Back in the early 90s, I felt a need to understand politics far better than I had, and I spent a lot of time and effort on it. Along the way – and partly by accident – I learned a few things that put me off broadcast news ever since.
Here are five of those stories.
#1: When a Decrease is Actually an Increase
At one point during this time, there was a furor raised over the funding of school lunches. So, I looked into it carefully.
After delving into the actual numbers, I was horrified to learn that what I heard from all the big-name news outlets was factually incorrect. Every single one of them got it wrong.
So, I called the newsroom of the biggest and most respected news radio station in Chicago (where I was living.) Amazingly, they put me right through. The conversation went like this:
Me: Listen, I have a problem on this school lunch thing. The numbers you guys are using are wrong.
News writer: What do you mean?
Me: You’re reporting a seven percent cut in school lunch funding, but I checked the real numbers – they are going up three percent. The democrats are saying “seven percent cut,” because they want a ten percent increase. This talk about a cut is false: it’s actually an increase, and you guys have to know that.
News writer: Yeah, well… the democrats gave us stuff to use and the republicans didn’t.
I was horrified, but it was, at least, an honest answer. What shocked me most was the fact that they simply didn’t care. This was the flagship news station in Chicago – the one people went to when they wanted to be sure – and they simply didn’t care about accuracy.
#2: To Make Their Voices Sound Better
Not long after this incident, I was listening to the other news station in Chicago (also an old and respected station) and in the credits at the bottom of the hour, I heard, “The news this hour is being written by Sandy ____.”
As it happened, Sandy was an old friend. A few weeks later I called her about it and asked if she enjoyed the work. The conversation went like this:
Sandy: Actually, Paul, I just quit.
Me: I’m sorry, Sandy. It sounded like a fun job. Why did you quit?
Sandy: Well, I was writing the news as accurately as I could, but they were changing it as they read it on the air.
Me: Some kind of political bias?
Sandy (laughing): No, they were changing it to make their voices sound better.
Sandy: I kid you not, Paul. They thought their voices would sound better if they changed what I wrote, so they did.
Sandy is a person of integrity, so she quit. She was the only one.
#3: Editing Tricks
At one point, I was involved in a human interest story that ran on the big local TV station. I observed all of the filming and talked with the interviewer off-screen as well. (Seemed like a nice guy.)
But when the show finally aired, it had been edited so that people seemed to be saying things they never said or intended to say. The program didn’t present them saying anything horrible, but it was definitely not the truth. To the viewers, however, it looked 100% real.
#4: The “Real” Story
Another time, I had the insider’s view of a story that made the national news via quite a few major news outlets. The giant TV network that covered it (and their famous news anchor) simply got the facts wrong. So did smaller outlets. One newspaper got it right – The National Enquirer!
#5: The Short Term Weatherman
Granted, this one’s just for fun, but it still makes a good point.
Years ago, I was helping in the evenings at a radio station, in a regionally important Midwestern city. At one point the DJ started pushing buttons in an excited way, then turned to me:
DJ (urgently): Paul, stick your hand out the window!
DJ: We lost the satellite feed for the weather report. Stick your hand out the window!
DJ: Now, is it warmer or colder than when you got here an hour ago?
Me: I don’t know, D… I think it’s a little warmer.
By the top of the next hour, we had the satellite feed back, and the solemnly reported temperatures for that evening ended up being:
Six o’clock: 66 degrees.
Seven o’clock: 69 degrees.
Eight o’clock: 62 degrees.
The job of the news media is not to be accurate; their job is to be respected.
All of the expensive suits, the perfect hair, the conservative diction and bearing… it all serves the purpose of gaining respect. Accuracy and fairness would only become factors if they damaged that respect.
Have you ever noticed that there is no competition between news networks involving accuracy? There are no Fact Wars between networks. They spend millions to make people respect their chief news reader, but they don’t point out each other’s factual errors.
So, I don’t respect them or take them seriously. And now you know why.