What if they tried honesty instead?

Vanity Fair has a long and convoluted article titled ‘The Inside Story of the Civil War for the Soul of NBC News‘.  It chronicles the ups and (mostly) downs of that network’s news division over the past few years, particularly the recent problems with Brian Williams.  Here’s a brief excerpt.

Since Comcast took control of NBC, the network’s news division—famously termed Comcast’s “crown jewel” by C.E.O. Brian Roberts—has endured one debacle after another. “When Comcast took over, they had the No. 1 morning show, the No. 1 Sunday show, and the No. 1 evening broadcast,” says a former top NBC executive. “That’s all completely fallen apart. I don’t know how you blame anyone but Comcast and the people it brought in. It’s been a nightmare.”

Behind the scenes much of the blame has been laid at the feet of three executives: Turness, a British-trained newcomer to U.S. television; Fili, who had virtually no experience in journalism; and Fili’s boss, the steely, driven C.E.O. Comcast installed to run NBCUniversal, Steve Burke. Under Burke the network has done well overall—its ratings have rebounded from last to first in the coveted 18–49 demographic, and NBCUniversal’s profits were up 18 percent last year—but he and his deputies, their critics charge, time and again proved unable to rein in the news division’s high-priced talent. “News is a very particular thing, NBC is a very particular beast, and Deborah, well, she really doesn’t have a ******* clue,” says a senior NBC executive involved in recent events. “She’s letting the inmates run the asylum. You have kids? Well, if you let them, they’ll have ice cream every night. Same thing in TV. If you let the people on air do what they want, whenever they want, this is what happens.”

There’s much more at the link.

Reading the article, I was struck by its emphasis on corporate and office politics, gossip, back-biting, distrust, power grabs, personal and group vendettas, and so on.  There was no mention at all of something I consider fundamental:  does the public still trust NBC News – or any other media news division – to deliver honest, unvarnished, non-‘skewed’ facts?  I certainly don’t, and I don’t know a single one of my friends or acquaintances who does.  Absent that, I really don’t care about the personalities involved.  If I can’t trust the factual reality of what they’re telling me, I don’t trust them either.

When a broadcaster’s audience no longer expects truth or honesty out of their news bulletins, the personal dishonesty of its anchor persons, commentators or journalists is both a factor in causing that, and also a casualty of that distrust.  It’s like a vicious circle.  Those preparing the news twist it to suit their personal agendas, party political biases, etc.  Those hearing it recognize the bias, and therefore interpret the news through their own particular biases – ‘filters’, if you like’ – in an attempt to get to the facts.  By doing so, they signal their distrust to those preparing the news, who in turn try to compensate by sending their biased message even harder, twisting the facts even more (or ignoring altogether facts that might contradict their biased presentation).  (Witness the recent Entertainment Weekly debacle over the Hugo Awards – another perfect example of what I’m talking about.)

The vicious circle becomes a ‘widening gyre’, as Yeats put it in another context.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Obviously, in this case, the ‘blood-dimmed tide’ is – so far, at least – theoretical.  Nevertheless, I think that’s not a bad description of the US news media in general right now, and – judging from the Vanity Fair article – of NBC News in particular.

What if they tried honesty in the news instead of bias, infighting and personality clashes?  That, and that alone, will persuade me to try network television again.  Until then, as it has for well over a decade, my television will be reserved for the playback of an occasional DVD.



  1. I really like the imagery of that poem in this context. Who do we identify as the rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem?

  2. What if they tried honesty in the news instead of bias, infighting and personality clashes?

    I think you're safe, Peter, there's little chance of that happening; truth and honesty are of no value to the left because neither support their agenda.

    It would be interesting, however, to see what would happen if there were a network that was based on truth, honesty and respect for its viewers (and by "respect" I'm thinking of the steaming pile and associated propaganda that's embedded in their deliveries to my TV). Since more and more televisions have internet capability, there might be an opportunity in that realm which could be achieved without expensive infrastructure or too much government meddling.

  3. I think you've gotten to the heart of it. Note that the same NBC execs who made the network number one also run the news operation, and they have destroyed that operation. Why? Because real news ISN"T about agendas, favors, and backbiting. It's about facts, reality if you will, and if you don't have that, it isn't news. As long as the networks treat news as entertainment they are doomed.

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