Monday, August 08, 2005

Peter Jennings

The passing of Peter Jennings is more than the exit from life of a journalist who had an extraordinary career, it marks the end of a long era in TV news.

Gone is the anchor who can draw viewers by his (and unfortunately, mostly it's been men) presence and command of the day's events. The obituaries noted that he was the last of the "Big 3" to leave the air, and I suspect we will never again see anchor luminaries like Huntley-Brinkley, Cronkite, Douglas Edwards, Rather, Brokaw,, again.

In our fair city, I think it's fair to say we no longer have anyone on the air who we need to see every night. Gone are the days of "did you hear what Jeff said" or "wasn't Tracy really calming as she talked about the mountain tragedy" or "doesn't Mike really know Oregon."

We don't care. We don't see anchorpeople as central to our lives because we've come to get our information from where we want it - we don't have a favorite station (for the most part) based on who reads the news. We come to a station because of time or convienence or something else. Although I've posted here many times that KOIN would do well to bring Donahue back in a daily anchor role, I doubt he'd make more than a blip on the radar for a few days, with viewers making their decisions on how they feel about KOIN as a whole, not one man. When KOIN brought Kelley Day back, the numbers went up, for a day. We know what they've done since.

Anchors are pretty much gatekeepers to the next live shot anymore, and producers and managers rarely give them time to show off expertise. At the Today show, as that broadcast is seeing its numbers drop, its new EP traces that back to when the "talent" was too tightly scripted. There's more time now for ad libs.

Again, I don't think we're going to see a dominant anchor anymore, like we won't see and hear a new Beatles or watch Burger King usurp MickeyD.

Too many choices.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ridiculous to speak of Peter Jennings and PDX local anchors in the same breath.

Monday, August 08, 2005 9:55:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your first sentence said it all.

Peter Jennings was a Journalist, with a capital J. The local anchors are just glorified news readers -- pretty faces hired more for their looks than for their track record in the field. (Gianola excepted ... neither a pretty face nor a journalist. Never have figured out why he's on the air, except to satisfy the granny demo. "He's such a sweet boy.")

Jennings, Rather, Brokaw, Koppel, etc, all knew how to find a story, how to put it in context, and how to present it. Many of today's "rising network stars" are biased sensationalists working off the Fox model. The local anchors remain true to the Ted Baxter school of "now I should look sad, now I should look outraged, now I should look happy."

The News Hour is about all we have now. May Jim Lehrer live long and prosper.

Monday, August 08, 2005 10:50:00 AM  
Anonymous Silly Idealist said...

"Anchors are pretty much gatekeepers to the next live shot anymore, and producers and managers rarely give them time to show off expertise."

That's where Peter Jennings really made a difference. He was a gatekeeper who actually minded the gate, as this BBC remembrance demonstrates. If Jennings said it, you could rely on it him having judged the material worthwhile. Over time, I came to trust his news judgement above all others.

"We don't care. We don't see anchorpeople as central to our lives because we've come to get our information from where we want it - we don't have a favorite station (for the most part) based on who reads the news. We come to a station because of time or convienence or something else."

This is the central puzzling thing to me about you insiders. Why do you people insist on thinking it's about station identity, or about personality? At the core, TV News is about information.

Mr. Jennings had great news judgement, and the clout to make his newsroom live up to his high standards. One could rely on a Jennings newscast to contain factual information, important information, and sometimes even uncomfortable information. His judgement is what made him worth watching, not his personality, and he never let go of his news judgement. The "Peter Jennings" brand worked because someone stood behind it; in fact, it worked so well that he didn;t have to spend much effort to build the brand... it just arose naturally. CNN in its early days had no need for personalities, because it had good news judgement off-air. The "CNN Brand" worked because the company stood behind it with sound news standards. Trust in the product is dependent on solid news judgement somewhere in the process. Effective branding is based on trust in the product the brand represents.

As I see it, local on-air personalities don't matter because the news directors are in control. Station branding doesn't matter because, alas, it is dead obvious that modern news directors care more about "good TV" than information content. Until solid news judgement gets back in control, any branding y'all build is going to be just a fragile, hollow shell.

Please, honor the memory of Peter Jennings by getting back to fundamentals.

Monday, August 08, 2005 11:27:00 AM  
Blogger The One True b!X said...

ABC Nightly News was the only one I ever watched with any regularity or attention. During breaking national news of election nights, Jennings' coverage the only one that I paid attention to.

Jennings, I think it's safe to say, actually believed that people were intelligent, or should at least be given the benefit of the doubt. I think that's evidenced by the fact that he even thought that children deserved that benefit of the doubt, as he sometimes produced special programs on important and difficult stories expressly with and for children (including an absolutely wonderful one in the aftermath of 9/11).

Jennings was my guy. His is the only departure from the national anchor desks that matters to me.

Monday, August 08, 2005 1:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Me too. Like someone said so well above, the Peter Jennings brand brought guaranteed integrity. The weight of his personal authority was behind the product, a smoother and maybe a little slicker successor to Uncle Walter. Now what's left are many channels with fine looking young men and women who represent the face of the corporate media.

But who's the last local anchor whose personal power was such that it both drove ratings and defined integrity? That's nearly unheard of, here. Unless you count Ralph Wenge.

Monday, August 08, 2005 1:38:00 PM  
Anonymous Former Viewer said...

Nice post. You pretty much hit it on the head without actually writing it outright. Anchors today don't cut their teeth in the news trenches anymore before hitting the big time. Today, they seem to be just another pretty (or handsome) face that gets you to the next overblown story/crime.

Look at Brian Williams. He never did the kind of trench work that Jennings, Rather or Brokow did before becoming a larger than life TV personality. And it shows.

Monday, August 08, 2005 2:01:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh yeah, anchors. When I was producing news in another market about the same size as Portland, I had one who mispronounced her own name because it was spelled wrong on the prompter.
When she crossed the picket line, her co-anchor (who did not) called her "dumb as a box of rocks."
Yeah, anchors. The BBC has it right, they call them "newsreaders." That's all they should be.

Monday, August 08, 2005 2:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

off thread but why can't KOIN just do the deal on cable for HD. i will not watch them until they do. Trust me, once you have HDTV you DO NOT WATCH REGULAR TV. ever. I will watch a repeat of a nature show before the KOIN news on regular TV and the fact that they don't do it frys my ass on the cool sporting events. NFL< MASTERS<

Monday, August 08, 2005 5:11:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Theory: Anchors will become less and less the household names they once were as news sources continue to multiply (internet, etc.)

Unrelated question: Aaron Brown was a Seattle anchor some years back and was considered to be the Real Thing and I always liked his style. As a non-industry type, I wonder how his anchor-worthiness is judged by media insiders. Anyone?

Monday, August 08, 2005 6:17:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The last name of stature in PDX TV was Richard Ross. The team of Ross/Tom McCall/Doug LaMear/Jack Capell was incredible.

Monday, August 08, 2005 7:27:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brian Roberts noted tonight how Jennings hated the trend toward "non-news/good image" TV, and how ironic he would have found it when one of the 24 hour news stations broke away from his tribute to cover a truck turning over on a Cal. freeway. Breaking non-news.

And that Jennings believed that newcasts had a real obligation to cover what was important to society, even though it was tough to understand and complex. He despised 'if it bleeds, it leads.'

Our yesterdays were better.

Monday, August 08, 2005 8:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please don't exclude Mike Donahue from the "Ross/Tom McCall/Doug LaMear/Jack Capell" list.

Before the changes in newsroom ideologies (yes, I use the term loosely,) Mike was and still is a true, roll up your sleeves journalist. He's the victim of policy and I'm sure if he was running things you wouldn't see one day spikes - a.k.a. Kelley Day - kind of ratings.

Monday, August 08, 2005 8:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good-bye and good luck to Peter Jennings. NBC Nightly News had a beautiful tribute to Jennings tonight, then the local crew came on at 6PM with about six straight crime stories, finally re-hashing a stale, 4-day-old Pit Bull story. It's sad.

No one could cover a live, breaking story like Peter Jennings. No one.

Monday, August 08, 2005 9:26:00 PM  
Anonymous historian said...

Today was very interesting for me. On two separate occasions this afternoon, a tasteful, tearful and thought-provoking network piece highlighting Jennings and his mission to focus on real, responsible, informative and insightful news coverage was immediately followed by filthy "local" news coverage that couldn't be more opposite of real journalism. (KGW @ 6:00 and, to a lesser extent, KATU @ 4:30 are the two instances I'm referring to.)

The stark contrast was eye-opening and disturbing to me. Up to this point, I've been a follower of the business model involving "pathos and pictures" -- captivate the viewers via shock & awe... mainly because that's where success ($$$) is made these days. But now... I feel like it's such a hollow, meaningless way to proceed. I'm not sure I care how much money my company makes anymore. Maybe they shouldn't make as much money as they do. Maybe it's more important to reap the non-financial benefits of producing award-winning pieces about people and issues that matter... for the sake of public service. And maybe I'm living in a dream world. But Jennings' death and the huge American journalistic void left in his absence has really got me thinking about what we do and why.

I now pray for the day someone discovers a way to garner high ratings (and $$$) while taking the highest journalistic road possible. Oh how I long for that day... but it distresses me to know that it may never come again.

Monday, August 08, 2005 9:57:00 PM  
Blogger Ol' Zeb said...

The gatekeeper must have, understand, and wield the editorial power without letting it contribute to a swolen head. One proves one's power without grandstanding. (The phrase "strutting while seated" comes to mind as an extreme case.)

From my ancient era the first manned space shots were a classic example. When Mission Control's audio began for some sort of message the three anchors behaved differently:

CBS' Cronkite would raise his hand to his earphone and begin a megalomaniacal spiel, "We, we are receiving a transmission from Mission Control, go ahead, go ahead Mission Control." The viewer missed the first sentence from NASA.

NBC's Frank McGee was better in just saying, "...we now go to Mission Control." A couple of words got lost.

ABC's Jules Bergman would freeze mid-syllable and turn and lower his head slightly. The CapCom's entire message was available to the viewer.

Just as the comedian is not funny if he laughs at his own jokes, the anchor loses credibility in becoming part of the story.

I never had the sense that Mr. Jennings believed he was the story, 'though he certainly could drive the content. Our loss.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005 12:19:00 AM  
Anonymous rear view mirror said...

Good journalism -- good storytelling -- is a craft. It takes time.

In a day of smaller staffs, tighter budgets, a drunkard's thirst for impossibly high profit margins and an audience that has been served intellectual fast food for so long that it no longer appreciates a well-prepared meal...good storytelling is harder to find.

There are good -- even great -- storytellers working in Portland TV newsrooms. They get the occasional chance to shine.

But it's tough to shine when you're standing "LIVE" at the scene of a shooting ("BREAKING NEWS") that happened hours ago and asking people if they are scared when bullets start flying -- and you agree, in some Faustian bargain, to keep doing it because that's what "they" want..

To be sure, "they" are partly to blame...but some of the fault lies not in our stars, but in ourselves.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005 7:42:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Then I must ask what you make of this, which appeared on the New York Observer's site via a link from Romenesko. I realize most of the folks here are broadcast, while I am a mere print putz, but here goes:

On the never-ending frontier of newspaper self-criticism, The Washington Post has launched a project in which individual staffers take turns reading the previous day's paper and writing an internal memo commenting on it. Today, Style section scribe Hank Stuever took the opportunity to deliver an extended riff of meta-criticism---second-guessing not merely page-one placement decisions but the whole theory and practice behind newspaper-improvement initiatives. "I think we've overlistened to people who never read the paper, and yet insist it include more about their neighborhoods, lives, and concerns," Stuever wrote. The opening sections of the memo:


Hank Stuever, Style reporter

First my screed, then my critique. (Sorry, that's how it goes, and it might run long – I might not get another chance at so many eyeballs.) This forum seems to have a lot of focus-group fallout, calling for: shorter stories, faster formats, oh my it's all too much to handle, I can't possibly read it all, I don't know where to start, I get everything I need from my (pet electronic doodad). And, my favorite, from a critique a couple of days ago, the assistant news editor guy who reads the NYT, WSJ (so navigable! Huh?), then gets online and reads everything else, and then and only then might deign to read The Post, which is, again, too this and too that and is an incredible intrusion on his time. Remarkably, the paychecks navigate their way to his bank account every other Friday, which is another way for me to say that I firmly, firmly believe that if you can be bothered to work here, you can bother to read this paper – the meatspace version, not the Web, the printed result that we all worked so hard to make -- every day before you read someone else's. This is why I can never be allowed to observe focus groups: I will surely bust through that one-way glass window and administer hard spankings to each and every participant who seems incapable of just paging through a newspaper, looking at headlines and pictures, and deciding whether or not there's something worth stopping on.

I think we've overlistened to people who never read the paper, and yet insist it include more about their neighborhoods, lives, and concerns. A newspaper is filled with criminals, celebrities and fools and I for one am happy when it doesn't include my life or neighborhood in theirs.

Then again, no one is interested in my new slogan for The Post: "News Flash: Everything's Not Always About You."

Why are we obsessed with the paper being too much, too large? Our counterparts at McDonalds, Google, iTunes, Comcast Digital, The Cheesecake Factory and Barnes & Noble have already learned: People do not complain because something is too big and they can't possibly read, listen to, watch or eat it all in one sitting. (American consumers so rarely seem to be saying this, except in newspaper focus groups. Otherwise, they seem to enjoy being overwhelmed.)

I have worked at newspapers that fretted, angsted and test-marketed all sorts of "news you can use" and entry points and time-savers. We added geegaws, rails, skyboxes, refers, breakouts, sidebars; we set the articles in ragged-right and whacked the living shit out of them. It helped not one bit, but this identity crisis ultimately created a paper you really could read in 10 minutes. And soon enough, it started to feel like something that wasn't worth the 50 cents they charge for it.

So I really do reach for my air-sickness bag when we start passing around prototypes of a redesigned A1 with rails and time-savers, and an AME wonders (in yesterday's critique) if it might be good idea execute a blanket reduction in story lengths. If we want to redesign the paper to make it look like the coolest thing on the planet, fine, that's an image crisis I can live with. I prefer that if we do, the aesthetic end result reminds me of walking into the Apple Store, and not of a bulletin board in a middle school social-studies classroom.

They will never let me do this critique again.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005 9:46:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hate to say it, but...Lars Larsen was the best and hardest working anchor-as-reporter/reporter-as-anchor in Portland before he left KPTV for the Dark Side.

Not to compare Jennings and Larsen, but ...they dropped out of high school and college, respectively. They worked as as broadcasters in their teens. They acheived success early in their careers. They could be complete assholes.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005 10:37:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Back in the "good old days" Richard Ross was indeed the dean of Portland anchors.
But behind the scenes, Richard could not put a series of words together on the air if they were not on the prompter and he had the biggest ego every to hit Portland.
His wife used to sit at home with a stop watch and time his face time compared with his co-anchors.
If he did not come out on top, the news director heard about the next day and sometimes that night.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005 12:44:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In response to:

>>Hate to say it, but...Lars Larsen was the best and hardest working anchor-as-reporter--

I complete agree. Back in my youth I remember seeing him absolutely prosecute Bud Clark, hitting him with facts and hardball questions and everyone else would be, like, standing back. I thought he was heading to the networks, I really did, and then he takes this screeching right turn. But he's doing great there, though I disagree with his every utterance. He is a brand name. Can anyone else in Portland media, of any kind, say that?

Tuesday, August 09, 2005 2:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gimmie a freakin' break. Lars may have done some decent work before he became a commentator but that body of work doesn't qualify him to be in the same sentence as Jennings.

Hyde comes closer than anyone else in Portland. Unfortunately, in the past few years his ability to report on meaningful stories has been taken away by a station obsessed with the lowest common denominator.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005 2:27:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that of the current crop of reporters in town Jim Hyde has them all beat, hands down! Its too bad he's working in a shop that doesn't realize his talent and what his experience brings to their newsroom. I think if Hyde had wanted to move up the food chain he could have easily worked up the network level. He just likes living in P-town.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005 5:08:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the only name that comes close to Jennings in today's news is Jim Lehrer. A true journalist who has the name, journalistic skills, and sense of what's right that not seen anywhere else.

Speaking of of the last (and only) prominent voice of reason in today's media, you have to give it up to NPR. (I'm not speaking of public radio as a whole but NPR's news programs). The national NPR audience #'s are huge. (Also, Lars Larson would die for the #'s that April Baer gets on OPB Radio and Morning Edition).

Wednesday, August 10, 2005 10:06:00 PM  
Anonymous rear view mirror said...

Robin Chapman's nose was news back in the 70s.

Some agent/talent hunter type said the beak kept Robin from getting more "high-profile" jobs (apologies, pun-aphobes) at the networks.

I know several other successful on-air types who had similar messages passed on to them based on some physical characteristic that in real life might go unnoticed.

There's no business like the business there's no business like.

Thursday, August 11, 2005 11:18:00 AM  
Blogger gus miller said...

"Too many choices."

A metaphore for life in the USA. Just visit the cereal aisle of any large food retailer.

Saturday, August 13, 2005 10:12:00 AM  
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