Why TV and radio journalists can't be like Murrow anymore

by Michael Winship, Daily Kos

It's a fact: Media conglomerates' labor practices are harming the quality of TV and radio news.

A CBS television newswriter says: "We take a lot of stuff from 'Entertainment Tonight.' We watch it at 6:30 and decide what to use."

Most Americans still get their news from "old media" like newspapers, TV and radio. There's concern about how Rupert Murdoch will gut the Wall St. Journal when he gets his hands on it.  MSNBC Anchor Mika Brzezinski recently tried to burn a script on air in frustration over being asked to lead the day’s news with a story about Paris Hilton rather than Richard Lugar’s declaration that Bush’s Iraq strategy is failing. Who can we trust to tell us what's really going on? Now, a new study of broadcast journalists from the Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE) gives an inside look at how the media conglomerates are destroying broadcast news quality with the same tactics other big companies are using against their workers.

Replacing full-time newswriters with part-timers and temps, cutting staff and resources, and requiring more and more "multi-tasking" in the newsroom, equals bad news for the public. Literally.

The question to ask is "Can you believe what you see on CBS?" A recent article in New York Magazine about Katie Couric noted that CBS' Evening News budget was cut almost in half from 1991 to 2000 ($65 million to $35 million). CBS has cut the number of full-time news staff by about 60% since 1980, replacing many of them with temps and part-timers. In 1989, CBS network television news employed 28 researchers; by 1999, those positions were all gone. But what do these staff cuts mean to the public? Half the WGA members reported that at least several times a week, they use no more than a single website to check the accuracy of stories. I wonder how often that single website is Wikipedia. Some WGA members work "off the clock" to ensure that they are up-to-date on news developments and that facts are properly checked. Members tell lots of stories about how management pressures them for more fluff, more often. In fact 49% of all WGA members responding to the survey said that hard news stories were bumped for fluff or puff at least once a day.  For local news outlets, that number went up to 57%.

It is clear that the TV and radio news stations, "in an attempt to save money," are undermining their own ability to report on issues that matter to the public. Broadcast stations are failing to live up to the responsibility that they were charged with by the Telecommunications Act of 1935, which required broadcasters using the public airwaves to "serve the public interest." Our study asked WGA members "Do you think your news outlet spends enough time and energy making sure that your audience has enough information to make sound judgments on issues relevant to public life?" 72% of members responded "Not enough" or "Not nearly enough."

You've probably heard of Video News Releases (VNRs) – video press releases from corporations, government or NGOs that TV stations often present as "news" without disclosing their sources. As one member explained, "[VNRs] are used to fill the time because we are short-staffed." Some members cited "daily" and "chronic" use of video news releases, only rarely identifying them as press releases – not objectively gathered, independent news. Others said they were used at least once a week. Even at stations that cut back after the Center for Media and Democracy fingered them for relying on VNRs, usage is creeping back up due to even more staff cuts. In order to keep the public from being subjected to advertisements masquerading as news, news shows need to have enough staff to do real reporting or else they are breaking the public's trust.

The problem of replacing full time, unionized employees with low pay, low rights "permatemps" has damaged news quality as well. It's clear how turning good jobs into permatemp gigs is bad for the employees, but did you know it also undermines the quality of your news? In the survey, the members who reported speaking out on news quality were three times more likely to be full-time staff than temporary employees. Some permatemps have worked at ABC or CBS for 15 years, yet never achieved full-time status or benefits. It's unfair to the employees and unfair to viewers too. The media is supposed to be a watchdog, but how can staff operate that way if they can be fired at the drop of a hat for speaking out?

The full study is online at the Writers Guild of America, East's website. I know you don't fully trust the news establishment - that's one reason you're reading this blog. But television and radio news continue to be the primary way that the vast majority of people get their news. There is something we can do to improve news quality (and maybe even get you watching and listening to again). Media conglomerates' labor practices are harming news quality. Station owners get away with it because they think people don't care. Let them know it matters.

Write to Sean McManus and David Westin (news chiefs at CBS and ABC, respectively) to demand that they stop union-busting and deliver the quality news the public deserves. Write to the FCC to express your views on the deteriorating news quality and the public interest requirement. And call or write to your Congressman to make sure he or she is taking action.

article originally published at http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2007/7/30/105651/697.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey