many picture books have changed your life? Or was it the written or spoken word that taught?

Devise your own tests. Watch your local news. If one channel always leads with a murder or blood spots on cement, don’t take that as The Truth. Go somewhere else to become informed. Suppose you hear an interviewer say, “Governor, we’ve got just 45 seconds left. What is the answer to global warming?” Ask yourself: Who set the 45-second limit? How intelligent is this interviewer to think a meaningful answer can be crammed into less than a minute? And why was something this important left until the end just before the commercials? Switch channels.

Here are some other things to watch for, sometimes subtle but cumulatively crucial: During an interview of a major political candidate, listen, really listen to the questions. “Governor, your opponent says your administration has failed to protect consumers from power blackouts and outrageous price hikes and has granted government contracts to your cronies. How do you respond?” Blunt, hard-hitting, right?

Now listen to the answer: “My opponent is critical of everybody else because he’s dodging responsibility for his party’s stand on a woman’s right to choose. He and his companies have hurt the poor over many years. He claims to support education but how can a working family educate their children when he does not support a major increase in the minimum wage?”

Danger signal: He did not answer the question. It was intentional. He was following his own previously written talking points, designed to differentiate himself from the opposition, to attack his opponent. Those talking points do not want to address past policy fumbles.

Now, here’s the perfectly coiffed reporter’s next question: “What do you say to critics who charge that you do not have a plan to address the state’s budget shortfall?”

Sounds tough. But it isn’t. The reporter let the governor skate away from her key opening question, without even pointing this out. Instead she provides a free platform for the candidate to talk tough on the budget without any back-up documentation because the budget showdown is in the distant future. Does this help voters make informed judgments on their future leaders? Is this the kind of journalism you want to support?

Moments later, in the professed interests of fairness, the reporter interviews the other candidate. The first question deals with abortion, always a media emotional issue and the lazy interviewer’s boulevard to controversy, albeit an issue long ago settled in the courts, if not the hearts and minds of many. Emotion is an evergreen tool on TV (whose film editors are genetically incapable of passing by footage of anyone crying). In our interview, however, the candidate actually addresses the question. The reporter pursues it. Do you think you can convince a majority of voters in this state to buy into your conservative views? Again, he answers. (Did you notice the governor was asked to “respond,” a neutral term, while the opponent was asked about getting voters to “buy in,” hardly a neutral term?)

In the world of politics the governor is deemed to have won this exchange because in the PR info struggle he placed the other candidate on the defensive. Many viewers may agree. The reporter is deemed to have been fair because the time given to both was about even. The only loser was the process of public communications within a democracy. This process was manipulated and managed by skilled professionals advancing their own agenda, which for the candidates is winning and for the TV program is eliciting telegenic conflict while safely seeming fair. Who cares about substance and impact? And whose fault is it: the players for getting away with it or the consumers for not blowing the whistle?

Print journalism is not immune to sloppy bias, of course. No raised eyebrows or shoulder shrugs on paper. But there are feeding frenzies of coverage in which not much really has happened except a rehash of last week’s events. Watch for the daily drumbeat of “controversy” stories, as if controversy in a democracy is something shocking. Conflict is what every writer (and most readers) since Shakespeare have required. Even neighborhood gossips don’t pass along good news: “Did you hear about Barb’s marriage? They’re deeply in love and pay all their bills on time.” In news stories you might see giveaway lines like “only the latest example” or “this comes after weeks of criticism.” You’ll spot key verbs like “defended.” Watch for subtle inferences of distrust like “the president said he believes” while the reporter accepts “the senator believes.” Perhaps unintentional signals, but that’s all part of the human communications arsenal, like arched eyebrows and winks that send important tonal messages, some of them fair.

When I was young and a journalist, I was often seeking The Truth, the one true, accurate, enlightening version of whatever I was reporting that I would compile from many conversations and pass on to many readers. Of course, as I grew older, I discovered there is no one truth. Here’s the problem: America’s media and its consumers are not programmed to detect, discern, dissect, discuss, debate or decide, let alone to process, more than two truths — pro and con. Nuance, the texture of reality’s many facets, is hard to see or even sense on TV.

If a reporter talks to eight people at, say, a bar where a shooting has occurred, he’s likely to get more than eight versions of what happened, each earnestly and straightforwardly delivered. Which one is true? Which parts of which one should he pass on as The Truth? As the consumer watching at home, which version is true?

Your truth depends on which version of the news you happen to grab as it flies by in our era of instant communications. If you only see or read one version, then that becomes The Truth. Much of the national political and policy news coverage is delivered by a panting pack of very human news men and women in Washington, D.C., who are subject to the same persuasions, foibles, petty jealousies, shallow competitiveness, accidental inaccuracies, intentional misinterpretations and grand insights as you and I. Except they’ve been invested by their employer with credentials as the “factual” storyteller. And many have invested themselves with an ample amount of self-importance.

My point is not to accuse any one organization or journalist of bias. My experience suggests most such blemishes are more stupid than mendacious. Like weeds, there will always be some. My point is that as information consumers we must become infinitely more conscientious in what we question, accept and trust. Yes, that requires less passivity, more conscious effort. Less labeling.

Many factors help explain today’s situation. Each is understandable, even acceptable. But when mixed together, the mass of misunderstanding, false fears, the hectic competitive pace of our lives too often become a misleading mess. Remember that childhood party game where a parent said something into one child’s ear and that message was whispered one by one to and by every child around the table? The message at the end was rarely the same as it began. That was funny, then. The exact same thing happens in public communications, without the humor.

Have you too noticed how fast everything happens nowadays? Communications are instant, which can be great, if incomprehensible. Once, it took 90 days for a letter to reach California; now, 90 seconds for an e-mail around the world appears endless. It seems we’re hearing twice as much news today — but half of it seems to correct the other half because it came out instantly. And instant is often wrong, even if it’s just pictures.

It’s true, I value interactive words more than passive pictures. Blame my father, the engineer. In the days before TV and Sesame Street instructed passively, he taught me the alphabet actively at his basement workbench, one letter every evening. With his huge hands encircling my tiny ones, we slowly moved the jigsaw along the pencil lines on the thin plywood and made those fun M’s, O’s and L’s and those darned E’s, G’s and the much-hated C’s. We sanded each letter until it was very smooth, because, he said, doing things right was important.

Then, I could paint these handmade items whatever color I wanted from his library of paint cans — except the vowels had to be red because they were somehow special. I can attest to the power, respect and feel for letters and words that comes from forming them with your very own little hands in the presence of an attentive father standing by, speaking softly. Today, more than a half-century later, I never type a capital B without recalling how difficult it was to get those two holes centered and drilled just right. Did you ever try to sand the inside of a wooden B?

It’s very difficult — just like participating in the increasingly complex information life of a modern democracy.

Andrew H. Malcolm is a member of the Editorial Board of the Los Angeles Times, a prize-winning New York Times editor, columnist, correspondent and veteran bureau chief, and the author of 10 nonfiction books. He’s also worked on communications for two governors and one presidential campaign.

Notre Dame Magazine, Summer 2002