Secrets of TV news: Confessions of an anchorman

The following was written by a well-known news anchor from a top-10, big city station:

For the last 30 years, I’ve devoted the better part of my life to frightening you, trying my best to make you believe that you are weak, vulnerable, dependent and at risk. I know what’s good for you. You don’t. I’ve tried hard for three decades to defy the laws of nature and return you to infancy, cradled in your mommy’s arm, suckling at her breast, all warm and cozy, not a care in the world. I am the tip of the spear of the liberal nanny state. I am ANCHORMAN!

Actually, I’m mostly serious. For the better part of my adult life, I’ve worked as an anchor and reporter at CBS, NBC and ABC affiliated newsrooms across the country — often complaining about the nanny-state liberalism that infects so much of news coverage. Arguably, local news is a more insidious and destructive force than the widely accepted liberal bias of networks and other national components of mainstream media. After all, study after study has demonstrated that local news is more widely watched — and, more importantly, more trusted than other forms of mainstream media. There is a case to be made that the steady drumbeat of hyped-up threats — SUV’s that roll over, kitchen-counter bacteria, road rage, swine flu, amber alerts and the stations’ willingness to enlist governments and institutions to solve those “perceived” problems, actually drives a lot of bad and unnecessary public policy.

But it’s a formula that has worked as a cash cow for your local TV station. It is no accident that most local TV stations market themselves with nanny-state slogans: “Channel 2: Working for you!” or “ABC 6: On your side!” You might say those slogans are a subtler version of, “NBC 5: Making your boo-boos all better!”

How did it get that way? Let me use one common story in local TV news as an example of the larger problem. Last month local TV newsrooms across the country, mine included, did dozens of stories about breast cancer. Dozens of them. It was after all, breast-cancer awareness month, and we, pardon the pun, milked it for all it was worth. In the words of another writer, our newscasts were all packaged in a “tight pink ribbon.” This was not an accident. Never mind the inconvenient little fact that breast cancer is not the leading killer of women — that would be heart disease. It’s not even the leading cancer killer. That would be lung cancer, followed by colorectal cancer. But why does breast cancer get coverage that is so disproportionate to its toll? Why don’t TV stations do month-long, flood-the-zone stories on, say, colon cancer? Because breast cancer is a disease tailor-made for the hype/fear factory of local TV news. In all the world’s cultures the breast has been a symbol of life and fertility. In American culture, it is a symbol of sex, too. How could your local TV station go wrong flooding the zone over this issue? Especially given the one demographic group your station desperately wants to cater to. More on that later.

It reminds me of the tidal wave of coverage of silicone breast implants controversy late in the last century. As you’ll recall, silicone breast implants (a uniquely American form of cosmetic body modification) were linked to a variety of ills, chief among them, auto-immune disorders. In a months-long media feeding frenzy, breast-implant victims were paraded before congressional hearings and press conferences, caring congressmen and compassionate trial attorneys at their side, dutiful reporters recounting their sincere stories of victimhood. Billions of dollars changed hands, law firms were enriched, legislation was passed and silicone manufacturers went bankrupt. Silicone implants were taken off the market. Thousands of people lost their jobs.

Just one small problem. The link between auto-immune disorders and silicone breast implants was ultimately disproved. That was a story you probably never saw on your local news. It didn’t fit the formula.

Here’s the formula. Highly trained Anchorman (booming authoritative, focus-group-tested voice at the ready) or better yet, Anchorwoman (compassionate voice and pouty face, furrowed brow at the ready), reads the headline, tosses to reporter. Hyperventilating reporter further frightens with victim sound bite, followed by sound bite from plaintiff attorney (“This poor victim needs to be compensated.”). Followed by politician sound bite (“I’m introducing legislation …”) followed by reporter tag, which may or may not include response from big, bad, deep-pocketed corporation. Interestingly, that last component — the response from the corporate evildoers, often becomes, in my experience, a throwaway part of many stories — something along the lines of, “The XYZ company denies any wrongdoing.” Or even, “The XYZ company was unavailable for comment at news time.”