“I became a journalist because I did not want to rely on newspapers for information,” said Christopher Hitchens, probably with a twinkle in his eye and a cigarette in his hand.
One of the most fiercely analytical voices of the last half century and surely its most gifted debater, Hitchens rather encapsulated the sentiment of a generation with this statement. Though one could of course perceive a hidden idealistic streak in his desire to reform the field from within, he nevertheless articulates a widespread disillusionment with journalism that is only now starting to lift. Well, from where I’m standing it certainly is.
I had the opportunity at the beginning of the year to spend a week of work experience in the heart of the ITV newsroom in London. I essentially shadowed the Planning team for a week, the desk of editors who cover all the Home Affairs stories, planning and scheduling the items and reports covered on a daily, weekly, and annual basis. There are separate teams for foreign affairs, the tonight show, and specific editors and reporters for each programme.
To my delight, I discovered the software featured in TV shows and films about journalism is the programme they actually use: iNews. It’s an application utilised by all networks in to which flood the breaking news stories from all over the world. These wire reports are labelled with coloured flags to categorise their importance on a scale from red to yellow. Only the FTSE updates were classed as yellow though, the majority being red or orange. These little parcels of information appear on the screen every few minutes from Reuters with ‘slugs’ indicating the general subject e.g. LIBYA – SECURITY. The one week I spent with this wealth of information at my fingertips was the most up-to-date with the news I’ve ever been.
Most of the Planning team seem to perform admin-driven roles, finding stories and allocating them to reporters and programmes. They have the high-level view on the news-capturing process, also controlling what ultimately goes on the air by tailoring the topics for the executive planning meetings. The schedule and order of items are listed on iNews one day in advance, with ‘slugs’, ‘summaries’, initial ideas and angles, and an assigned reporter. Once locked in, these topics are updated until air, with processes obviously being in place to react to international breaking news. I heard some eye-opening stories about the atmosphere during the Paris attacks last November when the entire newsroom was kicked into action.
The studio itself is in the basement. Forget the sweeping panorama of the BBC newsroom, ITV’s is a green room tucked away at the bottom of the elevator where the anchor sits a few doors down from the control room. This was truly a sight to see, a relatively small room in which the Director and four producers operate an entire wall of about thirty screens from a bank of control boards. All the cues, effects, packages, adverts, and segments are broadcast with the flick of a switch, meticulously timed by the staffer who actually sits with a timer, counting down out loud the last fifteen seconds before each segment goes live. At one point, quite literally everyone was speaking at once, including the Director through his headset into the ear of the anchor.
It was an impressive set-up, but what was perhaps more enlightening were the executive planning meetings in which all the senior editors pitched stories and angles, deciding how to exercise the resources of their reporters spread across the world. The leader of these meetings, who shall remain anonymous, was like a cross between Rita Skeeter and Daffy Duck. From his suggestion to put a reporter inside a ‘vomit comet’ airplane to his proposal to strap a “GoPro on a stretcher” in emergency rooms in the US that treat gun wounds, he exploded like Aunt Marge every few minutes with some wild plan to secure more viewers. This may be the natural effect of living in the shadow of a much larger network that quite literally dominates every area of the field, or a deeper symptom of a certain journalistic stereotype. ‘Daffy Skeeter’, if you will, also referred to “scoops” as “prizes”, slammed the desk with the frustrated proclamation of “I just want something creative” every so often, proclaimed the nuance of every story is that it is “all about the characters”, and rather stuffily pointed out in the discussion of two different angles that “one might win us an award, the other won’t”. Suffice it to say, he seemed quite literally consumed by dry, materialistic statistics: audience retention, audience share, audience ratings. Verklempt, indeed. It wasn’t even a surprise when he stood up near the end and practically bellowed, “I WANT EDGE!”
A fascinating insight this was indeed, especially given this field has existed in its visual incarnation for less than a century, and whose tectonic plates shifted again with the birth of the internet.
With Murrow and the war correspondents pioneering radio broadcasting in the 1930s, the reign of the broadsheets, and the explosion of television on the scene in the 1940s with the likes of Cronkite, came the first real set of revolutions for journalism. Up to this point the dissemination of information and social commentary had been confined to novels and journals, circulated only among the ‘bourgeoisie’ of political history, the only people who could both read and afford to read.
But it cannot be denied that by the end of the 20th century, disillusionment had rather become the bien pensant attitude: disillusionment with the value and integrity of politicians, with rampant materialism, and with a bloated and biased media. One need only look to the impassioned howls of the Beat Generation for poignant articulation of this desperately disappointed sentiment.
Visions! omens! hallucinations! miracles! ecstasies! gone down the American river! Dreams! adorations! illuminations! religions! the whole boatload of sensitive bullshit! – Ginsberg, Howl.
So where did it all begin?
Well, for starters, the Columbus and Magellan of broadcast journalism, William Paley (founder of CBS) and David Sarnoff (father of NBC), headed into Washington DC to cut a deal with the US Congress in the 1940s. Congress granted the newborn networks free use of tax-payer owned airwaves in exchange for one public service: one hour of air-time set aside every night for informational broadcasting, or what would become the evening news. An oft-cited grievance today is that Congress, unable to anticipate the enormous capacity television would have to deliver consumers to advertisers, failed to include in its deal the one requirement that would perhaps have changed US national discourse for the better. They didn’t have the foresight to ban paid advertising from their golden hour, a slot that was never supposed to be about profits. Though such a condition would never have survived the subsequent decades of media deregulation, it would rather have set a precedent, the likes of which the BBC only really still retains, despite the fact they of course gain their funding through license fees and are quite literally the Charybdis around which everyone else gravitates.
It was Sarnoff who perhaps first recognised the potential for television, the combination of motion pictures with electronic transmission to disseminate information. He was put in charge of broadcasting at the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in 1928 and soon teamed up with engineer Vladimir Zworykin. Zworykin developed the first photomultiplier before demonstrating to the RCA a working iconoscope camera tube and kinescope receiver display tube in 1936. With these crucial camera components came the birth of electronic television.
Several short years later in April 1939 when the world was balancing on a knife-edge, regularly scheduled, electronic television in America was initiated by the RCA under the name of their broadcasting division at the time, The National Broadcasting Company (NBC). Later that month on April 30th, the opening day ceremonies at The World’s Fair were telecast in the medium’s first major production, featuring a speech by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the first US President ever to appear on television. These telecasts were only seen in NYC and the immediate vicinity, since NBC television had only one station at the time. The broadcast was seen by an estimated 1,000 viewers from roughly 200 televisions sets. Meanwhile, the London-based recording and publishing company Electric and Musical Industries developed a system based on Zworykin’s work and further Russian research which was put into action in Britain by the BBC.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
But it was also Sarnoff whose name soon became associated with a media ‘law’ of sorts. Put simply, this law states that the value of a broadcast network is proportional to the number of viewers. I’ll tell you who would concur with that… Daffy Skeeter. But why should a network be driven solely by ratings and audience share, its initiative diluted by its own bureaucracy and reactionary nature?
I think there’s room to be a lot more quixotic than that.
To hell with corporate concerns, competition, consequences, and general cowardice. It may be a crappy business model but it’s a fearsome journalistic one. A truly great newspaper or network is not just a conduit for information, it’s a factory of thought and analysis, a force to fly in the face of vitriol and voyeurism and above all, political duplicity.
The only place I’ve ever seen this idea articulated and expressed with full unfettered enthusiasm is in the brilliance of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, a newstopia possibly even more barbed in its message than The West Wing that came along a decade before it.
It’s outrageous, it’s arrogant, it’s stubborn, it’s smug, it’s moralising, it’s hopelessly quixotic, and it’s bloody brilliant.
And that’s my idea of news done well. Because we can all be Don Quixote, a fact I thoroughly believe in having lived through the Scottish independence referendum.
I became eligible to vote on the day of the vote itself and it was the most enlightening experience of my life so far. Suddenly everyone was talking about politics, from the supermarket aisles to the school playgrounds to the pubs, it was the most incendiary topic of conversation for over a year and was a subject that quite literally transcended demographics. In a matter of months everyone was informed about oil prices, education policy, EU membership, the budget deficit, trade flows, the energy industry… And the sheer level of political engagement was reflected in the voting turnout, which came in at an average of 84.6%, the highest ever recorded for an election in the UK since the introduction of universal suffrage, and indeed a figure which beats every US Presidential election in history.
Moral of the story: the dream of a well-informed electorate who care passionately about the issues of the day is more than possible, and that’s what the news should do, frame that debate.