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January 21, 2005

Let Rather Resign To Spare His Employees

Ron Rosenbaum wants Dan Rather to step down-- and take blame. And do so in order to spare his employees their firings, which of course is ultimately his fault.

It's a nice thought. Won't happen, of course. "Courage" only goes so far.

But actually the piece contains a more interesting passage. Rosenbaum explains how network news -- and news generally -- has come to so frequently appeal to emotions, usually in a partisan manner:

I witnessed the birth of the "Theory of Moments," which changed the very nature of broadcast news[,] which was devised by then–CBS News President Van Gordon Sauter. Mr. Sauter believed that broadcast news, the evening news, should reconceive itself from an anchor, like Mr. Cronkite, reading descriptions of events accompanied by illustrative film to a broadcast that offered us visually dominated emotional "moments." Moments in a filmed report that wordlessly reflect the emotional depth left out of news-reading reportage. Feelings. That TV news had a mission not just to give us Mr. Cronkite’s "That’s the way it is" but something more, something that only the camera can communicate: "That’s the way it feels."


I think, in fact, it might be worth dwelling on the origin of the Theory of Moments, since it plays an often-unacknowledged role in the way broadcast-news stories are structured: reaching for Moments— moments of feeling, moments of visceral emotion—no matter how manipulative.


It was a time of transition in broadcast news, and "Moments" was just one of the ways in which Mr. Sauter defined the reorientation of the Rather broadcast: "We moved the broadcast out of Washington. We emphasized stories from across the country where we could tell national stories through human experience and human perceptions more than through statements of bureaucrats and politicians. We tried to find the stories which responded to what the aspirations and apprehensions of the American people were. We emphasized storytelling, both verbally and visually."

Ah, "storytelling": It seems to be the new self-congratulatory mantra of TV news. As if storytelling were some purely neutral process, as if, like Moments, storytelling didn’t involve selection, point of view, not to mention the introduction of narrative techniques such as dramatic and emotional structuring. As if there were a "pure storytelling" without context—without the context of what is omitted and why. As if storytelling equals truth. Storytelling often, for instance, offers a false closure that reality never does.

In a way, it was storytelling that got Mr. Rather in trouble: He and his people were so convinced of the "essential truth" of the Bush National Guard–dodging story that they didn’t realize the documents looked too good to be true. Proved their "story" too perfectly.

As the outside report on the Memogate scandal concluded: "Mapes and her team were not focussed on any particular topic, [they] were trying to identify a viable story line regarding the President’s military service."

Good storytelling is almost always a virtue in fiction—but in nonfiction? It requires someone to select what stories are the stories that America will hear every night and why, as well as how those stories will be shaped and how much those values derived from fiction—drama, narrative drive, closure—will affect them. Not to mention emotion, so easy to manipulate.

And, by the way: Jonathan Klein, the new head of CNN, has announced that CNN will rise to ratings prominence by pursuing "storytelling" over, you know, actual news.

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posted by Ace at 01:06 AM

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