The History of Happy-Talk News

In his latest column for the NYT, Frank Rich uses Will Ferrell’s new film, Anchorman, to explain how our definition of ‘news’ has changed from the days of Walter Cronkite to the days of Babwa Wawa, and gets it exactly right (except for leaving Walters out; her role was crucial).

[T]his toxic element was first injected into the media bloodstream by innovations in local news at the dawn of the 70’s. One of its earliest sightings was in New York, where Al Primo, a news director at WABC, brought Eyewitness News in late 1968. Looked at today at the Museum of Television and Radio, the early on-air promos for this then-novel brand of news are revelatory of what was to come and even funnier than the parodies of them in “Anchorman.”

In one, the young Geraldo Rivera brings the fellow members of his news “team” to a Puerto Rican wedding so that his ethnic “friends,” seemingly played by actors, can get to know his WABC “friends.” The next thing you know, one of the anchors, the grim Roger Grimsby, is shedding his sports jacket and hitting the dance floor with a sizzling Latina mama. The commercial’s sell line: “The Eyewitness News Team: The reason people like them so much is that they like people so much.” In 13 months, WABC doubled its ratings at 6 and 11, starting a nationwide stampede by local stations to ditch their authority-figure anchors for happy-talking surrogate news “families” of their own.

The format officially crossed over into network news in 1973, when ABC hired Frank Magid, a consultant who specialized in these theatrics, to develop the morning show, “AM America.” Built around a surrogate TV family and outfitted like a suburban home, it begat “Good Morning America” two years later. The rest is metastasis. “By the nineties, the tail was wagging the dog,” wrote the critic Steven D. Stark. “Now, local news was setting the journalistic standard for the networks.”

As dead-on as this explanation is, it’s only one arm of the joke-beast that’s come to be known in this country as the ‘news media’. The other arm is the injection of entertainment values into the news process, making Ashton Kutcher’s hairstyle equal in importance of coverage to Israel’s fence-construction or Bush’s rape of the environment to please his corporate contributors. Happy-Talk would have died a quick and painless death if it had had to follow serious stories; it’s hard to justify jocularity when you’re showing bodies in the streets and taking about political corruption, environmental negligence, and economic disaster for 80% of the newscast. It’s a lot easier when it’s only 20% and you’re spending the rest of your time on celebrity news like the Ben-JLo fiasco and titillating fillers like the Scott Peterson trial.

The fact is, the two arms need each other, and it was ABC’s hiring of Barbara Walters – of whom Harry Reasoner said, prophetically, that she would “destroy network news” – that provided the second arm. It was Babwa who brought the shallow, mindless, pointless questions so common in celebrity interviewing to “news” interviews with the likes of Lech Walensa and Mikhail Gorbachov.

“If you could be a tree, what kind of tree would you be?” has become a satire of itself, and rightfully so. It’s the kind of question a clueless, starry-eyed 14-yr-old asks a celebrity visitor because she thinks it’s “deep”. Walters used these false, sophomoronic questions to single-handedly turn network news into a national version of  her high school paper.

But that one missing element aside, it’s hard to argue with Rich’s conclusions.

Some of this influence is merely a matter of style: that faux familial intimacy is now visible on any TV news show, national or local, with more than a single anchor. (Even the once Audio-Animatronic anchors of CNN’s “Headline News” simulate husband-and-wife banter these days.) More crucially, the premium placed on likability affects the content of the news. Since 9/11, this has meant wearing and hawking the flag (as long as it’s not draped on a coffin) — even to the point of dressing the NBC on-screen peacock icon in the stars and stripes for weeks. It has also meant not challenging a president as long as he’s riding high in the polls.

In the now legendary White House press conference of March 6, 2003, not a single reporter, electronic or print, asked a tough question about anything, including the president’s repeated conflating of 9/11 with the impending war on Iraq (eight times in that appearance alone). To some critics on the left, this Stepford Wives performance indicated a press corps full of conservatives, but I doubt it. This lock-step spectacle was at least in part an exercise of the Burgundy principle of pandering: don’t do anything that might make you less popular with your customers. In that same month, Frank N. Magid Associates, still a major player in the news consulting business, released a survey telling its clients that war protests came in dead last of all topics tested among 6,400 viewers nationwide. In other words, if you’re covering the news based on what’s happening as opposed to what your viewers like, you’re taking a commerical risk. Given that the ownership of local stations, networks and cable news alike is now concentrated in far fewer hands than it was in the 1970’s, such thinking quickly becomes orthodoxy in much of the American news business.

This is the nub of the problem: news used to be a profession. It had ethics and saw itself as serving an essential democratic role by keeping the people informed. Now, it has become just another corporate product and its every aspect is subjugated to the demands of the bottom line. The LCD Rules, and people who aren’t satisfied with giving Madonna’s marriage ten minutes and the deficit problem thirty seconds can damn well go somewhere else. To Hell, preferably, or to NPR, which amounts to the same thing.

Newsroom staffs have been cut to the bone and filled with inexpensive college grads more concerned about their careers than any issue they might be reporting, a lazy, apolitical bunch who believe in he said/she said “journalism” and don’t care to invest their valuable time checking non-essentials like “facts” when they can be asking Terri Gross’ patented “How did you feel?” question instead. I mean, nobody really cares anyway, do they?

Which helps explain this:

Even now, as the entire press, including The Times, copes with the reality that it wasn’t skeptical enough about the administration’s stated case for war, the desire to gladhand the public can overcome news judgment, especially on television. Otherwise Americans wouldn’t have found it such a novelty when the Washington correspondent for RTE, the Irish network, took on Mr. Bush in a TV interview last month, challenging him repeatedly about the failure to find weapons of mass destruction and his claim that the war in Iraq has made us safer. The RTE reporter, Carole Coleman, wasn’t pretending to be any viewer’s family or buddy or lover. “I felt I did my job,” she said when American journalists questioned her about her audacity. Maybe so, but next to the Ron Burgundys [Ferrell’s character in “Anchorman”-MA] in her profession, she seemed less like a visitor from a different country than an alien from a distant planet.

A by-the-numbers value system that snarls whenever the words “community service” or “public good” are uttered and recognizes no greater good than its native impulse toward greed has hijacked our airwaves – our airwaves, not theirs – and turned them into money-spigots that are useless as information communicators. It isn’t going to be easy to get them back.

2 responses to “The History of Happy-Talk News

  1. Incredible post! Real, objectively written and presented news is all but impossible to find on television. We are no longer citizens looking to educate and inform ourselves, but customers idley lapping up the corporate controlled info-gruel that is served up to us between commercials. Many of the people who I try to talk about this with have little or no idea how far this country has fallen- aided greatly by the negligence and greed of our so called government and societal “watchdogs”. Even worse, many college age people seem content to remain willfully ignorant of actual newsworthy content i.e., non-celebrity events. I fear for The Republic. Maybe this sounds unduly alarmist but then, maybe it is time to be alarmed.

    • I don’t think it’s unduly alarmist at all. In fact our alarm should be squawking like mad and it’s long overdue. We have allowed, indeed encouraged, this insanity for far too long. It’s all but out-of-control now and we are losing our democracy because the structure that was meant to protect it has sold out and become just another predator. There ought to be a backlash building in about now but so far I see no signs of it.

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