Of talking heads and cable news

By Mel Grossman

Some years ago, I had the chance to ask the late Ben Bradlee, feisty executive editor of the Washington Post, the following: “Dan Rather of CBS News has said his role as a journalist was to be a ‘watch dog’ not an ‘attack dog.’ Mr. Bradlee, what kind of dog are you?”

Without missing a beat, he snorted: “I’m a son-of-a-b——!” His lightning quick retort, playing on Rather’s canine analogy, was classic Bradlee. A tough old-fashioned kind of editor and communicator, he oversaw the brilliant investigative reporting by Woodward and Bernstein who uncovered the Watergate Scandal.

We don’t see many of his ilk any more, and I emphasize the word “see,” because much of our news consumption today is via electronic media.

When I was going through my freshman year in Kent State University’s “J” school (journalism), we learned the fundamentals of writing the lead for a news story: Who, what, why, when and where … and sometimes how. I do not recall being taught to be ‘smarter’ than the person to be interviewed.

The purpose of the interview was to learn about the subject from the expert. Today’s cable news ‘kids’ (and many of them are young, and I grant you, smart) unfortunately often come across to me as ‘smart alecks,’ which is at least in part the basis for why so many of us are upset with and even distrust what we have come to call the mainstream media (mostly electronic). Our trust and confidence in all media was at its highest back in the mid-70s when journalists were investigating both Watergate and the Vietnam war.

That trust level of around 70 percent has fallen on-average to the low 30s, or less, (depending on your political persuasion), according to the Gallup polls; with the new norm seemingly to be a ‘gotcha’ approach to journalism. Frankly, I believe there is more good journalism being executed in the newsroom of this fine newspaper than on many cable news outlets. Mostly because what the ‘talking heads’ are peddling is opinion.

I truly laughed the other day when one of the cable news shows hauled out eight ‘learned’ talking heads seated in a semi-circle in their glitzy TV news set to lengthily dissect one of our then president-elect’s tweets. I have limited knowledge of, certainly no expertise in, the weighty and complex subject of foreign affairs, but my perception was that neither did most of the panelists. And did it really take eight of them? Maybe it was just a matter of there being safety in numbers.

It reminded me of my television sales days in NYC when another rough-sawn professional, the sales manager of a TV station from the deep south, met with our sales team responsible for selling advertising on his station. The subject of programming on the station arose, and after a few inane comments by us ‘peddlers’ about how we thought his station should be programmed (I can assure you that most salesmen don’t know a lick about programming), he looked around the table and dryly said: “Ah got me twelve experts sittin’ round this here table. Count ‘em. And not one of ‘em knows what the Sam Hill (or something a little stronger) he’s talkin’ about!”

My purpose here is not to malign cable television. The medium of television itself is miraculous. As marketing guru Marshall McLuhan said, the medium itself is the message. And, despite the sarcasm of us old radio guys that the Lord never meant for pictures to fly through the air, they do. Television entertains, educates, stimulates, sells us, focuses us, enlightens us, opens the world to us.

It covers all the bases, from Smithsonian to Kardashian. It often puts us to sleep as well. We are inextricably bound together, we and the tube, for an average of 4.3 hours per day, and the proliferation of “news” panels is largely because the “beast” needs to be fed 24/7 and there are lots of folks who want to be fed whenever they can grab a quick news snack.

Perhaps the question that besets us is not so much about the messenger, over which we have little or no control (other than a quick channel change), but rather about the recipient (you and me). In this day and age of incessant commercial breaks and abbreviated media expertise (‘sir, we have about 10-seconds left.

Please, give us your overall assessment of the universe’) there is a tendency for us viewers to be rushed, or perhaps lulled, into accepting the message, the opinion, and moving on; rather than challenging it with our own very good minds, to further research the subject when required. After all, as we have always known, it does take two to tango. Our Washington politicians have the old Potomac two-step down pat, and the cable news ‘kids’ seem to wear their tap shoes 24/7. That being the case, as we enter the new year, it’s incumbent upon all of us to work on our own basic dance steps, one of which I was fortunate to learn early on.

As I left KSU some sixty years ago, before beginning a career in radio and television, my advisor gave me the best, most simple piece of advice a young person headed out into the real world could ever be given: “Whatever you do,” he said, “always ask: Why?”


By Mel Grossman

Mel Grossman is a local resident and a weekly columnist.

Mel Grossman is a local resident and a weekly columnist.