This column contains so many inherent conflicts of interest that I would have to devote a page of this newspaper in six-point type to cover them all.
That disclaimer out of the way, this past week, the Radio Television News Directors Association gave ABC’s Charlie Gibson its annual Paul White award for excellence in journalism.
You might have seen about a minute of Gibson’s acceptance speech on Good Morning America.
What you didn’t see was the "inside baseball" speech which Gibson made to the assemblage of America’s local broadcast news executives because there is a general assumption that listeners and viewers don’t really care what happens behind the scenes when we bring you the news.
Too bad, because Gibson’s speech was—to put it mildly—directly on target and left quite a few members of the audience with a silly nervous grin and a distinctly uncomfortable self-recognition as well it should have.
If you watch ABC, you know that most of that network’s news programs end with an announcer saying that, "more Americans get their news from ABC than from any other source."
And as far as that goes, that is probably true.
Except that Gibson went a little further. He suggested that in reality, more Americans get their news from local newscasts—the ones produced by his audience—than any other source.
And that makes what news directors do important.
That said, he went on to point out the average tenure of a news director in this country is two years.
And then, he asked some rhetorical questions as to why that might be.
For instance, why is the first thing a news director looks at when hiring a reporter a tape? As opposed to, perhaps, asking them for the stories they have done that they are proudest of.
And why do 61% of the television stations in this country lead their newscasts with a crime or a disaster as opposed to a story on politics or health or something which really affects the viewer.
And why do news directors cede so much control of their newscasts to consultants who do not live in their communities?
As enamored with listening to a network anchor as this crowd was, there were some fairly silent pauses and some fairly nervous coughs.
Because the truth was that Charlie Gibson was telling these local news executives the truth.
And, by the way, long before he became a power player at the network, Gibson was the news director at WLVA-TV in Lynchburg, VA.
So he’s been there and done that.
His "inside baseball" message to the audience was unmistakable. Follow the conventional local television wisdom and the viewers will tune you out because they are a whole lot smarter than you will ever be and they know when they are being conned.
You should have been there because his was a defense of the viewer which rarely is a factor in local television news despite lots of lip service to the contrary.
One of my conflicts is the reason I was there in the first place. More often than not, when you see something on ABC that happened in or around Las Vegas, you are seeing it through the eyes of cameraman Robert "Skip" Jennings, and hearing it through the sound mixer and microphones of this writer. Jennings is a 40-year employee of ABC who retired in Los Angeles and moved to Las Vegas where the both of us continue to work for ABC on a when-needed basis. And there’s a lot of news out of Las Vegas.
Last February, Skip collapsed and spent a few weeks in the hospital where he was diagnosed with some form of cancer. One part of his brain said he was going to die. The other side started planning for his first network assignment when he was well enough to take one. He’s much stronger now and on chemo-therapy and Gibson’s award was that first assignment back.
If you think that Gibson is just some network suit, you should know that almost his first move upon coming into the ballroom was to search Skip out, hug him and tell him just how happy we all are to have him back.