A different kind of news leader

Sep 10, 2001  •  Post A Comment

To paraphrase Bert Parks, “There they are, the Misses, Mses and Misters of the Media Power Elite: Class of 2001.”
The question is would the media powerhouses of today-especially the ones in broadcast and cablecast news-have been able to function in that once-upon-a-time land of broadcasting?
Then, “live shot” was a phrase without meaning, “carriage” was what you rode in, “profit center” was a laughable concept, “demos” was only a Greek word, and the news cycle came in two flavors only-a.m. and p.m.-and between them there was time to think. Similarly, would the graybeards who were the leaders then be able to function and survive in today’s broadcast news environment?
In those good old days of once-upon-a-time, the broadcast news power elite were, in the main, older journalists who had won their stripes reporting and had been retired off their front lines to help manage a business they knew and understood. No station managers, programmers, “sales guys” or news directors need apply for senior positions in broadcast news.
To lead and be powerful back then was to know how to be slow and steady. Get it right and make sure that when you woke up and read your New York Times over morning coffee, you had had everything it had after you had done your evening news broadcast.
Inter-network competition existed, but the scoops and the beats were few and far between, and the “drop dead get” was with a Supreme Court justice or the president. To lead and be a leader when the broadcast news business was beginning and being shaped you needed, truly, to have been the journalist who had been there and done that; who understood the context, the import and the meaning of the events being covered and the stories being reported.
Context, import and meaning. Heard those words lately? About broadcast news?
“Take your time and think about it while you drive your film back. Make sure you have it right.”
That’s what you were told then.
And now?
“How soon can you get it on the air? That long? Not good enough!”
James Brady wasn’t “killed” before broadcast news rubbed the magic lamp and was given the secret of being live.
No presidential candidate lost, won and then lost again in a matter of hours when the only thing those who ran broadcast news had to worry about was the rightness of their people’s reporting.
Competition turned decision-making on its ear, because once the genie was out of the bottle, the only right decision was the one that caused you to beat not only your over-the-air competition but the cable guys and the Internet guys as well.
If mistakes were made, the cycle moved so fast, who would remember? Or worse, care, unless the error was so cosmic-like that Bush thing-that recriminations became their own story and hair shirts were donned all around. But only for a while.
As decision-making got turned on its ear by the pressures of constant competition, and as millions of dollars began to ride on the strength, or apparent strength, of news operations when they “won” that competition, the nature and-forgive me-skill set needs of those who would lead had to change.
Look at the EM list. A lot of really good people (some I would categorize as not so good) but not a graybeard journalist in the lot. Those who make the list now are and must be the quick and the smart. To be anything else is to be among the dead.
The power leaders now read spreadsheets, speak demos and are lost without a bright and shiny MBA close at hand, because it is no longer the news business, it is the business of news. The ratings entrails of news broadcasts are read on a minute-by-minute basis the same way sitcoms are reviewed, and to be a “news leader” you must be able to do it. Know the meaning of that Q rating. Or else.
Is there anything wrong with this? Damned if I know any longer.
Several years back, when we were rebuilding “NBC Nightly News,” Bob Wright turned my thinking on its ear when he told me never to forget what business I was in. Before I could say something bright and earnest about “news,” he said, “It’s the information and knowledge business we’re in-and don’t ever forget it.”
And that is what has changed the nature of those who now are the power elite of the television and cablevision broadcasting universe. The news part has become the smallest part of what the business is all about, and therefore, if you don’t know the rest, you don’t get to lead.
Good for the business of the business, but caveat emptor, the viewer take care-for damned sure, if he is or she is looking for the news.#
Jeff Gralnick has been in broadcasting for 42 years, working for ABC News, NBC News and most recently for CNN as executive vice president of financial news. Currently he is an Internet and broadcasting consultant and analyst.