Tuesday, March 22, 2011

News Fixed?

Anchorless news. Nothing new here. It used to be called newsreels, those anxious mini-movies that provide most of the documentary footage of World War II and other events of the '30's, '40's, and the 50's. Hard to believe now, but major movie studios ran news gathering organizations to put newsreels together, some with narration provided by personalities of the day such as Noel Thomas (more adventurer than journalist, but he was good at the mic.) but often with an anonymous voiceover in the industrial style.

It would be nice to wax nostalgic for newsreels, for there was a certain craftsmanship that went into them. Editing limited footage, often silent 16mm film, writing the narration to fit, and cutting the prearranged music cues of the studio's house orchestra to suit the story was an art form all its own. Newsreels, a film medium - not electronic, showed us what happened last week, allowing a certain amount of introspection before going on screen. But not much. Printing and distribution lags meant the narrator pretty much got one shot at the VO while the finished negative was still drying. It had it's limitations, but it was best newsgathering technology would allow.

There were other drawbacks. The rushed production meant newsreels often came across as if they were pieced together. And they had to be produced with a general theater-going audience in mind. Twelve to fifteen full minutes of hard, downbeat news would send the ladies to the powder room and the kids into a coma. It was felt to be especially important during wartime to present the lighter side of the news in the newsreels to break the pace. The unfortunate effect being that a squirrel playing a piano would be followed immediately by Hitler. It's small wonder that cartoon shorts of the day began making parodies of newsreels. The send ups of "SNL's" Weekend Update, inspired by "Laugh-In" and "This Is The Week That Was," can thank Tex Avery and Bob Clampett for their humble beginnings. It's only about 40 years from Porky Pig to Jane Curtain.

Which may explain why it's hard for me to watch Houston's KIAH "Newsfix" anchorless news without being reminded of the Whim-Wham Whistling Shark. Lee Abrams - late of the Tribune fiasco and inventor of album rock radio - seems to have taken his inspiration not from the Movietone News or even an episode of "M*A*S*H" but rather from Termite Terrace. Take the available video, add a hyperactive voiceover that sounds like the "TMZ" guy before his morning can of Monster, throw in some campy music and sound effects, and you've got... well, something that represents the current trend in news. It's the events of the day viewed through a heavy haze of 21st century snark. It's journalism by way of the Morning Zoo Crew. Don't give me the facts; give me attitude

But then I wonder if I'm being too old school in my judgement. Maybe this is only a reflection of what we already get as a news product from the so-called legitimate news media. Let's take a look at some of the stories that pass for news on a given day. On a recent day, the station I work for did an entire package on some event - I think they were exercising - at a local nursing home. Now, I don't wish to sound callous, but let me say from a journalistic point of view that, unless it is on fire, nothing newsworthy happens at a nursing home. That reporter's time could have been better spent at a city council meeting, or asking someone at the state level why certain communities in our area experience flooding again and again every time we get heavy rain, or doing research into the predicted economic impact of a high-speed rail system in our state. But no. We have grandma doing yoga. Can we go back to the squirrel playing piano? Is it any wonder America has turned a cynical eye towards the news?

Perhaps the whole idea of having our news gathered, compiled, written, edited, consultant approved, and presented in the grand tradition of radio and newsreels, who drew their role models from Vaudeville and Broadway, has had its day.

Perhaps the best form of anchorless news is receiving an email or a tweet from someone in Cairo saying, "We did it!"