Tons of readers are sending me ex-NBC/Dateline reporter John Hockenberry’s new piece in Technology Review spilling the beans on his travails at the Peacock Network. Quick version: NBC News sucks because management doesn’t get how to use technology; news executives are a cowardly herd of unoriginal thinkers; GE empty suits blocked him from reporting on the bin Laden family; and Stone Phillips is an idiot. Can’t argue with most of that.
A few snippets. First, Hockenberry on the homogeneous network news herd:
Stories from the edge were not typically reassuring about the future. In this sense they were like actual news, unpredictable flashes from the unknown. On the other hand, the coveted emotional center was reliable, it was predictable, and its story lines could be duplicated over and over. It reassured the audience by telling it what it already knew rather than challenging it to learn. This explains why TV news voices all use similar cadences, why all anchors seem to sound alike, why reporters in the field all use the identical tone of urgency no matter whether the story is about the devastating aftermath of an earthquake or someone’s lost kitty.
It also explains why TV news seems so archaic next to the advertising and entertainment content on the same networks. Among the greatest frustrations of working in TV news over the past decade was to see that while advertisers and entertainment producers were permitted to do wildly risky things in pursuit of audiences, news producers rarely ventured out of a safety zone of crime, celebrity, and character-driven tragedy yarns.
Second, on dealing with Phillips:
In the end, perhaps the work that I was most proud of at NBC marginalized me within the organization and was my undoing. I had done some of the first live Internet audio and video webcasts on MSNBC. I anchored live Web broadcasts from the political conventions in 2000 when such coverage was just beginning. I helped produce live interactive stories for Dateline where the audience could vote during commercial breaks on how a crime mystery or a hostage situation would turn out. I loved what we could do through the fusion of TV and the Internet. During one interactive broadcast, I reported the instant returns from audience surveys live in the studio, with different results for each time zone as Dateline was broadcast across the country. Sitting next to me, Stone Phillips (not a big fan of live TV) would interact with me in that chatty way anchors do. Stone decided that rather than react naturally to the returns from the different time zones, he would make a comment about how one hostage-negotiator cop character in the TV story reminded him of Dr. Phil. He honed the line to the point that he used the exact same words for each time zone. “I think the Dr. Phil line is working, don’t you?” he asked, as though this was his reporting-from-the-rooftops-of-London moment. “Sure, Stone.” I said. “It’s working great.”
And on GE and bin Laden:
In early 2002, our team was in Saudi Arabia covering regional reaction to September 11. We spent time on the streets and found considerable sympathy for Osama bin Laden among common citizens at the same time that the Saudi government expressed frustration that Americans seemed not to consider it an ally in the war on terror. We tracked down relatives of the September 11 hijackers, some of whom were deeply shocked and upset to learn what their family members had done. We wanted to speak with members of Osama bin Laden’s family about their errant son’s mission to bring down the Saudi government and attack the infidel West. We couldn’t reach the bin Ladens using ordinary means, and the royal family claimed that it had no real clout with the multibillion-dollar bin Laden construction giant that built mosques, roads, and other infrastructure all over the world.
But GE had long done business with the bin Ladens. In a misguided attempt at corporate synergy, I called GE headquarters in Fairfield, CT, from my hotel room in Riyadh. I inquired at the highest level to see whether, in the interest of bringing out all aspects of an important story for the American people, GE corporate officers might try to persuade the bin Ladens to speak with Dateline while we were in the kingdom. I didn’t really know what to expect, but within a few hours I received a call in my hotel room from a senior corporate communications officer who would only read a statement over the phone. It said something to the effect that GE had an important, long-standing, and valuable business relationship with the Bin Laden Group and saw no connection between that relationship and what Dateline was trying to do in Saudi Arabia. He wished us well. We spoke with no bin Laden family member on that trip.
But they sure do a swell job of staging the news.
And no one–no one– does tartan plaid better than Stone Phillips.
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NBC News wasn’t impressed by this or any of Hockenberry’s other claims.
“It’s unfortunate that John Hockenberry seems to be so far out of touch with reality,” an NBC spokesperson said. “The comments are so utterly absurd, we will have no further comment.” Another NBC executive said it didn’t sound like Zucker, who was promoted out of the news division and was at one time “Today” executive producer.
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