The Virginia shooting, Part II: Canadian content

I started in television news after 30 years as a reporter and editor for wire services and newspapers.

When I interviewed for the job at CBC Newsworld in early 1998, the executive producer, Jay Mowat said: “I’m looking for seasoned writers for our weekend operation. We have a lot of young kids, and I think they could learn from an old pro like you.”

“I doubt it,” I said. “I know nothing about writing for television.”

“I’m not worried about that,” he said.

It took me a full year to get the hang of TV writing, learning to let the pictures carry the story.

Once I conquered the concept, it was in many ways easier than writing for print. I’d always had trouble describing a scene. Now, I could simply roll the pictures, rely on the equation of one equaling 1,000.

Which brings me to the previous piece I wrote for this space, concerning the misguided decision by U.S. TV networks to sanitize the Virginia shooting.

The pictures were the story, both the live broadcast captured by Roanoke station WDBJ-TV and those shot by the killer.

(I haven’t seen the second video beyond the moment he raises his gun, but there has to be a place to cut before we see a slug strike one of the victims.)

Without those two pieces of evidence, so rarely in the hands of the news media, it’s a much different story, a smaller story.

As journalists, we should leave the damnation of the also-known-as scumbag to his god, if he had one.

***

In my first year at CBC, I was given the assignment of crafting a voiceover for some pictures from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (That’s the big Congo, with Kinshasa as its capital.)

The country was going through one of its periodic rebellions/bloodbaths, which we had been reporting on regularly.

I was handed an AP tape with pictures of government soldiers throwing a suspected rebel off a bridge, into a shallow river, and shooting him as he tried to crawl ashore.

That was the story. It showed the savagery common in the conflict.

I told the tape editor to let the entire sequence run and keep the sound up through the final burst of rifle fire.

I wrote a brief intro and handed the cut tape to the lineup editor.

“It’s pretty brutal,” I told him, describing the action.

“Should we ditch it?” he asked.

I shrugged. “It’s the only way to tell the story.”

It played on the next hourly newscast and created a dusting of fallout from the producer’s desk.

The consensus was we should have warned viewers of possibly disturbing pictures.

***

After writing about the U.S. networks’ management of the Virginia shooting, I went online to see how Canadian TV handled it.

It was the lead story on all three national newscasts, each anchored by summer subs for the top dogs.

On CBC’s The National, Ian Hanomansing preceded the item with: “Warning, disturbing images and audio.”

The CBC ran the five or so seconds of the shooting recorded by WDBJ – the gunfire and screams from reporter Alison Parker – but announced it would not air the killer’s video.

“We have chosen not to show you all” of the videos, Kevin Newman said on the CTV National News. “But you should be prepared because what you are about to see is very graphic.”

It was the same five seconds from WDBJ, plus a freeze-frame from the gunman’s video with his pistol pointed at Parker.

On Global National, anchor Tom Clark said, “A warning: Some of the images in this story are disturbing.”

Global ended the WDBJ video after one gunshot and said the shooter’s “images are too graphic to show.”

***

For me, there are no more unnerving pictures than the planes smashing into the World Trade Center – except for the towers collapsing.

Was I disturbed by the images? Every time I see them, to this day.

I’m a New Yorker. I watched those buildings go up. I attended a birthday party for my favorite aunt in Windows on the World at the top of the North Tower a few years before 2001.

But, as a journalist, I view those pictures as the most essential element of the biggest story of my life.

Yet, soon after 9/11, an edict came down from the executive suite at CBC News that we would no longer show the planes hitting the towers.

Why? No explanations accompanied such pronouncements.

But I have a hunch. And it’s nothing nefarious.

In my time at CBC, I noticed how quickly TV careerists get bored, how they crave something new, the next thing, whatever it is.

It would drive me nuts when a producer pulled the plug on a news conference right after some politician or cop read a prepared statement – before reporters’ questions that might elicit real news.

“Why did you do that?” I asked a live-event producer one day.

“I’d seen enough,” she said.

Having been in the control room with this producer, I knew she rarely paid attention to what was being broadcast.

A few days after the no-more-planes edict, CBC bought the rights to new video that had surfaced – taken by a French camera crew shooting in downtown Manhattan that day.

They captured a low angle of one of the planes, with deafening audio of the jet’s engines, moments before impact.

CBC ran those pictures at least once an hour for a day or two.

***

Literary agents and publishers, please note: Much of this story can be found in a memoir of my years in journalism.

TV sanitizes Virginia shooting: Thanks, Mommy

WARNING: The following contains material that may be disturbing to some journalists.

As news broke early Wednesday morning about the deadly shooting of a reporter and cameraman near Roanoke, Virginia, CNN and others began their now predictable routine of censoring themselves.

What made this incident especially newsworthy was that it occurred during a live broadcast on the morning show at WDBJ-TV in Roanoke.

I came across the story online shortly after 9 a.m. and flicked on CNN, which is my habit when news is happening in the United States.

Anchor Carol Costello gives me the basics, says CNN has video of the shooting, but will only air it “once an hour.”

Why? She didn’t say.

I switch over to MSNBC. Anchor Jose Diaz-Balart says: “NBC has decided not to show the video of the time the shots were fired.”

Back at CNN, just after 10 a.m. – time for the once-an-hour video – Costello issues the warning that what we are about to see is “tough to watch.” She suggests the more sensitive souls “leave the room.”

What we see in the video is reporter Alison Parker interviewing a woman at a recreation area. Then, several pops are heard, Parker screams and begins to flee.

The tape cuts back to the WDBJ studio, where the anchor says: “Okay, not sure what happened there.”

Agreed. You need to know the story to understand what transpired.

In any case, it’s hardly tough to watch. There’s nothing in the video that approaches the gore depicted in every shootout in every prime-time cop show on every network every night.

Soon, the focus on CNN turns to a new image – recorded on the fallen camera. It’s the face of a man pointing a gun.

There is now effusive praise for the dead cameraman, Adam Ward, accompanied by a comforting, speculative narrative: Was his final act capturing his killer?

Meanwhile, there has been an 11 o’clock shift change at CNN – and another piece of news to fret over.

Kate Bolduan assumes the anchor chair and is talking to CNN media correspondent Brian Stelter when we learn the killer has sent a message on Twitter: “I filmed the shooting see Facebook.”

Says Stelter: “Don’t think we will play at least the shooting part,”

“Absolutely not,” declares Bolduan.

Bolduan and Stelter inform us they have watched the shooter’s home movie when we weren’t looking.

But, she says, “We will not be showing the video. It is horrific.”

After the next shift change, at noon, anchor Ashleigh Banfield announces: “CNN is not showing video of that (original WDBJ footage) any longer.”

Why? She doesn’t say.

As for the shooter-eye pictures, she reiterates CNN’s adult supervision of the coverage and also follows her predecessor’s script: “I saw this video. It is horrific.”

Stelter at about 2:30 p.m.: “We watched a murder on Twitter today and on Facebook.”

Well, you all did. But I was watching CNN.

This self-censorship was presented in a sickeningly self-congratulatory manner, as if TV news outlets are acting in the best interest of the viewer. Thanks, Mommy.

The consistently overwrought coverage seemed out of character for someone who came to CNN not that long ago from the New York Times, where he had been a sidekick to David Carr and featured in the documentary Page One.

But Stelter’s TV makeover appeared complete on this day, particularly in an on-air judgment/apology: “We should keep in mind, as we cover the story, we have to cover the gunman, we have to talk about him. We also should keep in mind, he wanted this attention, he was seeking this attention. And I know that’s in my mind as we talk about him and cover the news today.”

It was more of the same on the U.S. evening network newscasts.

On ABC World News Tonight, substitute anchor George Stephanopoulos confessed: “Something we wrestled with today – whether to grant the gunman his last wish by playing his video. We will not.”

On the CBS Evening News, it was fill-in anchor Jane Pauley who said, “We won’t show you the most graphic part of the shooting.” They didn’t come close.

NBC gazed even deeper into its navel, with Lester Holt saying, “We’re going to be very careful about what images we show you tonight.” It did not broadcast either video.

Instead, the networks and the cable-news outlets quickly pivoted to what has become a cliché script: We’re going to focus on the victims. Even call them by their first names.

Never mind that the most interesting aspect of these shootings is always: Who was this guy? And why did he do it?

(Vester Lee Flanagan II, before he killed himself, left behind more confessions and rationalizations than a Catholic priest hears in a year.)

Or is another nutcase with a gun now also a cliché in the United States?

I’m not suggesting TV news go the full Paddy Cheyefsky in Network:

“We could make a series of it, Suicide of the Week,” says news chief Max Schumacher. “Aw, hell, why limit ourselves? Execution of the Week.

Terrorist of the Week,” anchorman Howard Beale suggests.

“I love it,” says Schumacher. “Suicides, assassinations, mad bombers, Mafia hitmen, automobile smash-ups: The Death Hour. A great Sunday night show for the whole family. It’d wipe that fuckin’ Disney right off the air.”

In the 21st century, I guess such programming is better left to Hollywood and children playing video games.

Media dish out UPPERCASE hash

When I first worked for a wire service, United Press International, in the late 1960s, I had to learn a new language.

Since bureaus communicated via teletype on a message wire – and because every character transmitted cost money – a shorthand was employed.

So, pls adz cvg sap, translated to: please advise coverage as soon as possible. And the reply might be: pblm crew itxd (problem, the staff is drunk).

Now, when email and texts afford unlimited space, and messages are mostly free, people correspond with what we at UPI called hash (garbled copy). OMG!!! TMI!!! WTF!!!

For many, the code is cool. Writing in complete sentences is not. And punctuation is passé, except for exclamation points!!! (Jeb! is one ugly sign of the times.)

My cousin in Manhattan, who is in her seventies and once proudly wore her Phi Beta Kappa key, writes entirely in lower case, without punctuation.

A friend in the San Francisco Bay Area, a retired top executive with a Fortune 500 company, sends emails that conclude: “If this message is incomprehensible, it’s probably been auto-corrected.” His messages are always comprehensible, but his delivery system assumes the worst.

My nephew in suburban New York, who is in his twenties and smart as a whip, pleaded the auto-correct defense after I read his essay about a trip to Europe and discovered he had no grasp of sentence structure, spelling, grammar or punctuation.

I understand much of the messiness is a byproduct of busy people using smartphones on subways, in traffic jams and on the North Face of the Eiger.

The problem is that the hash has become a standard and style deliberately dished daily by those who should know better.

Within hours of the deadly shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, the late night limeys on CNN began calling it an AME church.

Most news outlets quickly followed suit, deleting the three words – African, Methodist, Episcopal – that define the church.

When I was growing up, I instantly recognized the men behind the initials FDR. JFK and LBJ.

Why is LBJ in the headlines so often these days? Because some in the media have appropriated the monogram for LeBron James.

Sportscasters similarly yak about CP3, CB4, A-Gon, MadBum and RFed.

Uncommunicative newscasters routinely referred to KSM (Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) and DSK (Dominique Strauss-Khan).

To add to the media muddle, people and companies have successfully masked their birth names. Who knows Jay Z is Shawn Corey Carter? Or remembers 3M was Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing and KFC was Kentucky Fried Chicken?

But that’s the idea – to bury the rap sheet and blind the mind’s eye from images of strip mining or vats of fat.

The manic push to compress words and create abbreviated appellations is often strategic, a corporate craze aimed at misdirection.

Financial institutions operate globally with sanitized passports.

Few recognize HSBC as the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation and only the most discerning catch the stale odor of Nazi plunder in UBS, the United Bank of Switzerland.

And how many know the P in PNC is for Pittsburgh? Or what happened to the Manhattan in Chase?

In Canada, where I live, all the major banks have compacted and cleansed their brand names in the past decade or so, hiding their places of origin.

TD erased Toronto, BMO did the same to Montreal, RBC renounced its citizenship, as did CIBC. The Bank of Nova Scotia became Scotiabank, preserving an obscure architectural term and slicing the lox.

Most curious is the fashion statement concocted by PwC. For most of my lifetime, Price Waterhouse was known best as the trusted guardian of the envelopes at the Oscars.

When it wed Coopers and Lybrand in 1998, the married name was PricewaterhouseCoopers. A dozen years later, it was rebranded PwC.

Yet there is no accounting for a company scrunching three names into one, while twice downsizing one of its founders, Edwin Waterhouse (1841-1917), to lowercase.

The partners at Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce, Cutler, Gleason and Chaough played the name game in Season 6 of Mad Men.

Sitting around the boardroom table, Jim Cutler says with a sneer: “This morning I received an envelope addressed to Sterling, Gleason and Price.”

“From who?” asks Roger Sterling.

“It doesn’t matter,” replies Cutler. “They don’t know our name because we don’t know our name.”

“Aren’t we SCDPCGC?” spits Don Draper.

They bicker for a while before tabling the issue, flying off in different directions to make deals and philander, before settling on Sterling Cooper & Partners, or, as Don pronounces it: “S, C, ampersand, P.”

Of course, that was the 1960s. Now, scanning the business pages, try finding a company name with an ampersand – much less a comma.

Instead, capital letters sprout and shout, conveying no clue of who or what a name represents.

I defy anyone without a vested interest in the firm INTL FCStone to decipher who runs it or what it’s selling.

At least when I order a BLT I know what I’m getting.

Happy Birthday, Yaz

In the autumn of 1967, while visiting friends in Boston, I fell in love with the son of a potato farmer from Long Island.

Every time Carl Yastrzemski came to bat for the Red Sox in that feverish pennant race, with the game and the season on the line, he delivered – double, home run, whatever was required.

By the time I got home to New York I was hooked – and had a rooting interest in baseball for the first time since the Dodgers left Brooklyn and Koufax retired in Los Angeles.

Years after Boston’s Impossible Dream season, as a writer, I caught up with Yaz to chronicle the final act of his quixotic quest.

So, as I do every year on August 22, I raise a glass to my last baseball hero – now 76, with snow-white hair – Happy Birthday, Yaz.

***

In January 1977, I joined the Toronto Sun as a city desk reporter. Before the year was out, I was recruited by the sports department to cover the Blue Jays.

“Welcome to the sandbox,” said columnist Trent Frayne, the best sportswriter in Canada.

My first assignment was the baseball winter meetings in Hawaii. I wrote my stories at a poolside patio, where a waitress kept my glass full.

When I returned home, the Sun’s sports editor, George Gross, was pissed.

“I expected you to write a lot more when you were in Hawaii,” he told me.

“Did I miss any stories?”

“That’s not the point. When we’re paying to send you 5,000 miles away, I expect you to write 5,000 words a day.”

After I left his office and stopped laughing, I considered the Gross Mile-a-Word Story Calculator and how it would be applied to the road trips I’d take during the season:

  • Detroit = 200 words
  • New York = 400
  • Kansas City = 800
  • Arlington = 1,200
  • Anaheim = 2,000

It would not be the first time I ignored the boss.

***

The Jays spring training base in Dunedin was 1,100 words away.

It wasn’t long before I was bored watching the no-name expansion team and hit the road for Winter Haven, the Florida home of the Red Sox.

Before the morning fog lifted, Yaz, 38 years old and in his 18th season in the big leagues, was working up a sweat in a batting cage under the watchful eye of Ted Williams.

“This is probably the best hitting team I’ve ever seen,” Teddy Ballgame told me.

The Sox were damn good that spring and early summer of 1978, before a 14-game lead over the Yanks evaporated in the heat of August and early September.

***

The New York baseball writers huddled in the press dining room before a game. What were they up to?

Reading their stuff that season I figured it out – they mostly took the same angle on every story.

At the time, this was known as “pack journalism,” thanks to Tim Crouse’s branding of political reporters. Nowadays, determining the lead before the action starts is labeled a storyline.

One thing I understood writing about the hometown team for a hometown paper is to approach every story in the same way: How/why did they win or lose.

The 1978 Jays lost 102 games. I quickly ran out of ways to say they stunk.

Some players were equally inept off the field.

Pitcher Balor Moore, twice afflicted as a lefty and a Texan, arrived one night at Canada Customs and flunked the exam.

“How long have you been out of the country?” the inspector asked.

“I dunno.”

“Where have you been?”

“I dunno.”

“What flight did you arrive on?”

”I dunno.”

“What airline?”

“I dunno.”

***

I abandoned the Jays in September to cover the surging Yankees and struggling Sox.

It was painful to watch Yaz in the clubhouse after each loss, bathed in anguish and sweat, chain-smoking cigarettes.

The Sox did rally to tie the Yanks in the final standings, but lost the one-game playoff at Fenway Park. I let Yaz have the last words in my last story as a baseball beat writer:

“The last three weeks, with our backs to the wall, we played like champions. But now, there’s just tremendous disappointment. When pennants are on the line like this, maybe it should be more than one game. I’d sure like to be playing them tomorrow.”

He’d never compete in another pennant race.

***

I flew home from Boston, quit the Sun, bought a dog and named him Yaz.

On April Fools’ Day 1980, my wife Linda and I – and Yaz – headed west in a small motorhome we called Fenway.

On a stop in Seattle, Linda and Yaz waited outside the Kingdome while I went to pick up tickets for that night’s Sox-Mariners game.

A couple of young Sox arriving at the ballpark paused to hit on my wife.

“What’s your dog’s name?” one asked.

“Yaz.”

The boys went wild. “Can’t wait to tell the old man.”

Yaz was 13 when he died in 1991.

***

Carl Michael Yastrzemski had just turned 44 when I saw him play his last game in Toronto at the end of August 1983.

He hit me a foul ball. I caught it cleanly.

***

Literary agents and publishers, please note: Much of this story can be found in a memoir of my years in journalism.

The Great Wall of Flackery

Dear China,

As a citizen of the People’s Republic of Mississauga, I would like to commend you on your August 19 press release about press releases.

I read with great interest your 660 words of fractured English – Can’t you hack a better translator? – in the online People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the ruling Communist Party.

In your text headlined Commentary: China Needs to Learn From the West to Work with Media in Crisis, you acknowledge you have not done a very good job providing information on the deadly explosions in your toxic warehouses in Tianjin.

There are two problems with the headline:

  1. You could do better than learn from the West.
  2. Are you in crisis? Are the media in crisis? Or both?

I understand your frustration in dealing with Western media. Once you let them in, it is difficult to shut them up.

In any case, you should be grateful reporters working for the Americans or Canadians did not ask you about Trump’s poll numbers, Hillary’s emails, or the Mike Duffy trial.

As an American living in Canada, who has worked as a reporter and editor in both countries, I offer the following advice and commentary on your commentary (with no rude sics or gaps filled with bracketed words).

You cite eight press conferences in Tianjin as of August 18. “As the first few conferences were chaired by relatively low-ranking officials, the results proved unsatisfactory.”

Don’t worry about it. Watch some video of the Ferguson police department last summer.

“The recent few conferences saw obvious improvement, as evident in the satisfaction of the reporters.”

There is nothing like happy reporters. In my day, all it took was opening the bar early.

“Only initiated from 2003, the press spokesperson system in China still suffers from mixed levels of competence in its spokespersons.”

Try recruiting at the Jungle Cruise in Disneyland. That’s where Nixon found Ziegler.

“They may be well capable of handling daily news, but when it comes to breaking news, their competence is called into question.”

Tell them to read aloud My Pet Goat.

“The public, especially the media, needs to bestow more tolerance and understanding.”

Fat chance. But at least Helen Thomas is dead and Sam Donaldson is retired.

“In dealing with breaking news, the handling of Western countries is worth learning. Upon closer scrutiny, when sudden tragic incidents involving casualties and treasure loss happen in Western countries, the information first released is more likely to depict the situation more seriously than it actually is … Subsequently, as more accurate information is learned through investigation, the government will revise earlier data to a ‘better than expected’ one. In this way, the consequences of such incidents are more easily accepted by the general public, thus relieving the tension and emotional stress.”

You’re getting the hang of it. Just ramble on and make up shit.

“For example, 15 days after the September 11 attacks …”

Don’t talk about 9/11, you Commie bastard.

“The U.S. handled the information regarding Hurricane Katrina that hit New Orleans in 2005 in a similar manner.”

Brownie, you’re doin’ a heck of a job.

“We always want to play down the disaster, with the motivation to not arouse panic, whereas in fact, with the death toll rising, the public’s fear and tension will be inevitably upgraded. There is rationale of information psychology behind it, which requires a reflecting heart to find out.”

Or consider the words of the great American philosopher, Charles W. “Chuck” Colson: “When you’ve got ‘em by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.”

“Press releases should respect, understand, and obey the psychology of the public.”

Cool. We just use them to spin stuff and sell shit.

“When something big takes place, people instinctively want to know exactly what has happened. If they cannot get the information from official channels, they easily turn to hearsay. They may even rely on their own guesses, and they tell others their guesses and spread the word.”

Watch it, buster. That’s the media’s job.

“In all fairness, it is not easy to work for press releases. A well-trained spokesperson can only be forged by several scorching times under the flashlight and in front of the microphone.”

A cultural revolution might help, combined with SPF 45 sunscreen.

“Just like the old Chinese saying goes, no clever housewife can cook a meal without rice. From this perspective, the ones under the flashlight should not be the only ones to learn about press releases.”

Old Canadian saying: When the moose are rutting, stay out of the woods.

Rhymes with a dog’s fake balls

I arrived at my first job as a newspaper reporter, at the Herald and News in Livermore, California, without a college education, no training in journalism, no clue what I was doing.

My only credential was fewer than two years as a copyboy at the New York Times.

When the other city reporter in the newsroom talked about AP style and structuring a story like a pyramid, he might as well have been speaking ancient Egyptian.

The first compliment I received from a relieved city editor was when I wrote a lead saying something happened at “the eleventh hour.”

It seems to be a natural progression for journalists – to learn and unlearn clichés.

But new ones keep popping up like pimples on a teenager. The term “tired cliché” is redundant.

Many of them spring from sports – thanks a lot, Crash Davis – and politics. The vocabulary often overlaps.

Most are the stock-in-trade of the 24-hour yak cycle and leach onto the page, or vice versa.

Regardless, these words, phrases and foul fashions pollute the media landscape.

Here are some that have been making the rounds for too long:

  • Massive – The most overused and misused word for anything big.
  • Horrific – Hypes everything considered a mite worse than bad.
  • Icon, iconic – To qualify, someone or something should be required to live longer than the warranty on a toaster.
  • Boldface name – Tabloid trash gone mainstream.
  • Legacy – The concern of every boldface name over the age of 12.
  • Back in the day – Applied to anything that happened before the first iPhone went on sale.
  • At the end of the day – 11:59 p.m.?
  • 24/7 – Every day, every week, forever and ever.
  • This is not your father’s … – I’m young. You’re old. Die already.
  • Outlier – Came out of nowhere and seems to be everywhere. Headline the other day on the New York Times website: Bernie Sanders, an Outlier? The Senator Begs to Differ
  • Turned ugly – The movie was great until James Holmes showed up.
  • Christmas came early – Winning lottery ticket found under a bush in a trailer park in July.
  • Outside the box – Not necessarily preferable to what’s inside the box.
  • New paradigm – What’s wrong with the old paradigm?
  • Zeitgeist – Englisch sprechen, bitte.
  • Small sample size – Get back to us when you have a significant sample size.
  • Throw under the bus – A cartoon image to substitute for betrayal or treachery.
  • Elephant in the room – Can’t see it. Is it pink?
  • The smartest person in the room – Usually a remedial classroom.
  • Eye test – What we see.
  • Eyeballs – What we see with.
  • Optics – Best left to scientists and physicians.
  • Surreal – Dali is dead, folks.
  • Bizarre – Not a place to buy trinkets in Turkey, nor an apt description of a deadly flash flood.
  • Analytics – The turf of the nerd who may or may not be the smartest person in the room.
  • Agree, disagree – When did every conversation become a fucking debate?
  • Good question – Thanks, but I’d prefer you send a check.
  • Talk about – First two words from a reporter without a good question.
  • What were you thinking when – First five words from a reporter without a good question.
  • Red meat – Tossed into or out of the cages of politicians.
  • Horse race – Polling the rubes in the grandstand as they watch politicians run.
  • Oxygen – What the elephant breathes in, not sucks out of a room.
  • Fellow countryman – Mark Antony and Lyndon Johnson adored redundancies.
  • Mount Rushmore – Place where American sports talkers chisel four jocks to replace dead presidents.
  • Wildfires – Used to be called forest fires when a forest was burning. Not anymore. Not wild enough.
  • Storylines – Writing your lead before anything happens.
  • Disclaimer – I really am biased, but now that I’ve told you, I can write or say something biased because my boss is too lazy or incompetent to take me off the story.
  • Spoiler alert – If you don’t want to know what’s at the end of this sentence, go elsewhere. Will do. Thanks.
  • Headlines that end in a question mark – What the hell are you asking me for?
  • Listicles – Rhymes with another made-up word: neuticles.

Telling tales out of (old) school

A friend and one-time colleague in TV news, now toiling for the Colossus of Atlanta, recently sent me a link to a closing item on the CBS Evening News.

After The Mortician read a brief intro, I did a double-take when this graphic came up: OnTheRoad with Steve Hartman.

I don’t watch network news very often, perhaps not coincidentally since I began suffering from some of the geriatric maladies featured during the lengthy commercial breaks.

So I had not known CBS was On the Road again. Too bad Willie Nelson didn’t sing the piece.

Hartman’s item about the discovery of some old movies, a love story from the 1930s, was full of holes and unanswered questions.

His interview with one of the young lovers, now in her 90s, brought the piece to life – until he demolished it by pretending to read the old lady’s mind at the end.

Back on camera, The Mortician declared: “What a storyteller.”

Nowadays, people wear the word storyteller like an imprint on a cheap T-shirt. They proclaim it on their LinkedIn profiles, their Facebook pages, their Twitter accounts, their press releases, their annual reports.

Hey, look at me! I’m a storyteller! Hire me! Pay me! Love me! Buy tickets to see me! Buy my videos! Buy my stock!

Watch us – we’re not just great newscasters, we’re storytellers!

Mark Twain was a great storyteller. So is my Pal Hal after a couple of beers.

So was the original man On the Road for CBS, Charles Kuralt.

There’s proof in his every yarn about the people he met on a back road in some tiny hamlet: the slingshot artist in North Carolina, the kitemaker in Indiana, the dirt-poor Mississippi couple who ensured all their nine children graduated from college.

Kuralt told soft stories with a soft touch. No exclamation points. Roll the pictures, ask the right question and let folks say their piece.

Q: Why are you, a tool and die maker from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, living here in the wilds of Alaska?

A: Well, maybe because I was a tool and die maker in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Says it all. Cut to more of those scenic shots of Alaska.

Not that Kuralt couldn’t write the hell out of a script and mesmerize the viewer with his deep, rich voice.

“This is a story about Napoleon and Jefferson and Talleyrand and foreign intrigue in Paris and an empire changing hands. And this is the best place to tell the story – a swamp in Arkansas.

“By the time we get down to the end of this rickety footbridge, into the swamp, you’ll see what I mean.”

And, in that short walk, in fewer than four minutes, Kuralt tells the story of the Louisiana Purchase.

If you think I’m saying storytelling ain’t what it used to be, you might be right. And then again, I might be wrong.

But I do know these scratchy old YouTube videos of Kuralt – judging their merit as journalism and not as nostalgia – touches me in a way I’ve never felt watching the news on my HD TV.

The difference could be that today’s soft news seems to need a hard peg.

CBS lists its favorite Hartman road story of 2014 as: Cops in Missouri confronting poor people – not to arrest or shoot them as they did in Ferguson, but to give them $1,000 bills from a Secret Santa and make them shriek or cry like game-show contestants.

The hard-peg disease also infects words without pictures.

Since 2007, Dan Barry has written a feature in the New York Times called “This Land: Exploring obscure and well known corners of the United States.”

His latest piece in the series was from the South Carolina capital and the well-documented scene of protests over the Confederate flag.

Barry has written soft pieces too, from all across the U.S., and done them well.

But I can’t help but compare him to one of his predecessors at the Times, Rick Bragg.

When I was teaching journalism, on the first sunny day in September, I’d take my students outside, sit on the grass, and read them one of Bragg’s stories, set in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

It begins: “Oseola McCarty spent a lifetime making other people look nice. Day after day, for most of her 87 years, she took in bundles of dirty clothes and made them clean and neat for parties she never attended, weddings to which she was never invited, graduations she never saw.”

Nice. Nice enough to win the Pulitzer Prize.

Bragg did the big stories too – the Oklahoma City bombing, 9/11. But he wrote the small ones as well as anyone in print.

Bragg is from Piedmont, Alabama; Barry from New York, New York.

Two men, at different times, staking similar ground at the same newspaper.

Kuralt was from Wilmington, North Carolina. Hartman is from Toledo, Ohio.

Maybe storytelling is buried deeper in the soil of the South than the sidewalks of the north.

Or maybe the soft touch is a harder sell these days.