What is it about the TV news business anyway? Why is it so fraught with personnel problems; from the outsized number of #MeToo episodes, to egomaniacal boneheadedness, to egregious lapses in journalistic decision-making? And then there’s just plain stupidity.
I found myself asking these questions after watching another media dumpster fire, in this case Megyn Kelly saying that she didn’t see a problem with dressing in blackface for Halloween.
Kelly, in case you didn’t know, has a show on NBC (or maybe had a show; NPR recently reported that she will not return to the show), a network which has seen more than its fair share of issues. To be clear, NBC’s wounds are self-inflicted, shocking and no small thing. The exact same thing can be said about CBS and, of course, Fox.
Here’s a very abbreviated summary:
–FOX: The network has been accused of sexual harassment and racial discrimination by numerous employees and paid tens of millions in legal settlements. The late Roger Ailes, plus Bill O’Reilly and Eric Bolling and others were fired after numerous accusations. Journalistic ethical issues? Too numerous to count here.
–CBS: Leaving aside CEO Les Moonves who was forced out after allegations he sexually harassed multiple women (I say leaving aside because he’s not part of the news business per se), you have Charlie Rose fired for sexual harassment, as well as “60 Minutes” head Jeff Fager for violating company policy and maybe more to come. The company says it has hired “two outside law firms to investigate the allegations against Moonves, as well as other reports of sexual harassment and an inappropriate culture for women throughout CBS and the CBS News division.”
–NBC: Start with Matt Lauer’s page one dismissal for sexual harassment. Then there’s passing on reporting and releasing the “Access Hollywood” tape of Donald Trump, as well as passing on Ronan Farrow’s story on Harvey Weinstein which was later published by the New Yorker and won a Pulitzer Prize. Add to that NBC News chairman Andy Lack hiring Megyn Kelly for a reported $69 million contract. Her show has performed poorly and she has made a number of gaffes, including when she bashed Jane Fonda, and her interview of shameless provocateur Alex Jones. “She mostly succeeded at Fox because she was between two very popular shows,” says a former Fox News executive. “The amount of money she was paid [by NBC] is insane.”
The sins here? The crazy money NBC reportedly paid Kelly and her cluelessness, which had been previously on display at Fox (when she insisted Santa is white, for instance). Both speak to a culture divorced from reality.
Of the big four networks, only ABC has mostly avoided bad behavior and missteps—which is perhaps curious because ABC has been the most notorious for political infighting. Maybe all that internecine warfare kept people out of real trouble. That and the fact that ABC does mostly fluffy news—best pie recipes for Thanksgiving anyone?—maybe make it easier to avoid trouble. (On the other hand, remember that Megyn Kelly’s latest predicament concerned Halloween of all things.)
To be clear, I take zero pleasure in calling out the TV news business. I’m a member of the Fourth Estate, of course, and I’ve either worked for or appeared on all the aforementioned networks.
Even trickier is criticizing the media at a time when a bomb is sent to CNN and journalists are being murdered all over the globe. President Trump has given license to this assault on the media with his self-serving and immoral “fake news” fiction and his phony “enemy of the people” narrative. Yes, President Trump, you are to a degree personally responsible.
None of that, though, mitigates bad behavior by individuals at these companies. In fact, the current environment makes the sins of the TV newsers that much worse because it provides ammunition to Trump and his troll army. I understand that a news organization can have bad people doing bad things and still mostly do great journalism. But many Americans don’t see that. And more to the point, why can’t TV news organizations clean up their act?
‘Look the other way at ethical lapses’
Which leads me to back to my original question: What is it about the TV news business anyway?
“TV news is built around strong characters who make enormous amounts of money and wield unbelievable power. They can make or break people,” says a former network head. “If Les Moonves or Roger Ailes thought you deserve a show, you get a show and that’s a path to riches and fame. A lot of these guys are jerks too, and not just jerks with women. So power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Remember, too, that these powerful people in TV news are surrounded by sycophants and enablers with very little accountability. “I can’t believe the way the men at TV networks talk about women’s looks and their bodies,” says one insider. “Still.” And why and how do these men get away with it? Because money trumps ethics and professional behavior, until the lapses in the latter prove untenable.
“When you work in TV news they call on-camera people ‘talent.’ They don’t call reporters that at the Washington Post,” says Kyle Pope, editor-in-chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review. “The pay, the cars and the culture produce a climate where it’s more about the individuals. When you have a marquee talent like Bill O’Reilly, it’s much more tempting to look the other way with ethical lapses.”
Until you can’t.
Andy Serwer is editor-in-chief of Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter @serwer
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