ALLAN JEFFERYS: Message to the Media: Just the Facts, Ma'am
Everybody seems to be jumping into the presidential race at an earlier date than usual.
That's scary, since most of us will have to sort out the candidates through what we can learn from biased media.
At the risk of biting the hand that fed me for a long career, the worst bias and most influential will come from broadcasting. That is because everything that appears on radio and TV is Page One and because ratings and money count more than service to the public.
It was not always so.
I can recall talking to the head of ABC News many years ago when I was researching a book. He pointed out that the news division lost many thousands of dollars each year because of the need to have news bureaus all over the world and writers, correspondents, camera crews and engineers galore.
News was a vital public service. Money came from Saturday cartoons. The twain did not meet, even if the network had to borrow money to meet the weekly payroll.
CBS at that time was the Tiffany network and also took its news seriously. CBS newsmen did not do commentary; they preferred analysis. They reported the news and then gave us a background of explanation so we could figure it out ourselves.
Even those of us working side by side with those giants did not always know where their sympathies lay. Only in the relaxed area of a lounge or newsroom did they let the barriers down. I thought Eric Sevareid was going to take a swing at me one night when I made a crack about Adlai Stevenson. Given the size of this Norwegian, I backed down quickly. To Sevareid, Adlai Stevenson was almost a god, yet he kept his feelings to himself. To this great newsman, news was also a god.
He was not alone. Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, Bill Shadel, Bill Downs, Griffing Bancroft -- the list goes on and on. And they were all heroes to those of us just beginning to get our feet wet in this business. I feel privileged to have known them and worked with them. They were mentors to us tyros. We listened to them, watched them and learned from them.
Top management cared, too. Frank Stanton, Leonard Goldenson, Robert Sarnoff -- all listened to their own broadcasts and were quick to pick up the phone if they heard something awry. They kept us on our toes.
CBS retained a Columbia professor named Cabell Greet to monitor us and gently, courteously correct our on-air goofs. I still have a memo from him offering suggestions on the proper pronunciation of Saudi Arabia. Today, no one seems to care. Within the same newscast, you can hear Sody, Sowdy, Sawdy and Saoody.
Most of what I know about speaking I learned, not from school, but by listening to the radio. Don't try that today. There seem to be no standards. All that counts is opinion and slant. Again, no one seems to know or care.
Why should we care? Because speaking is what broadcasters do, and condoning poor speech is like okaying a surgeon using a rusty scalpel. Doing it right comes with the territory.
One of the things I deplore about our language is the iffiness of it. Spanish, Italian and even French are pretty straightforward, but we all know the old saw about pronouncing GHOTI. The trick answer is pronounced "fish," using the "gh" from tough, the "o" from women and the "ti" from munition. It's no wonder that so many have so much trouble with English. But again, learning to do it right comes with the territory, even if the territory varies.
I remember covering an off-Broadway opening of "Iphigenia at Aulis" during my years as a theater critic and asking a newspaper critic if he knew how to pronounce it. "We don't care how to pronounce it," he replied. "All we care about is how to spell it." That was his territory.
It might not matter how today's broadcasters pronounce things if they could stick to straightforward reporting. There is room for bias. It's called commentary or editorial and should be identified as such. Commentary is fine -- editorials are fine. But let's keep them separate from Page One.
As I said, most of us are going to need help to sort out all of these candidates, especially newcomers to the national scene. (Barack O-who?) We can't rely on what they say (think Spin), so we have to use the media. Let's keep the pressure on the media to keep the pressure off us.
Just the facts, please.
Allan Jefferys, a former New York theater critic and entertainment editor, lives in Pinehurst. He has written two novels.
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