Readers of my book (Now is Too Late) or my blogs will know that one of my most persistent recurring themes is today’s news business and what that means for crisis communication. While I’ve been accused of being harsh on major news outlets, I continue to be convinced that one of the underlying reasons for failures in crisis communications is the lack of understanding of how the news environment has changed.
Reading David Westin’s outstanding book, “Exit Interview” has simultaneously confirmed my serious concerns about today’s news while greatly increasing my admiration, respect and appreciation for the many journalists (like Westin) who work so hard to do their best in midst of enormous change and challenge.
In summary, here are some of the major concerns I’ve expressed over the past twelve years or so:
- the business of news is business, which means getting eyes on the screen or ratings. The preference will almost always be to cast a story in the way that gets the most attention rather than presenting the facts, the truth, or the complicated nuances of events.
- Because news is entertainment and competes against entertainment, it adopts the entertainment forms of simple story telling or melodrama: white hats, black hats and maidens in distress—which is almost always some form of public interest (health, safety, security, etc.)
- Fear and gut-level emotion attracts audiences like nothing else—combine these factors and if you are the source of the trouble, you have a big black hat on with your faults presented to maximize emotion and outrage
- Reporters don’t usually come to you looking for the truth—they have a story in mind and they have a role for you to play (usually not one you want to play) and they will do all they can to get the quotes or footage that helps them tell the story they want
- Despite these inclinations mainstream journalism today continues to serve a vital public interest and good journalism needs to be lauded and protected. BUT, because of the inherent conflict and inclinations and because of the readily accessible option of going direct to your key audiences, organizations that continue to rely on the traditional media to convey their information and messages are putting themselves at great and unnecessary risk.
Two of the best books I have read about today’s news business have come from the professional journalists at the highest levels who have recently left the business. The first one was Jack Fuller’s “What Is Happening to News?”, by the former publisher of the Chicago Tribune and former president of the Tribune Company. The latest is David Westin’s “Exit Interview.” Westin led ABC News for 14 years and prior to that was the president of the network.
Those fourteen years saw some of the greatest change in public information since Gutenberg and Westin, a lawyer and former law clerk to Justice Powell, found himself leading arguably the top news organization in the nation during those ground-shaking days. His chronicle is honest, heart-felt, revealing and disturbing. I cannot help but feel simultaneously that it is a great tragedy to see the professional news organizations we have depended on be so decimated by all the Internet-related forces, and at the same time wish for their speedy demise because of how they are being forced to respond to these challenges. Strange, and it doesn’t make sense.
I am conflicted at many levels because of this book. ABC News has been near the top of my list of news villains. Two quick examples: Brian Ross, their vaunted investigative reporter was the one who drew the attention to Toyota’s safety problems focusing on software systems and making national martyrs to profits out of supposed crash victims. The victims he highlighted turned out to be a frauds and the software issues were finally dismissed by a NASA-led investigation. Billions of dollars were lost. Toyota’s reputation was possibly permanently tarnished. But I never saw Ross apologize or accept any responsibility for his reportorial mistakes. There is no accountability. The second example is Jim Avila and his “pink slime” story, which highlighted the controversy created by Jamie Oliver in calling a completely safe and healthy beef product by a catchy name and suggesting its health risks. Again, thousands lost their jobs, the impact on beef and beef products quite severe, investors severely harmed by attention-getting but less than fully honest reporting (IMHO). No accountability.
But Westin makes me much more sympathetic to the situation of these journalistic “stars.” He obviously is sensitive to the severe criticism that many have and continue to lay on mainstream news: “But if we are going to hope for improvements in our news media, a good starting point is gaining a deeper understanding of how major news organizations work, as seen from the inside.”
And that’s what he provides. We see the sausage being made through his eyes and experiences. In the process, I gained some real sympathy and understanding for the extreme pressures and conflicts that are part of their everyday experience.
Westin (being a great communicator and very effective writer) tells stories. His first big news story was Princess Diana’s death. He was severely tested by Peter Jennings, the star anchor with tremendous clout. Peter did not believe this story rated the kind of coverage that Westin decided on. It raised this question in Westin’s mind: “How much should we listen to our audiences or anticipate what we think they are asking for? In the end, is ‘news’ simply what the people want to see and hear about? Or is ‘news’ a matter of what’s historically important whether people want to see and hear it or not? Do we want those in charge of covering the news to ‘lead’ us or to ‘follow’ us as they make editorial decisions on what (and how much) to report? I found myself struggling with this balance—a balance between what people want to hear about and what journalists think they ought to hear about—almost every day I ran ABC News.”
This runs to the heart of my concerns about news and crisis communication. We cannot deal effectively with the media in a crisis if we do not understand that first and foremost, above all and most important, they are in business to stay in business. That means getting eyeballs. The execs at the highest level are there because they are trained to see in each and every story the opportunity to get eyeballs, beat the competition, and stay in business. Westin is clear about that:
“As I’ve said, ABC News is indisputably a business. It’s also more than a business, but it is a business. So is just about every other news organization of any size or significance in the country today. That means a certain number of dollars have to be coming in to sustain the journalism. That was my primary duty as president of ABC News: to sustain the journalism.”
But Westin and his professionals were also serious about good journalism. The conflict is palpable: “Sometimes our judgment simply isn’t good enough and our vision isn’t clear enough to separate our what truly matters from what is simply provocative.”
The place where getting eyeballs and doing good journalism often conflicts these days is in the question of speed vs. accuracy. Westin discusses this tricky issue in a chapter on the 2000 election and the failures of all major media in predicting a winner in Florida and the US presidency. Westin makes clear the competitive pressure they were under to predict a winner—especially when their competitors were doing so. They also had great and, it turned out, misplaced confidence in their well-developed system for projecting election results: “What really tripped us up was our own hubris combined with an excess of competitive drive to be first.” The result of their errors and the other major outlets was a dive in public trust in mainstream news, a dive that continues to this day. This issue continues to this day, of course. Most recently with the errors made by CNN and FOX News in announcing the decision of the Supreme Court on the Health Care law. But, some are asking, is speed really that important and why are journalists so focused on this? I happen to think it is pretty important in getting eyes on the screen which is ultimately what the game is about.
I particularly enjoyed Westin’s recounting some of the problems he had with other media covering ABC News. He commented at one point that the most important thing for a journalist is to be subject of someone else’s news story. He experienced first hand the frustration and anger that so many of us have experienced with really egregious reporting in the Bob Woodruff story. The New York Times ran a story of the new anchor’s near-fatal wounding in Iraq claiming in the subhead that sending Woodruff to Iraq was a ratings ploy. The ABC staff in Iraq responded by essentially locking NYT out of coverage of the big story until Westin intervened—as angry as he was.
I wish I could share all of his insights about what the coming of cable news meant then and now, how FOX News in particular upset the foundations of news economics, how partisan commentary now parades for news (along with comic commentary that most in our younger generation treat as real news). FOX and MSNBC became some of the most profitable news operations because in the economics of subscription services, unlike pure advertising revenue, loyalty of a relatively small audience can mean a lot in the share of subscription dollars received. Roger Ailes and Murdock perceived that appealing to a niche and creating affinity-based loyalty could translate into huge profits in the cable world. It shifted how news is done.
Westin goes into considerable detail as to how as the leader of a major news organization he had to deal with the issues of who is a journalist today, and how do you compete against all the news sources including citizen journalists who can provide instant info to millions in year moments using just their smartphones. The cutbacks and change to highly mobile, digital reporting with much reduced crews is telling and one can feel the anguish.
I think the most insightful and meaningful part of this book was Westin’s struggle over facts vs. truth. There is a difference. I appreciated him most in his focus on truth in reporting. It comes through over and over throughout his stories—starting with the President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky saga. Reporters often hide behind the facts to evade the truth. I had that experience many times myself. A reporter would quote an activist about an energy project or a waste facility knowing full well that what the activist was saying about impacts on safety or health was pure BS but they would report it, and even lead with it because, well, they were just quoting the source. And clearly because generating fear gets eyeballs.
Westin provides a telling example of the difference. A presidential candidate in a primary sent him an email, saying that ABC reporters were preparing a report stating that he had twice gone to a private club that banned non-whites. The candidate said, yes he did, it was with his aging parents who were members and he was not aware of their discrimination policies. When he became aware he refused to go. But the story would be presented as demonstrating his racism. Westin discovered that is indeed what his reporters had in mind. He killed the story, not because the facts were wrong, but because they would lead to an inaccurate public impression of racism. This is journalistic integrity that I admire.
If you are as interested as I am in how news is done and how it helps form the opinions of citizens. About how reputations are won or lost in this environment. About how our society builds or loses trust when everyone is competing for their attention. About an over-saturated information environment where the only proven way to break through is through gut-level emotion—fear, disgust, disdain, outrage. Then you will want to read this book.
I’ve thought long and hard about the answer to the journalistic dilemmas today. I have some thoughts I will share later. But I completely agree with Westin’s bottom line. We can blame the mainstream media, the journalists and their excesses and mistakes all we want. Ultimately, we get the government we choose and deserve, we get the media we choose and deserve. The choice is ours:
“I came to understand that public in the end will get the journalism it asks for—that it demands. Even those most serious journalists pay attention to whether they are holding people’s attention. If people want more substantive journalism and less coverage of celebrity scandal, then the answer isn’t to bemoan the state of journalism today but to seek out the great, substantive work being done and turn off the latest juicy tabloid tidbit.”