The Haiti Earthquake and Journalistic Choices

Yesterday, a tremendous earthquake struck Haiti, one of the poorest nations in the world. I’ve been thinking a lot about this tragedy in the last 24 hours, praying for the victims and survivors, and hoping that the relief effort will be swift, compassionate and comprehensive. As I write this, the extent of death and destruction is not yet clear. But from what I’ve heard from news reports, the Haiti Earthquake of January 2010 appears to be one of the worst natural disasters of this century, possibly even more devastating than the Indian Ocean Tsunami of December 2004.

I’ve also been observing how journalists, and especially broadcast journalists, have been covering this story. I first heard of the news on CNN. Wolf Blitzer broke the story during his “Situation Room” broadcast a few minutes after 5 p.m. My wife was watching CNN when the first announcement was made, and soon both of us were scanning the various news channels for updates. We checked out the Fox News Channel and MSNBC, but we kept coming back to CNN, since, for at least the first few hours after the earthquake, CNN had the most comprehensive and detailed reports.

Indeed, I was a bit shocked by how little attention this story received on Fox News Channel and MSNBC during the first few hours after the earthquake hit. CNN was covering the story nonstop from when the news broke shortly after 5 p.m. Fox had a brief “Fox News Alert” around 5:30 during the Glenn Beck show, but didn’t provide any extensive coverage of the story. MSNBC broke the story a bit later than Fox with an update during “Hardball.” But again, MSNBC, like FNC, didn’t give much more than a brief mention about the tragedy unfolding a few hundred miles southeast of Florida.

CNN did what a news channel should do when a big story like this hits: interrupt regular programming, stick with the story and provide as much information as you can to viewers. Both Fox News Channel and MSNBC instead relied mostly on their pre-recorded talk programs. On Fox News Channel, Bill O’Reilly interviewed Sarah Palin, who recently became a regular contributor to Fox News. The only mention of the Haiti Earthquake I noticed on FNC during the O’Reilly show was in the scrolling ticker at the bottom of the screen. Similarly, I didn’t hear Keith Olbermann mention the tragedy at all during his show on MSNBC. To her credit, Rachel Maddow did spend a significant part of her show covering the Haiti earthquake, but by then CNN had been covering it nonstop for nearly 4 hours.

I’m rather disappointed that the only cable news channel that stayed with this story from the beginning was CNN. I can understand why MSNBC might have a hard time covering breaking news, as they have the most limited news resources among the three major news channels. But one would think Fox News Channel could have broke away from their routine prime-time lineup to cover a story of this magnitude. While FNC might not have quite the same number of reporters in the field as does CNN, I think they could have pulled out the stops if they had wanted to do so. They certainly could afford to do so. Fox News Channel is watched by more people than CNN, and those higher ratings have helped swelled the bank accounts of Rupert Murdoch and the News Corporation, which owns Fox (as well as the Wall Street Journal and many other media properties).

So why didn’t Fox News Channel, the broadcast news flagship of a company called the “News” Corporation, break away from their pre-recorded prime-time lineup of commentary shows to provide breaking news coverage of the earthquake in Haiti? One can only assume this reflects contrasting “gatekeeping” philosophies, about what is newsworthy and what isn’t. Last night on Fox News Channel, Sarah Palin’s debut as an FNC contributor was news. Last night on CNN, the earthquake in Haiti was news. With all due respect to Ms. Palin, I think CNN made the better journalistic choice.

And that’s the way it was… Remembering Walter Cronkite

Walter Cronkite died last night at the age of 92. Or should I say, he was 92 and a half. In my opinion, anyone who lives to be in their nineties has earned the right to keep track of age in half-years. While it’s sad to see him go, I’m glad he lived to a ripe old age.

Much has already been written about Walter Cronkite. Of course, many have noted that he was an outstanding news reporter and news anchor. His work at CBS News greatly contributed to the tradition of excellence established by Edward R. Murrow. Cronkite will long be remembered for his even-handed delivery of the news of President Kennedy’s death in 1963, and his almost giddy reaction to the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969. And who can forget President Johnson’s reaction to Cronkite’s 1967 broadcast on the Tet offensive in which Walter concluded the Vietnam War was essentially a lost cause: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” And that’s the way it was; public opinion on Vietnam deteriorated in the years to follow.

I would like to share just a few things about Walter Cronkite from my own perspective, a few tidbits that are less well known, or at least, not widely reported or commented on.

You probably knew that Walter Cronkite sported a mustache. But you might not know that he was one of the first news anchors to have facial hair, and to this day, he remains one of the few men in national TV news to have proudly worn whiskers. NBC news legend Lowell Thomas had a mustache, but Thomas is more associated with radio news (although his radio newscast was simulcast on some early television stations in the 1940s). And H.R. Baukhage, one of the first TV news anchors at ABC (1948-51) appears to have a faint mustache in some of the available photos from that era. But if you don’t count Thomas (who really was a radio guy) or Baukhage (who really was not well known) Walter Cronkite was the first nationally-famous network news anchor to have facial hair. All of the notable anchors of network television news before Cronkite were clean-shaven, including John Cameron Swayzee, Chet Huntley, and David Brinkley at NBC, Douglas Edwards at CBS (whom Cronkite replaced in 1962) and John Charles Daly (the first truly memorable anchor at ABC). And of the network TV news anchors since Cronkite, only Max Robinson at ABC comes to mind as having a mustache. Of course, Wolf Blitzer at CNN wears a nicely trimmed set of whiskers, but I’m talking here about national news anchors at the major broadcast networks. In any case, Walter Cronkite remains one of the few men in national TV news to have facial hair.

I also remember Walter Cronkite for his public speaking skill. Beyond his contributions to broadcast journalism, Cronkite should also be noted as someone who clearly understood the importance of speech communication, and vividly demonstrated effective public speaking techniques. His mastery of public speaking was evident in a video he was featured in called “Presentation Excellence.” I remember this video quite well because I used it frequently in the late 1980s when I regularly taught public speaking at William Jewell College. Although it may seem a bit dated now, the advice contained in this video is quite good, and still remains one of the better videos one can use in an introductory public speaking course. One particularly notable section of the video is Cronkite’s analysis of Barbara Jordan’s speech at the 1976 Democratic National Convention (which many rhetorical scholars believe was among the most important speeches of the 20th century). I don’t believe this video is still available, but perhaps CBS will consider releasing an updated version (the original 1984 video was jointly produced by CBS and Fox).

One more thing about Walter Cronkite that I will always remember: the location of the school named after him. That’s because the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication is at Arizona State University, the first school that hired me as an adjunct instructor after I completed my master’s degree. In fact, the journalism department at ASU was just being named after Walter Cronkite and elevated to school status in 1984, the year I left Arizona State for a tenure-track post at William Jewell College. If things had worked out a little differently in my career, I might be teaching at ASU today. I still know a few of the long-time faculty members there, including Don Godfrey, always a friendly face when I regularly see him at the annual convention of the Broadcast Education Association. The Walter Cronkite School has become one of the best broadcast journalism schools in the country, rivaling the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State. And certainly one reason for the excellence of the Walter Cronkite School was the active involvement by Walter Cronkite himself in the early years of the school. Cronkite was, after all, a healthy and vibrant man when he was forced to retire from CBS in 1981 at the age of 65. Many people believe he could have gone on to anchor many more years had he been given the chance. But rather than retire to a life of leisure, Cronkite kept active in his golden years, and his imprint on the Cronkite School remains to this day a testament to his exceptional talent.

In memory of Ed, Farrah and Michael

This past week saw the passing of three of my heroes. My memories of each are very different. Each was important to me for different reasons. But they were all significant figures in my life, and especially during my youth. So I just have to share some of my own personal reflections on the trio of celebrities who passed away this week: Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson.

Ed McMahonEarlier this week came the news that Ed McMahon had died. This was not entirely unexpected, as it was widely known that Ed had been having health problems. I found the timing a bit ironic in that Ed’s passing occurred in the same month that Jay Leno passed the baton of hosting The Tonight Show to Conan O’Brien. I think Ed would have been pleased with the way Andy Richter is developing in his role as Conan’s sidekick. Unlike the rather minor role that Edd Hall played on Jay Leno’s version of The Tonight Show, Andy is assuming a stronger supporting role to Conan, with a chemistry not unlike what I remember between Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon. Indeed, even Conan’s band leader, Max Weinberg, has assumed a role more like Doc Severinsen than the one which developed between Kevin Eubanks and Jay Leno. In many respects, Kevin was Jay’s Ed, always available to enhance the timing of a joke, and to poke fun of the ones that fell flat.

That’s something Ed McMahon did very well. He clearly understood his role as “second banana” to Johnny Carson, and he was very good at it. He also happened to be an excellent announcer, a profession that I once pursued. He had a great voice, and was one of the last great “live copy” readers, who regularly delivered commercials live on camera, something that is rarely done anymore. People routinely zap past commercials nowadays, but there was a time when people stayed tuned in for live spots, like the very memorable one where Ed McMahon extolled the virtues of Alpo Dog Food with a panting Johnny by his side. They just don’t make TV like that anymore. Here’s a tip to Conan’s producers: let Andy loose on some live commercial copy. I think he could channel Ed’s spirit quite well, and it would be refreshing to see the comeback of live copy on commercial television.

It would also be refreshing to see the comeback of shows like Charlie’s Angels, and of characters like Jill Monroe, brought vividly to life by Farrah Fawcett. Sure, the show was cheesy. Plots tended to be predictable, and villains were often cartoonish. It wasn’t a critically acclaimed show, nor did it try to be. To put it bluntly, it was the classic example of the “jiggle factor” on television, something that later shows like Baywatch refined to perfection. Certainly the vividness of my memories of Farrah Fawcett are rooted in her appearance, and in particular, the provocative pose captured in the iconic poster that could be found hanging in nearly every college dorm room in the country, including my own.
Farrah Faucett's Famous Poster
But while Farrah Fawcett may be remembered for her appearance, we should not forget that Charlie’s Angels was one of the first major dramas on television to feature women starring in roles that had traditionally been reserved for men. It was remarkable for its time. It expanded cultural notions of femininity at the same time it reinforced traditional norms. And I think Farrah understood this fine line that she and the other “Angels” were walking in the cultural whirlpool that was the 1970s. She embraced the contradictions inherent in a character that at one level reflected a “liberation” of women from deeply-held stereotypes and at another level reflected a raw sexuality that resonated with a culture longing for a return to tradition. In short, she was perfect for this role.

Yesterday afternoon, I thought the big news of the day was the passing of Farrah Fawcett. When I mentioned the news of Farrah to someone at work, the response was something like “first Ed McMahon, now Farrah Fawcett, we’re losing the great ones.” But then came word late in the day that Michael Jackson had died. For many people, the death of Michael Jackson was the biggest news of the week, not only eclipsing the passing of Ed and Farrah, but also putting the unrest in Iran on the back burner on CNN.

Michael Jackson was a relatively young man of 50. In contrast, Ed McMahon was 86 years old when he died on June 23. Farrah Fawcett was a much younger 62 when she died on June 25, but her deteriorating health was brought into vivid focus last month by the TV documentary Farrah’s Story. So when Michael Jackson died at a mere 50, just a few hours after Farrah passed away, the news came as an extreme shock. Within a three-day period, we had lost Johnny’s loyal sidekick, an iconic sex symbol, and now, the king of pop. The world had some clues that the days of Ed and Farrah were numbered. But who knew that the man who brought us the best-selling album of all time was soon to become history?

The Best Selling Album of All TimeMichael Jackson had become a tragic figure in his later years. It’s hard to deny that his well-publicized troubles tarnished his reputation. Allegations of child molestation haunted him, even though he prevailed in court. His Neverland Ranch seemed like an almost desperate effort to enjoy a childhood he never had. Some saw his private life as rather odd, even weird. And yes, he was the butt of many jokes on late night television. Michael Jackson’s personal foibles provided a lot of fodder for Jay Leno.

But I think Michael Jackson’s contributions to our culture and popular music are far more weighty than his deteriorating image in the public eye. There will undoubtedly be those who will fixate on the negative. But I think far more of us will remember the Michael Jackson who brought us some of the most memorable music of all time. Certainly this would include the music found on Thriller, an album which has sold over 100 million copies worldwide. No other album has even come close to this figure, and given the state of the music industry, it is very doubtful that any album will ever match this distinction.

While I enjoyed Thriller, my memories of Michael go back much further. When Thriller was released in 1982, I was nearing the end of my career as a radio DJ. I was completing my Master’s degree, and I would soon begin my career as a college professor. Thriller was a great album, but my fondest memories of Michael date back to his earlier years, and in particular, his work with the Jackson 5. One of my favorite Michael Jackson tunes, in fact, is an ode to a rat. Perhaps only Michael Jackson possessed the sheer ethos that could turn the rather silly premise of Ben into a touching musical masterpiece. For me, this song was the one that showcased for me what I liked best about Michael Jackson, an uncanny combination of childlike innocence, unshakable confidence, and a truly remarkable voice.

Yes, I’ll miss the great ones that passed away this week. When so many powerful figures in our culture die in such a short time frame, I think it causes us to appreciate even more the fragility of our own lives. I know that my life has been enriched by the contributions of Ed, Farrah and Michael. Each of these celebrities has had their “ups and downs.” But ultimately, I think each, in their own ways, have left us with enduring memories that will last for generations to come.

Developing a vision for converged student media

Earlier I posted the text from a presentation I gave to the 2009 Convention of the Broadcast Education Association. I mentioned in that post that I gave two presentations, but I hadn’t posted the text of the second one yet. This second presentation, which I gave on the morning of the last day of the convention, wasn’t nearly as well attended as my first presentation. I think many people had caught early flights out of Las Vegas, or perhaps some were sleeping in after a night out on the town. So for what it’s worth, here is the text of my talk on developing a vision for converged student media.

Monroe Einstein Large

Do you recognize the person in this photograph? If you said Marilyn Monroe, take a closer look. [For those reading this on a computer screen right now, it might help to see the effect of this hybrid image by changing your distance from the screen. You can also see the effect by looking at the hybrid image at different sizes. Does the image on the right look like Marilyn Monroe? For more on this and other hybrid images, visit Aude Oliva’s Hybrid Image Gallery.]

Monroe Enstein smallMonroe Enstein smallMonroe Enstein small

This photo illustrates something about vision. And at the same time, it says something about convergence. So it provides a good starting point for my talk today about developing a vision for convergence in student media. In the next few minutes, I’d like to share with you two general principles that I think this photo illustrates about the problems and opportunities for developing a vision for converged student media. And then I’d like to conclude by sharing just a few ideas from my own experience of advising multiple media.

This first general principle I think this photo illustrates is that vision is highly dependent on one’s range of vision. I’ve been a faculty advisor to various student media outlets for almost 30 years now, so I’d have to say I have a pretty long-term range of vision. And no doubt my perspective on student media is going to be at least somewhat different than the perspective of my students. I’d like to hope we can have a shared vision, but I have to admit that most of my students have a much more shorter-range vision. That is, they find it difficult to see very far beyond a couple of years, probably because they won’t be around in a couple of years. Well, hopefully they’ll be around somewhere, but if we’re doing our jobs, they’ll graduate. Their time with student media is finite. Faculty advisors keep coming back for more. So while I might be able to see things from a sufficient distance to see Marilyn Monroe in this picture, students tend to have a more close-up, short time frame view, and might be stuck staring at Albert Einstein. Personally, I think Marilyn is a bit easier on the eyes.

So developing a vision for student media really requires both the longer-term maturity of vision that a seasoned faculty advisor can bring, and the shorter-term immediacy of vision that enthusiastic students bring. And while I tend to think the faculty advisors role in developing a vision is important, I also think the students role is important. In fact I think it’s more important.

I didn’t always think this way. When I was younger and just getting started advising student media, I thought I knew more than the students, and that my knowledge made my vision more important. I thought my role was to direct student media, to manage things, to define the vision. But soon I discovered that students typically have their own view of how things should be. And sometimes, their vision turned out to be pretty good. I still think I know more than my students, at least about the things I know a lot about. But I also know that I don’t know everything, and I’m OK with that. I would much rather be working with my students in developing a shared vision, than working against my students in imposing my vision. So to sum up my first general principle: when developing a vision for student media, work with your students to see things from both a long range and a short range perspective.

I think this double-vision photo also reveals something about convergence. You know we’ve been talking about convergence for a long time. I was looking through my old BEA programs, and saw the theme of the 1997 BEA Convention, twelve years ago, was “Reinventing electronic media: Multimedia in the new millennium.” Well, we’ve been in this new millennium for almost a decade now. And while on one level some convergence seems to have taken place, there is one thing about convergence that’s hard to deny. We still have separate media. We still have radio. We still have TV. We still have newspapers, at least we have a few. And we still have the web. And while they might work together, they are still pretty much separate.

Sure, some student media web sites give the impression of convergence. In fact, the other day I was at a session where a student and his advisor from Wartburg College was showing off a really nicely done convergence site. But even though this website, which they call “the Wartburg Circuit,” looks great and brings together all of the different student media on campus for a unified web presence, they still have a radio station, a TV station, and a newspaper. It’s just that now they have another thing.

This isn’t so much true convergence, then, as a presentation of convergence, much like this picture here. This isn’t a picture of Albert Monroe or Marilyn Einstein. It’s two pictures, smushed together, and whether you see Albert or Marilyn depends a lot on your perspective. But it’s rather hard to see both as a converged thing. Rather, your eyes tend to want to see one or the other.

So developing a vision for converged student media is, like this picture, a bit of parlor trick. For just like our eyes find it hard to focus on different images at the same time, so too do our eyes find it hard to lock onto a clear vision of what converged media would look like. If anything, the vision that does emerge is, like this picture, a smushing together of things that are easier to focus on separately. So to sum up my second general principle: convergence probably won’t replace individual media, but it can provide opportunities for a combined presentation of media.

So let me conclude today by suggesting just a few things from my own experience about developing a vision for converged student media. Please take them for what they’re worth… a few ideas based on my experience in advising multiple media at West Chester University.

First, a little background so you know where I’m coming from. Part of the reason I was hired at West Chester was because they needed someone to help them launch a campus radio station, which I did. We got our FM construction permit during my first year and built the thing and got it running during my second. After four years of advising the radio station, the students asked me to advise the TV station, too. And a couple years later, they asked me to advise the newspaper. For a while, I was advising all three. But you know, that’s hard work for an old geezer. I was desperate for some kind of convergence on a practical level, if for no other reason than to preserve my sanity.

So I tried to influence the radio station, the TV station and the newspaper to meet together and work together and produce content that crossed media boundaries. At first students were excited about doing so. But then they realized that convergence, true convergence, is a lot harder than they thought. Pretty soon questions of turf came into the picture. And questions of equality and fairness. And questions of money. And yes, questions about whether one faculty member should advise three different media groups. If it was just one truly converged media group, maybe that would be OK. But we couldn’t. Or we wouldn’t. No matter how hard we tried to converge, some things, primarily related to the technologies we used, kept us apart.

But we did discover, together, that convergence came most naturally on the web. And that’s my first suggestion when looking to develop a vision for converged student media: look to the web. All three student media groups have content we put on web sites. So it makes sense to combine at least some of our web efforts and cross promote each other on our web sites. The vision of converged student media that is gradually emerging is largely one of multiple student media working together to create a more unified web presentation.

Here’s another idea: use the web to share content among student media. Start with a good online content management system. I like Drupal, because it’s open source and easily customized, but WordPress is mighty fine for some applications. Store your various media assets in a shared web database, something that all of your media groups can take advantage of. By encouraging students to share content with each other, they begin to focus less on the differences that separate the media and more on the content that they have in common. And it also helps students discover the emerging qualities of the most shareable content, that is, how to be more platform agnostic in creating media content. That’s an important lesson, but one that is more easily discovered through practice than through imposing a contrived vision of convergence.

My last suggestion, and one that I hope doesn’t upset anyone here at BEA, is to bring students from multiple media groups to the College Media Convention, which is held in the fall each year. This year it’s in Austin, Texas. If you’ve never been to a College Media Convention, you should go, and you should bring your students, and if you can, bring students from all of your media groups on campus. I used to bring students to BEA years ago. In fact, I tried to start a student division of BEA years ago. And a few of my colleagues still do. But BEA really isn’t a convention for students. The College Media Convention is. There are far more students in attendance than there are faculty, and that’s one reason why I’ve grown to love the College Media Convention. Co-sponsored by College Media Advisors, Associated College Press and Collegiate Broadcasting, Incorporated, this annual mega-conference is a great opportunity for students, and it’s a great way to build bridges between media groups on campus. There’s nothing like getting TV, radio and newspaper kids to share crowded hotel rooms, go to sessions with each other, and yes, maybe even party a little together. A lot of vision for convergence can emerge once you leave all the questions of turf back on campus and spend a few days together at a really well done convention, where students can quickly develop a broader perspective on convergence.

Well those are a few ideas for developing a vision for converged student media. If they sound rather modest, it’s because they are. Some of you may have noticed that I said earlier, “for a while I was advising all three media groups.” I’m not anymore, and to be honest, it’s a bit of a relief. Even faculty advisors have to have a life. I’m still not sure convergence is the wave of the future. But I do think we will continue to find ways to do a little smushing together, just like in this picture. Although the more I look at this picture, the more I think Marilyn needs to shave. Scarry.