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The Problem with Television News in America

Jon Stewart offered a critical look at television news – its goals, its methods, and the product it offers up every day to millions of eager eyeballs.

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The sh***y model of news that we are fed is based on an antiquated system that is not reflective of who’s watching it.”

Jon Stewart offered the insight during last week’s opening moments of his Apple TV+ program, “The Problem.” The program offered a critical look at television news – its goals, its methods, and the product it offers up every day to millions of eager eyeballs.

Many have grown accustomed to hearing news critiques from more conservative American enclaves. But to come from the liberal side of the spectrum was both refreshing and, as Stewart himself predicted might happen, just the match to ignite a blowback from inside the industry.

“Generally, our news media has been collected into two major categories, for the most part. You got your, what they call the mainstream, liberal corporate media. And then you got your right-wing, also mainstream, corporate media,” Stewart said, “One side of this media equation believes they are purveyors of truth and justice. The guardians of our democratic republic. The other side is effective.”

Stewart did not hold back during the program, stating that television news has largely become a vessel to deliver ratings-tested material to willing and eager viewers. In his opinion, the industry focus is now on delivering what the viewer wants, rather than on what the journalist believes is worthy of time or trust. He feels a journalist’s job should be to lay out the facts and truth as he sees it and let the chips fall where they may.

The host didn’t hide the fact that his bias may lead him to see a specific tilt to a story. His main point, however, is that television news should provide what the journalist believes to be true, rather than offering up what they think will simply be popular or agreed with by their audience.

Stewart zoned in on the issue of “Critical Race Theory,” offering up a montage of conservative media opinion, referring to CRT as “poison,” “marxist,” “communist,” and “racist.” He blamed the conservative media for creating the issue and “lighting the fire” of outrage across America.

“The right-wing media, working seamlessly with their political arm, made that happen,” Stewart said. “That’s how fucking good these guys are. If you’re going to battle this coordinated effort – political and media together – we’re gonna need a hero.” Stewart feels that this narrative was born not from truth but rather from the corporate media’s effort to create the hullabaloo only to exploit it to the max.

“Unfortunately, if they are the one thing that stands between America and chaos, we are in trouble. Because rarely has there been an institution that has such a distance between its aspirations and its execution,” Steward said. “The media keeps informing us how incredibly important they are to our survival because knowing keeps us free. But when given crucial informational tasks, they instead build us prisons of what the fuck are you people talking about?”

The program then moved on, with its host saying the media was correct in its initial pursuit of the Trump “Russia conspiracy.” However, he said they quickly descended into absurdity, hurting their credibility in the process. Stewart played montage after montage, featuring mainstream media claims of “bombshells” about President Trump and featuring the qualifier, “if true.” Most of these “bombshells” turned out to be either untrue or far different than what had been portrayed. Try as they did, the media’s claims of “walls closing in” on the former president turned out to be nothing more than false promises to their eager audiences.

“The media is such an important part of a democracy’s immune system, but can the saviors of our democracy be saved themselves,” Stewart asked.

“The problem is that we’ve become moral imbeciles, as we are being spoon-fed little pieces of outrage day by day, no, stay with the story, stay with the story. You can’t lose any number. The death knell is if your numbers go down,” said Chris Stirewalt, former Politics Editor at Fox News. “That’s why we only get one story at a time. Producers know that that will work and that will rate, so we’re going to stick with the thing that people are expecting and that they know, because if you take it away from them, they may get mad, the number may go down, and they may go someplace else to get it.”

During his time at Fox, Stirewalt was known for his wit, political expertise, and, when the situation dictated, for offering a less-than-popular opinion.

“I think what people don’t realize is that it’s a ratings-driven business, but it’s also driven by meetings. People have meetings and make decisions every day that affect the tone, tenor, and direction of coverage,” Stewart said. The panel added that producers are guided by ratings showing minute-by-minute audience reactions, a trend that allows decision-makers to remain focused on the stories and angles that attract and keep the most eyeballs.

The table is set, giving the audience what the networks feel they want and will pay for, regardless of what many of the producers and journalists feel are, in actuality, the most important and relevant stories or angles of the day.

“There are meetings that set the agenda for the network, that set the agenda for the morning shows, that are gonna set the evening show agendas. You have to divvy up who’s gonna have which guests because you can’t have everybody shared on every single show,” former CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien said. “And then the shows themselves have specific meetings. What are we gonna start with? What are we gonna end with? Who’s the guest? How long do they get? I think this idea of, hey, we just report the news, is ridiculous because, of course, it’s a zero-sum game. If you’re covering something, then that means you’re not giving coverage to something else.”

In addition, social media is now the shiny new object attracting news producers and compelling them to chase left and right. The excitable cat is trying to land his paw on the laser pointer.

“You can see a television news story in which people are like, this idiot said this about this idiot on Twitter, and they treat it like it’s a whole new story,” Stirewalt said. “So it has permeated the thinking in very profound ways, and it’s made us dumber,” Stirewalt said in the ten years he was at Fox; he saw the business change from keeping away from ratings talk to relying on it before all else.

Stewart added that when he started the Daily Show at the age of 35, he led with what he believed in, hoping it would attract an audience, rather than starting with what he thought the audience would want and “backing into it.” In his words, this purity of intention led to a more honestly-rooted journalistic effort.

“I think what this is really about is a lack of courage of changing the model,” Sean McLaughlin, V.P. of News at E.W. Scripps, said. “The part about the minute-by-minutes, you’re looking at data that is already incredibly flawed from the beginning.” He explained that today’s hyper-fragmentation makes the Nielsen-collected data much less reliable than in years past. And even then, many have felt that the reliance on a relatively small set of households recording their viewing patterns was an already-skewed method, to begin with. “At some point, you just start realizing, I wonder if what we’re looking at is any degree of realism at all,” McLaughlin added.

O’Brien said most newsrooms now perform under essentially the same set of unwritten rules.

“I think for most of the journalists working there when I was there, they loved journalism, as I did, and I do. But I think the mission was to do the best job you could do and win,” O’Brien said. “Win as in the ratings. Win is making sure that you’re getting picked up by the New York Times. Win is not about educating the public. It’s not so complicated.”

The prevailing theme of this episode of “The Problem” was that television news has become an all-too-tailored production. Especially in cable news, the product has become opinion-driven entertainment.

“What differentiates news from entertainment is that sometimes we have to tell you what you don’t want to hear,” Stirewalt summed up. “We are supposed to be the vegetables. We are supposed to be the nutrient-giving portion of the plate. Not dessert. What cable news has tried to do, and what local news sometimes does, is get the green beans in the shortbread, and you’ve got now you’ve turned the news into entertainment, and you’re treating entertainment like news. Both of those are bad things. News should be news; entertainment should be entertainment.”

The episode concluded with a conversation between Stewart and former Walt Disney CEO Robert Iger. Iger felt news organizations may currently be on the defensive because they feel they’ve been under the microscope like never before.

“My advice to them was to not hear the noise as much, to continue doing the job that we’ve entrusted them to do,” Iger said about his 30-plus years overseeing ABC News. “Which is, to tell the truth, to state the facts. To present the news in an accurate and a, fair and a timely basis. But we never sought to drive ratings or even bottom-line success at the sacrifice of what we consider to be quality. It wasn’t part of our discussion.”

BNM Writers

Conservatives Latch Way Too Often Onto Cultural Figures

But, as talk show hosts, and conservatives, we seem to too often try to latch onto a cultural figure we think is ready or willing to “fight our fight.”

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We’ve been watching in real time the fall of one of the most creative Americans of this generation: Ye West. A.K.A. Kanye West. 

It’s been clear for weeks that Ye has been in a weird place and has been spiraling emotionally and mentally. Things came to a head on Thursday, when in an interview with Info Wars’ Alex Jones, Ye went off on several antisemitic tangents, including this line: “Well, I see good things about Hitler, also. Every human being has value that they brought to the table, especially Hitler.”

The actions are strange (covered in a black mask during the interview). The words are gross (stark antisemitism).

The point of this column is not to try and dissect the mental state of Ye West. That’s a fool’s errand.

But, as talk show hosts, and conservatives, we seem to too often try to latch onto a cultural figure we think is ready or willing to “fight our fight.” Conservatives know Hollywood, Corporate America and Media are mostly stacked against them and their values, so when someone appears to step into their corner of the ring, we fall for them head over heels. We end up like the “soft six” who just scored a date with a “ten.”

It’s pathetic. And Ye West is our latest example of that. 

Whether it’s Ye, Elon Musk or even Donald Trump. No, I’m not putting them all into the same boat by any stretch, but there has been a similarity to each of their purposes to conservatives. Kanye would push MAGA and conservatism in Hollywood and Black culture. Elon would save us from the Big Tech war against free speech. And Trump would just, well, save us in general. Or something. 

We’ve put far too much stock into all of these individuals, at different levels and for different reasons. But we’ve done it. And admitting we were wrong about it in many respects is a good place to start. 

Looking up to individuals to singularly win cultural wars is a losing proposition. It’s all of us. It’s you. It’s me. Donald Trump certainly can play an outsized role. Elon Musk can help the cause. Ye West, nah. But you get the point. 

The reality is that we can’t search and hope for that God-like figure to solve the problem. Swinging the cultural pendulum from the left back to the middle won’t be fixed in one day, or one year, and it certainly won’t be swung back by one person.

In recent weeks and months, there have been cult-like beliefs from many in conservative media that any of the aforementioned individuals would solve our problems.

They won’t. They can’t. And we’re doing a disservice to our listeners to lead them in that direction. First off, worshiping individuals it’s everything conservatism is against. Our ideas are bigger than a singular individual and it sells ourselves and our listeners short to stray from that thought.

While the Ye West debacle in recent weeks has been a glaring example of that kind of mistake, there are certain to be others on the horizon. Let’s not make that mistake again. 

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BNM Writers

Christopher Gabriel Isn’t Crazy About Politics, But Is Crazy About Making People Laugh

“We’ve been number one in  Fresno for the past 19 months, one of the top stations in the state. We must be doing something right. When we’re not doing news, we’re light-hearted.”

Jim Cryns

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Talk about conflicted youth. Christopher Gabriel grew up a couple of miles from Wrigley Field, even though his father was a devoted fan of the White Sox.

“My dad was a southside guy,” Gabriel said. “I was a White Sox fan like him. My mom was the anomaly, a Cubs fan, but now she’s a Philly fan. We had a divided household. I was in the first row in the upper deck for the last game at Comiskey. It was gut-wrenching saying good-bye to it.”

Yup. Conflicted.

As a kid, Gabriel watched Dick Allen in the red stripe era Sox uniforms. “I saw Allen hit one so far up in left field, it hit the lip of the roof before flying over and out,” Gabriel said. “That’s the kind of power Allen had.”

Gabriel was a basketball standout in high school, recruited by several schools including Tennessee. He had a lot of connections with the school. His uncle attended Tennessee, but he ultimately didn’t think the academic program was right for him.

He said the film Hoosiers was emblematic of everything he was. “I think it mirrored everything I could have been if I’d stayed with basketball. I always knew I had the talent but admittedly didn’t put in the necessary effort. I should have stayed there. At the same time, I never would have had the other amazing experiences in my life if I had stayed.”

His father was a shrewd businessman. Living in the Chicago area, along with McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, his father  recognized the promise of the Golden Arches early.

“It cost 100 thousand dollars in liquid cash to get into a McDonald’s franchise back then,” Gabriel said. “My father had 9 thousand, far short of the money he needed. He kept borrowing more and finally Ray Kroc put up the difference himself. When my dad was concerned about how he was going to be able to pay Kroc back, Kroc just told him to pay it back by giving back to the community.”

Wow. Good deal for the Gabriel family.

Gabriel’s radio career  has encompassed both sports talk and news talk, from Fargo to Fresno. He is the host of Fresno’s Morning News on KMJ 580 AM/105.9 FM and has a ton of fun on his show. He’s not crazy about politics, but he’s passionate about his opinions.

“When I started on this show, I wanted to make people laugh on their morning commute,” Gabriel explained. “It was my goal to keep people in their car to hear the end of a story. Deliver heart-wrenching stories. I think we do that. We’re interesting, engaging, funny. We take the work seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. It’s a fine line.”

Gabriel said there’s no screaming on his show, no agenda, no attempt to make listeners lean a certain way. “We’ve been number one in  Fresno for the past 19 months, one of the top stations in the state. We must be doing something right. When we’re not doing news, we’re light-hearted.”

Gabriel did his homework before accepting the job.

The story goes like this; Gabriel had been working at another station. They canned him despite his being responsible for raising most of the revenue the show generated. He refused to play the game.

“It was the only job I ever got fired from in radio,” Gabriel said. “The reason–I wasn’t a cheerleader. I told them I’d rather be fired than become a cheerleader for anyone. I told them I wasn’t the right fit. They eventually agreed.”

KMJ program director Blake Taylor was familiar with Gabriels’ work at the previous station.

“I don’t know how he got my phone number, but the same day I was let go, he called me,” Gabriel explained. “Blake told me he was a fan of my work and wanted me to do guest-hosting. After months of guest-hosting, he insisted one day he was going to hire me. Five years later an opening came along and I had two interviews. I turned it down twice. When they offered the job a third time it made me think perhaps they really wanted me.”

If you’re keeping score at home, it was basketball, theater, and then radio. Here’s the theater part. In high school, he met Regina Gordon, who ran the theater department.

“She grabbed my arm in the hallway and asked me to audition,” Gabriel said. “I was open-minded in school. I was never afraid to walk the line between all groups of kids. I didn’t hang out with only one group. It wasn’t like I only hung out with jocks or theater kids. I didn’t give a damn about sitting at a popular table.”

After Regina Gordon’s interest in Gabriel’s possible acting future, he was working at the college radio station. A temporary wall had been put up in between the radio studio and the theater office.

“Someone in the theater office would bang on the wall when they felt I got too loud on my show,” Gabriel explained. “The banging would ruin my show. I got so pissed, I burst into the theater office and was raising hell,” Gabriel said. “The girl who had banged on the wall was apparently impressed with my anger and said I’d be great for a part they were looking to fill.”

A sign? Probably. It gets better. At USC, he studied under John Housman. Yes, the John Houseman.

“He told us stories about working with Orson Welles,” Gabriel explained. “Mr. Houseman was one of the greatest people I’ve ever met, a classical theater guy. I was on campus reading my lines for Barefoot in the Park. It was hot as hell and he was dressed in a tweed jacket and bow tie, just like he would be in the film, The Paper Chase. He saw the script I was reading and seemed dismissive. He grabbed my script and said, ‘commercial crap Mr. Gabriel.’ I’ll never forget, he walked 30 feet, turned and said, ‘Don’t ever forget. Commercial crap pays the bills.”

During Gabriel’s first year of theater studies he was starting to get it. Understand the craft, as thespians say. One day John Houseman took him aside and explained it to him this way:

“He said I was talented, but raw. He said I needed a lot of work but believed I could become a good actor and ‘join him on the boards.”

That’s such a thespian thing to say, but also greatly encouraging. In order to do that, Gabriel would have to give up basketball. He did. 

“I was going to be a walk-on at USC, and I realized the theater season was almost exactly the same duration as the basketball season. One of them had to go.” Basketball bit the dust.

Gabriel takes time to talk to theater groups and tells them a simple truth–if they want to pursue acting, they have to be dedicated. Work as hard as they can. He tells them he’s been in 105 plays in his career, but auditioned for more than a thousand.

He was a stellar athlete, but now his acting talent was gaining recognition. Mitch Albom went to see him in the play he penned, Tuesdays With Morrie in St. Paul, Minnesota. The stage play was adapted from Albom’s hugely successful book of the same name.

“Mitch Albom came to see me in Tuesdays with Morrie in St. Paul,” Gabriel said. “He liked the work and came backstage after the show. He said he’d like me to do another play he’d written. I thought he was bullshitting me, just being nice.When Mitch went back on the air on WJR in Detroit, someone told me he’d said he’d attended the best production of Tuesdays with Morrie he’d ever seen. That was our show.”

The accolades just kept on coming.

Gabriel worked with a director in Minneapolis by the name of Don Stolz. He ran the Old Log Theater, the oldest continuously run theater west of the Mississippi.

“He was a WWII veteran and was a theater major at Northwestern,” Gabriel said. “The guy who was running the Old Log once told him if he ever wanted to take over the theater, to send him a dollar. Stolz sent him a dollar and ran the theater for 50 years. He once told me, ‘You know what my idea of success as an actor is? You get that paycheck every Thursday. You get paid for doing what you love to do. I’ve always seen that as a critical message.”

Months later, Gabriel got a call from Albom. Turns out Albom was being sincere, and he wanted Gabriel to replace a guy in his play, Duck Hunter Shoots Angel.

“It’s a play about a couple of knucklehead brothers in Alabama who go duck hunting and actually wind up shooting down an angel,” Gabriel explained. “After a while, I told Mitch as much as I loved doing the show, I was burnt out. Mitch told me he thought I’d be good in radio, a good talk show host. He essentially pushed me into this business.”

Another door opens for our hero.

Gabriel had what could be called an apprenticeship at KFAN with Doug Westerman. “They didn’t need anyone on-air, but they were talking about starting a news-talk station,” he said. “Doug told me they were going to need someone to screen calls,” Gabriel recalled. Gabriel was apprehensive. “I thought I’d done too much in my career to start that low. Answering phones. I really didn’t know any better though so I asked him if I could have the weekend to think about it. Doug Westerman is a big and burly guy with a quick trigger. “F***that,’ Westerman screamed, ‘I need an answer now.’”

Whether Gabriel was intimidated or recognized a good opportunity when he saw one is only known by Gabriel himself. That’s where he started working with Pat Kessler, a TV political reporting legend in Minneapolis.

“Pat was like an older version of me,” Gabriel said. “He was a  real newshound. Pat was doing some speech on the air and I recognized it as the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V. He paused for a moment so I chimed in with several lines and quickly felt I’d made a huge mistake.

“At the commercial break I thought I’d just blown this new career, and was anticipating Pat yelling at me. Instead, he loved it. He told me to go crazy, to create characters for his show. I did liners for the show as Kim Jong-il. There wasn’t a ceiling. He gave me the latitude to create. He allowed me to grow quickly. I couldn’t have asked for a better pro to learn from. And Doug, he is simply the man who gave me this awesome career. I’m forever grateful to him.”

Throughout his stage career, Gabriel has worked alongside some big names like Julie Harris and James Earl Jones. He said he was incredulous when he learned he’d be working with James Earl Jones.

“The first time I saw him I introduced myself and said, ‘Hello Mr. Jones.’ He said, ‘Call me Jimmy.’ I thought he had to be kidding. How the hell do you call James Earl Jones, ‘Jimmy?’”

With actors like Julie Harris and James Earl Jones, Gabriel recognized how much they cared about and respected their work. For them, it wasn’t about celebrity, it was about the craft, the work. They were so sure of themselves.

Gabriel is the father of two daughters. He was thrilled when one of their school principal’s insisted the students practiced their interpersonal skills.

“He had the students shake hands, make eye contact with each other,” he explained. “I saw it as an attempt to counter the phone culture. It forced the girls to communicate with aunts and uncles and be present. I’m grateful for his efforts.”

While he concedes no child is perfect, including his own, there was one incident he felt should be brought to my attention. When one of his daughters was 15, she sent Gabriel a text message.

“It began, ‘Hey Bruh.’ I wrote back, ‘Hey Bruh? Do you think this is your boyfriend?’ I told her ‘Here’s the thing. As your grandpa would certainly tell you, if you want to make it to 16, don’t ever text me ‘Hey Bruh’ again.”

In yet another Forrest Gump-ian moment, Gabriel worked with Andrew Zimmern, the host of Bizarre Foods on The Travel Channel.

“A lot of people don’t realize he was homeless and a drug addict,” Gabriel said. “He turned his life around and became an award-winning chef. He was a food critic on television and is a good friend to this day. He always made me feel important.”

Gabriel said when Zimmern visited a city, he didn’t want to eat in the heart of the city on the main street. The popular restaurants. Instead, he wanted to eat at the restaurant on the street behind the street. The family-run joint with real recipes.

“It’s kind of like how I approach sports,” Gabriel said. “I don’t care about batting averages, I look at the nuance and depth.”

You know, the sport behind the sport.

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BNM Writers

Are Fast Food Sandwich Stories News or Free Advertising?

The majority of these stories that make air seem to involve chicken but even then, hiding behind the latest “sandwich wars” justification seems a bit thin.

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Scarcely a week goes by where we don’t have an opportunity to watch, read, or listen to a “news” story concerning the latest menu item introduced or returned by a chain restaurant or fast food outlet. Yes, “news” is in quotations because I question just how this type of information finds its way into a legitimate rundown.

I’ve always wondered about this and nobody has ever successfully explained, argued, or come close to justifying this practice is legitimate. It’s advertising without the commercial spot break and I don’t know why we continue to do it.

First, let’s lay down the disclaimer that this is no criticism or finger pointing against any particular food, franchise, corporation, or drive-thru operation or employee. Additionally, no blame or negative evaluation is to be inferred against any news station, outlet, publication or staff member.

Frankly, you’re (we’re) all culpable and equally to blame.

I have sat in the control room and watched as a fast-food restaurant graphic popped up in between the anchor team or over the solo anchor’s shoulder as the prompter rolled out copy I myself would fight not to write.

And yet there it is, Murrow and other award-winning journalists enthusiastically telling us about the new chicken sandwich this place is rolling out next month or the latest two-for-one offer at that place if you go and eat there on a Tuesday.

“It’s their new olive burger…now with more olives!”

Actually, the majority of these stories that make air seem to involve chicken but even then, hiding behind the latest “sandwich wars” justification seems a bit thin.

So, again I ask why?

What makes this information suddenly become part of an article or news copy that costs a business nothing and not an ad campaign they should be paying for?

Seriously, we’re at the point where the lines have been blurred by mayonnaise or special sauce or two kinds of lettuce or several kinds of cheese if we’re really lucky.

I am on a soapbox here but not on either a pedestal nor an altitudinous mare. In other words, I myself have tasted the forbidden fruit. Often that fruit has come in the form of a free breakfast sandwich, flavored coffee, pizza or bacon double cheeseburger that found its way to the newsroom before suddenly becoming a topic discussed on the air.

Hey, I can’t review it if I don’t try it, right?

Well, yes and mostly no. I’m not advocating for it and unless I’m being compensated to extoll the wonder that is the addition of guacamole or coleslaw it’s not getting into my headline set.

On radio, the talkers can do it all they want. They’re about other stuff like fun and music and nobody is calling them out on credibility.

The newsroom is different.

When an individual does something good we go to cover it and a business, large or small should be afforded the same courtesy. So many fast-food chains and restaurant franchises do great things for charities and local people in-need and that is part of what we regularly like to showcase.

We get press releases, sometimes distributed as “news releases” from the food chains letting us know about the new offerings. “We’ve Added Wings!” This is not an ad copy, it’s meant to get in our shows and someone, somewhere decided this is okay and not to be questioned.

I tend not to read those memos that say, “don’t ask”.

In a different direction, there are legitimate incidents, developments and news stories that often must go through a screening process because the business involved is a paying sponsor or advertiser for news programming.

I’ve had and seen accurate and justifiable copy stricken, “massaged” until unidentifiable or outright killed because somebody’s commercial ran during the show or one of the dayparts.

No naiveté here, one understands the concern. However, if a pizza joint is facing a class action sexual harassment suit and good journalism has been practiced do we run from it because they’ve bought air time or worse yet have now added cilantro to the cheesy-bites?

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