Posts tagged ‘media’
I picked up the book Murdoch (1993) by William Shawcross in the cheapie bin at Lifeline book sale in January. The book is an unauthorised biography and does not hold back criticism though Shawcross is recently on the record saying Murdoch saved journalism, at least in the UK. The front cover of my copy of his 1993 book is torn – an eye is scratched out of the subject’s portrait on the front cover. While there were those protesting against him outside the IPA dinner in Melbourne last week that might have deliberately torn it, it looked more like a label had been removed. I didn’t hold much hope I’d find a tattered 600-page, 20-year-old volume on Rupert Murdoch interesting, so it lay unread for several months under a pile of other books.
By coincidence it filtered back to the top of the pile as the media baron made a rare return to his native land last week. As he appeared at the Melbourne gig, he was greeted by a protester wearing a mask of Murdoch as the devil. The image of Murdoch as Satan won’t bother a Catholic/wee free 82-year-old whose gods are money and power but the protester was not the first nor last to imagine him as evil incarnate.
Forbes ranks Murdoch as only the 91st wealthiest person in the world though the 26th most powerful person. In this category Forbes tucks him in one spot ahead of Jeff Bezos of Amazon and one behind Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. Yet it hard to imagine similar hatred against Bezos or Zuckerberg. Despite a silver spoon upbringing, Murdoch has always been an outsider. He is also a different era to the two Americans that have built international empires in his wake and his modus operandi has always been blatantly ‘my way or the highway’.
Only 200 pages in, Shawcross’s book has a gripping read following Murdoch’s footsteps, from out of the giant shadow of his father Keith and into the world of international communications. Murdoch snr was one of the most important people in Australia in the first half of the 20th century. In 1915 young Keith’s reports from Turkey to the Australian Prime Minister precipitated the end of the Gallipoli campaign. He grew as an editor in the 1920s under the tutelage of British press baron Viscount Northcliffe, Alfred Harmsworth.
Harmsworth showed Murdoch snr the importance of keeping a paper lively, a virtue Keith passed on to Rupert. Keith Murdoch was a hugely influential managing editor but at his death in 1952 aged 63 he only owned two newspapers: the Adelaide News and the Brisbane Courier-Mail. The titles passed to his only son. Young Rupert was still at Oxford University but already well mentored in the successful ways of newspapers by Harmsworth through his father: explain, simplify, clarify.
His mother Dame Elizabeth was immensely powerful in her own way and it was the widow’s recommendation they should sell the Courier-Mail when the Herald and Weekly Times came calling. Still overseas, Rupert acquiesced but was furious and was determined to build up what was left of his inheritance quickly. The Adelaide News was the minor paper in town compared to the Advertiser. But Murdoch’s inexhaustible energy pumped it up.
Never with much time for “elites”, Murdoch delighted in stoking up the News’s anti-authoritarian voice. But in conservative Adelaide, the News never strayed too far from accepted opinions. Murdoch was left-wing at Oxford and had a strong interest in Communism and a bust of Lenin in his dorm room. But once established as a newspaper owner, instinctive love of the ways of capitalism grabbed him by the throat. Even more than his managing editor father, Rupert became obsessed by the bottom line. He learned quickly how to pick winning politicians and then back them all the way.
Murdoch was more than just an astute proprietor; he had great knowledge of all area of his business. Often he and his senior managers would put out the paper when journalists went on strike. He impressed the printers in London when he climbed onto a machine and found the bar that would fold the pages to ensure the presses could run in tabloid format. Murdoch had inexhaustible energy and would run his business by telephone, constantly looking for deals to expand his footprint. His specialty was purchasing loss-making operations and turning them around.
He quickly outgrew Adelaide and brought his racy tabloid format to Perth before breaking into the Sydney market. Fairfax’s boss Rupert “Rags” Henderson preferred to sell a down-at-heels Mirror to Murdoch in 1960 ahead of more established rivals (to the chagrin of his Fairfax board). Murdoch seized the chance to buy in to Australian’s premier market-place. He could not immediately break into Sydney television but his Adelaide station was making plenty of money.
In the late 1960s, Murdoch was already looking toward the UK and USA. He bought the News of the World after a protracted battle with Robert Maxwell and later The Sun. The News of the Screws was already a product of the gutter before Murdoch bought it, but the Dirty Digger (as the unforgiving British establishment called him) took it that step further. While his papers were successful, he and especially his second wife Anna Torv, hated London. Anna was the intended victim of a kidnapping and the wife of an employee died in her stead. They were more anxious than ever to get a foothold in the US.
Murdoch started with two papers in San Antonio, Texas. The papers performed solidly though Texans were slow to appreciate Murdoch’s formula for success: exaggerated headlines, a lively style and infatuation with sex and crime. But it worked better once he got his foothold into New York through The Post, the third paper in the US’s biggest city behind the News and the Times. But the summer of 1977 and the long-running Son of Sam saga, gave Murdoch the chance to dominate news. The powers-that-be and his rivals detested Murdoch’s hyped story-at-all-costs but he couldn’t care less. What did they know, they were just elitists or “pipe smoking journalist academics” and he was giving the people what they wanted. Murdoch’s power in his native land grew as his international interests expanded. He could even afford a loss-leader: The Australian.
Founded in 1964, the Australian was unique as a national paper in a country with deep metropolitan divisions. Its early years quickly established itself as a serious force and under editor Adrian Deamer an important part of the national political conversation. But Deamer was too independent for Murdoch. Deamer was good (and Murdoch grouchily acknowledged him as the paper’s best editor 20 years later), but he was too far removed from Murdoch’s growing conservatism and was sacked. Murdoch wanted editors who knew how to implement his formula, not set a path for social revolution.
Though he supported Whitlam in 1972, Murdoch was actively plotting against him three years later. Malcolm Fraser was the beneficiary (just as New York Mayor Ed Koch was two years later) of Murdoch political largesse. As a US watcher of that Koch election put it, “When the New York Times gives its support you’ll be lucky to get an editorial but when Murdoch supports you, you get the whole paper”.
Murdoch was gaining the reputation of a king-maker, something that prospective kings would quickly learn to take into account in their dealings with him. Australia is now small potatoes in Murdoch’s global reach but he remains the dominant figure in the local landscape. The Greens may call Murdoch’s News Ltd hate media, but Prime Minister-in-waiting Tony Abbott was in the IPA audience last week listening to the Sun King. In 2011, former News Ltd editor Bruce Guthrie suggested Murdoch has let it be known within his organisation that Australia needed a change of government and his editors were simply doing his bidding. Guthrie had a spectacular falling out with Murdoch and is likely biased but he makes a good point about the extent of his company’s power: “Given News controls about 70 per cent of Australian newspapers, which, in turn, feed talkback radio and evening news bulletins, that’s a fight most politicians want to avoid.”
At the IPA dinner, Abbott called Murdoch ”probably the Australian who has most shaped the world”. Abbott was on less firmer ground when he said Murdoch’s opinionated but broad-minded publications had “borne his ideals but never his fingerprints”. “He’s influenced them but he’s never dictated to them”, Abbott claimed. The point is, over the years Murdoch hasn’t had to dictate to his editors. With a few courageous exceptions like Deamer and Guthrie aside, most of them have known exactly what to do to keep their job.
Our media sent themselves hurtling further towards irrelevance this week with an exaggerated response to modest proposals to strengthen an under-regulated industry. The reaction followed last week’s announcement by Communications Minister Stephen Conroy on the Government’s response to the Convergence Review and Finkelstein Inquiry. The Convergence Review was about policy and regulatory frameworks in a converged media and communications landscape while Finkelstein examined media codes of practice in the Internet era.
Conroy proposed five reforms to deal with issues raised in both inquiries. They were: a beefed-up press standards model for print and online news media, the introduction of a Public Interest Test for mergers and acquisitions policed for diversity by a Public Interest Media Advocate (PIMA), upgrading the ABC and SBS charters for online and digital activities, allocating the sixth free-to-air channel to community television and offering a rebate for more Australian content.
Conroy proposed three other reforms to be sent to parliamentary committee: The abolition of the 75% local reach rule, on-air reporting of ACMA regulation breaches and whether ACMA should consider news program supply agreements when determining if someone is in control of a commercial television broadcasting service.
University professor and media policy commentator Terry Flew calls the reforms low key and a “ very cautious, and in many ways piecemeal” response to the two inquiries. “It has probably not modernised media laws sufficiently to ‘tackle the challenges of the future’, although it does make some overdue changes to existing law,” Flew said.
But the Australian media that will be subject to the change saw it very differently. For them, the five proposals were nothing less than an assault on freedom of speech. The Sydney Telegraph put Conroy in a rogues gallery of dictators likening him to Stalin, Mao, Castro, Kim, Mugabe and Ahmadinejad. News Ltd group editorial director Campbell Reid defended the Telegraph’s chutzpah as a “provocative tabloid presentation of an incredibly provocative act by a Government.” The Telegraph later issued an “apology” for printing a picture of Conroy dressed as Stalin. The apology was to Stalin who although “a despicable and evil tyrant who was responsible for the death of many millions,” he at least was “upfront” in his efforts to control the media.
This notion of control was picked up by many of the Tele’s News stablemates. Without a scrap of evidence, the Herald Sun turned Conroy’s package into “a deplorable assault on freedom of speech.” This glossed over the assaults on freedom of speech practiced by the company that owns half the Australian media landscape.
James Paterson expressed the view of his bosses at The Australian to reveal the laws’ real purpose: to punish and rein in the federal government’s critics in the media. News Ltd boss Kim Williams said the proposals were “government sanctioned journalism” and “dangerous policy” while the PIMA would be an “unnecessary novel creation”. Fairfax boss Greg Hyland was more measured but still saw the PIMA as a bridge too far.
No wonder Conroy took to the airwaves to describe Williams’ reaction as “hysterical”. He quoted at length from both inquiries from submissions which went to the heart of News Ltd’s huge penetration in the Australian market – something no-one from News was willing to admit was an issue. Conroy admitted the public interest test was contentious but said News and Fairfax had 86% of the market, “one of the most concentrated media sectors in the world.”
However in many respects the battle is irrelevant. Conroy has joined the bald Williams in fighting over a comb. Only a few media commentators like Alan Kohler understood the pointlessness of the struggle. He says regulating for diversity and complaint handling is irrelevant and unnecessary in a world that is quickly moving past the monoliths of print and broadcasting.
“Rebuilding trust with customers and keeping it is the greatest of all the challenges facing the media in the digital age, and dealing properly with complaints is an important part of doing that,” Kohler said. “The pity of it is that the PIMA and the complaints handling body will probably just be another set of slow, clanking bureaucracies that serve only to highlight the contempt that much of the media have for their customers.”
The latest in a long line of Aussie hoaxes was perpetrated to great effect this week though its creator might yet pay a penalty of ten years and half a million bucks. Anti-coal activist Jonathan Moylan is in the wars for putting out a press release in the name of ANZ Bank on Tuesday. The release said the bank was divesting its $1.2b loan to Whitehaven Coal for its Maules Creek Coal Project. It was an important announcement. In Whitehaven’s own words, Maules Creek is “one of only a few remaining tier 1 undeveloped coal assets in Australia. It is also one of the largest coal deposits in Australia with 362 Mt of recoverable reserves.”
Before it could be exposed as a hoax, it triggered a stock market collapse for the coal company. While almost all of the losses were subsequently recovered before the day was out, Moylan’s actions raises serious political as well as ethical and legal issues. Using dubious means, he focussed attention on the important question about whether we should be investing in major coal projects in a time when fossil fuel emission is the biggest issue we face as a species.Maules Creek is in the heart of the rich Gunnedah Basin in NSW. That state and Queensland produce 97 percent of Australia’s black coal. It is an industry in decline with Australia producing 405 million tonnes of raw black coal in 2010-11 down from 471 Mt. in 2009-10. Yet Australia remains the world’s fourth largest coal producer and the world’s leading exporter with markets in Japan, South Korea, China, India and Europe. Coal fired generators are leading contributors (20 percent) to a greenhouse effect as heavy-grade emitters of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.
The Centre for Climate and Energy Solutions acknowledges fixing the coal issue will be difficult. Coal is cheap, is important for meeting energy needs in the developing countries, and has good lobby groups in countries like the US, which is the “Saudi Arabia of coal.” Coal-fired generators could still play a role if carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology ever takes off, possibly 10-15 years away. There would also be a need for a carbon market, priced at around $30 a ton of CO2 and a way of retrofitting CCS into existing technology. An ANZ that truly considered its customers interests, would ensure such boxes were being ticked. But it has no plans to do so and there is no scrutiny of whether such interests are considered.
Instead, the argument focussed on Moylan with those dividing into two sides on whether his hoax ends justified the means. Those that supported him like Bob Brown identified Moylan’s action as a necessary civil disobedience that brought out in the open ANZ’s investment in coal. That brought out the coalition’s Eric Abetz saying the ends did not justify the means. He turned it into an attack on Lee Rhiannon and the Greens’ “extreme political tendencies.”
Whoever is right, there is one thing for certain – Moylan planned his attack well. He put together a fake ANZ press template, a website and dummy email inbox online. The press release was a remarkable use of managerial language to frame an argument that would be quite unusual and brave in an Australian business context. Moylan used the voice of ANZ Corporate Communications to announce the bank would not support the project. Toby Kent, “Group head of corporate sustainability” was quoted to say the company wouldn’t invest in coal projects that cause “significant dislocation of farmers, unacceptable damage to the environment, or social conflict.” The decision was made after “a careful analysis of reputational risks and analysis of the returns on this mine in the current climate of high volatility in the coal export market.” The released concluded with the statement ANZ was undertaking “a review of coal and gas investments on productive agricultural lands and areas of high biodiversity.”
Moylan’s fake ANZ release was quickly picked up by AAP Newswire who failed to conduct any of the basic identity checks that would have exposed the hoax. At the bottom of the emails are phone numbers for Toby Kent and Joanne McCulloch “Media Relations Advisor” which if anyone had bothering phoning would have quickly exposed this email as a hoax. Either that or a quick check of ANZ’s database of media releases would have been enough to dispel, or at least doubt, the information.
Instead AAP swallowed the news whole and provided it directly to the markets. When traders in the Australian Stock Exchange saw the newswires shortly after midday Tuesday, they went ballistic. Whitehaven bore the brunt as 85% owners of Maules Creek Coal. Maules Creek is 18km north-east of Boggabri on the Kamilaroi Highway between Narrabri and Gunndah. It is also just 16km from the railway line servicing the coal terminals at the Port of Newcastle, 360km to the south-east. Maules Creek’s current resources are expected to support a large open cut mining operation for 30 years at an average saleable coal production rate of 10.8 million tonnes per annum (Mtpa). Subject to approvals, the first coal production will commence in mid 2013, with saleable production exceeding 10Mtpa from 2016 onwards.
But it was a dead duck without ANZ’s investment, and within minutes Whitehaven shares plunged almost 10 percent from $3.52 to $3.21. Whitehaven Coal lost more than $276 million in market value. It capped off a bad year for the company since it merged with Nathan Tinkler’s Aston last April giving him 19.4 percent ownership. The share price has lost over half its value since then with CEO Tony Haggarty and the board blaming it on uncertainty due to Tinkler’s financial woes - they want him to divest to institutions. Tinkler was quick to return fire on Haggarty and the board saying he wanted to increase his holding not decrease it.
That plan may be in tatters after Tuesday. The price did not recover until the real ANZ responded with a media release (pdf) entitled “Fraudulent media release regarding Whitehaven Coal”. This release (which looked remarkably like the fraudulent one) said ANZ remained “fully supportive of Whitehaven Coal.”
At the end of trading, Whitehaven was just 2c down on the day reflecting the fact there were other issues with the project. The damage done to Tinkler, was variously estimated to be anywhere between $50m and $180m (assuming it wasn’t him who picked up the shares when they were on the rebound).
Whatever the damage to Tinkler or Whitehaven, Moylan will suffer significant collateral damage. There is a strong prima facie case his actions were illegal according to Section 1041E of the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth). That act states it is an offence if a person makes a knowingly false statement that is likely to make people dispose of shares. The maximum jail term for individuals is 10 years, with fines of up to $495,000. Organisations face fines of up to $4.6 million.
The Australian Securities Investment Commission said it would be investigating whether there had been a breach of Corporations Act rules on false or misleading statements. According to dean of law at the University of Western Sydney Michael Adams the legislation that deals with corporate fraud imposes a high penalty on false or misleading statements about traded securities on the ASX. Adams believes a successful prosecution will hang on the difference between a public nuisance and civil disobedience. “A protest normally provides publicity for a cause and brings the matter to the general public’s attention, but causes little harm to the community,” Adams said. “A fraud – and in particular one that impacts on the share market – has huge consequences”.
Research fellow on ethics Edward Spence picked up on Abetz’s argument about the ends and the means. Spence said Moylan’s ethical failings were harmful to the “integrity of the digital informational environment”. This is the environment whose trustworthiness, Spence said “we all rely on to conduct our legitimate informational transactions.” We are not only biological beings, he said but also and increasingly informational beings. “When the informational environment is harmed we are also harmed.”
Spence may be exaggerating the harm here as it ignores the fact that checks and balances such as AAP did not do its job properly. Nor did any of the rest of the media use the hoax to expose ANZ’s dealings with the coal industry. Why didn’t anyone ask the bank if they would do “a review of coal and gas investments on productive agricultural lands and areas of high biodiversity”.Why is it acceptable for the bank to continue to invest in projects that cause “significant dislocation of farmers, unacceptable damage to the environment, or social conflict?”
However the journalists there were not interested in the good news, they were more interested in a bad news change that came in on January 1. This change was a follow on from a change John Howard made in 2006 which was to end the supporting parent allowance when the child turned eight. Howard exempted those already receiving the parenting payment before July 2006 who were able to keep it until their youngest turned 16. This meant there would be exemptions until 2014. However the Gillard Government has now ended that immediately, saving $728 million over four years.
This change shifts 80,000 single parents from the parenting payment to the Newstart allowance when their youngest child turns eight. Some parents will be up to $110 a week worse off with the new arrangements and it was this issue that journalists turned to when one asked Macklin if she could live on the dole on $246 a week. Macklin could have done many things at this point, including refusing to answer on the grounds it was a very stupid question. Fellow Minister Tanya Plibersekwould later answer the question “properly” by saying “I don’t think anyone thinks it’s easy.”
But no such luck for Macklin, who gave the worst possible answer. “Yes I could”. Macklin then made matters worse by omitting her answer from the transcript issued by her office. Macklin tried to push on by telling journalists they had simply applied existing rules to people who had on the payment since 2006. “What’s important for people who are unemployed is that we do everything possible to do everything we can to help people get into work and that’s what we’ll be doing with these single parents as well,” she said.
But it was too late. The damage was done by the killer quote. TV cameras captured that answer which immediately provided the headline for broadcast and print media and the subsequent non-appearance in the transcript merely fuelled speculation of a cover-up. Susie O’Brien in the Herald Sun went so far as to call it “obscene”. Australian Council of Social Service chief executive Cassandra Goldie also took Macklin to task, but ridiculed calls for the minister to try surviving on the Newstart allowance. “You can’t replicate that experience if you are a senior member of government,” she said.
Goldie’s comment came as Greens’ leader Adam Bandt repeated tragedy as farce by announcing he would live on the $246 allowance for one week, challenging Macklin to do the same. “Once you take into account your rent your bills, your food, there’s not much change left over from $35 a day,” he told reporters in Melbourne, but didn’t elaborate how much of his modern lifestyle and well-tailored suits would be pushed to one side to make ends meet in that week.
Bandt’s stunt had little to do with the Newstart Allowance and everything to do with his struggle to retain Melbourne at the next election. But the whole affair does highlight issues with the low benefit rate when there are systemic problems of under-employment Australia has not solved. While the current rate of unemployment is low at 5.2 per cent by historic and international standards there is a high degree of volatility within this rate. In March 2012 the unemployment rate in Tasmania was 7.0 per cent, nearly twice the 3.7 per cent rate in the Northern Territory. Similarly, in March 2012 the unemployment rate for those aged 15-19 is 18 per cent, more than three times the national average.
There are “dole cheats” but for the vast majority, the dole queue remains a humiliating experience for most people. Economist John Quiggan said that instead of completing the Howard agenda, the Gillard government ought to be looking at increasing the real value of benefits, “allowing the unemployed to share in some of the growth in incomes for the community as a whole”. Even thinking about the absurdity of living on $246 a week, reminds us that many people have to do exactly that and some parents of those aged eight and over will now pay the price for the Government’s budget balance obsession.
Meanwhile Prime Minister Julia Gillard preferred to focus on solving the inequities of employment in the “patchwork economy” rather than increasing dole payments. “Some today see a problem, they offer blame”, Gillard told the Sydney Institute last year. “I see a person, a person who can work. I offer only opportunity, I ask only responsibility in return.” If Gillard gets the public space to tackle that agenda, she might yet be grateful for Macklin’s mistake.
In an interview that could easily have passed for Fox talking to Murdoch, the Newsweek Daily Beast Company sat down with its editor-and-chief and founder Tina Brown to discuss the end of print at the venerable magazine Newsweek. Newsweek fell into the hands of Brown and Beast two years ago but have been unable to resist sliding circulation and rising costs. The last print edition will be December 31.
Brown was on “Newsbeast” this week seated next to the company’s new CEO Baba Shetty as they dissected the reasons why Newsweek was shedding staff and its print publication. The theme of Brown’s remarks was the need for protection, both of journalists and content. Senior columnist John Avlon was all suited up as he lollypopped his bosses with the opening question phrased as a statement: “So we are taking the bull by the horns, going all digital…”
“We are,” replied Brown. “We must embrace the future.” Brown said Newsweek was 80 years old and it was time to start looking at the next 80 years.
Brown, like many editors before her, conceded defeat for print. The industry has reached a tipping point and it was no longer a case if but when. And “when” said Brown, might as well be “now”.
“We decided to take away the when and…embrace it, be ready for it.”
Avlon turned the discussion to Shetty with management speak.
“Being proactive not reactive is always a good idea…”
“Yes,” replied Shetty, who unlike Avlon, was dressed down with a jumper and shirt.
The new CEO, a “brand guru”, said Newsweek was a great brand and a powerful media icon but was encumbered by “the form factor” and its economics. Take away issues of physical printing distribution and circulation, Shetty said, by porting the core product to digital would be “incredibly liberating”.
Consumers were moving to digital and advertisers would want to be there to grab these audiences.
Tablet devices, web usage for news, and social news meant it made perfect sense for Newsweek to now go “completely native on digital”.
Brown gave an economic rationale to back it up. She said it cost Newsweek $42m a year to print, manufacture and distribute before you’ve even paid one writer or one intern.
“That’s an enormous albatross,” Brown said.
“We thought it was more important to protect the journalists, the contents, the photographers, the ideas.”
Brown said she wanted a digital Newsweek to focus on the marketplace of ideas.
But how then, would it be different to the Daily Beast, also entirely online, asked Avlon.
Shetty stepped in to say they were “incredibly complementary”.
In four years, the Beast had gone from a start-up to a site with 15 million visitors a month, up a 70 percent since 2011, a huge spike in readership and engagement.
Many were “lean forward, participatory, multiple visits a day,” Shetty said. “The Daily Beast is indispensable many people’s information diet.”
A healthy portion of this traffic was generated each week by Newsweek’s strong original journalism. Newsweek, said Shetty, “a step removed”, offering more considered, thoughtful, long-form journalism.
Brown said the the Daily Beast and Newsweek spoke to “the same reader in different moods”. The Daily Beast offered news that was “hot and happening” while Newsweek appealed to the ipad reader on the train home. But, she said, they offered the same sensibility: reflection, context and “a thorough look at what was happening in the world”.
Avlon steered the conversation to the new brand: Newsweek Global. CEO Shetty called it a terrific new perspective and described who the product would appeal to: “The mobile, highly informed, highly engaged, person very aware of what is happening over the globe.”
He said removing legacy print, meant Newsweek could re-interpret what it could be in pure digital form. Brown said the Daily Beast now appealed to a similar global reader who lived in India, London or Brazil.
Brown said one of the focuses was on “really powerful live events” including ones they had organised like Women in the World. which has an associated foundation which last week launched a campaign for education of girls in Pakistan with Angelina Jolie, hot on the heels of the shooting of 14-year-old education campaigner Malala Yousafzai.
All aspects of the company, said Brown were “now playing together” but print was the anomaly. Getting rid of it went with “enormous regret” as some “incredible brilliant talent” would be leaving the company but it was “the right decision for the company.” Avlon concluded that in terms of content that was “good news for journalists” and an exciting new opportunity” before nodding to the camera to end the interview.
The Daily Beast article that went with the video, gave some statistics to back up the “tipping point” :
There are now 70m tablet users in the US, up from 13m in two years. A further explosion of use is likely, especially as two in five Americans get their news online, a number that is also growing.
“Exiting print is an extremely difficult moment for all of us who love the romance of print and the unique weekly camaraderie of those hectic hours before the close on Friday night,” the article concluded. “But as we head for the 80th anniversary of Newsweek next year we must sustain the journalism that gives the magazine its purpose—and embrace the all-digital future.”
Shep Smith was the on air man providing explanation and context for Fox News viewers in the god voice as the camera rolled when one of his real-life actors went berserk at the end of the chase. Once out of his car, the man staggered around like a hunted deer in the spotlights fleeing from police and the incessant roar of the helicopter above. This might have been the moment to end live coverage but instead the camera kept rolling and Smith struggled with the interpretation for viewers at home. “I would just- he is looking rather erratic, isn’t he?,” said Smith sounding less godlike by the second.
While Smith waited for re-assurance from somewhere, he continued the broadcast with filled pauses of ums and dunnos and oh mys. Meanwhile the cornered man on screen was increasingly out of options. “Well, it looks like he’s a little disoriented or something…” Smith suggested. Desperate to re-assure viewers this could never happen to them, he ascribed a motivation: “it’s always possible he could be on something.” While Smith invented the news, the cameras rolled on.
Utterly helpless and hopeless, the man reached for a gun and killed himself. After a second, the video jerks back to the studio. There is the strange sight of Smith issuing repeated cries “get off” for six seconds. Each call is more urgent than the last, until he shouts one final “GET OFF IT”. He turns away from the camera before they finally break for an ad claiming to be for “mesothelioma families” – Call Now 1-800-444-Meso – but is actually for lawyers.
When he returned Smith didn’t apologise for the fake ad but there was extraordinary grovelling for airing the suicide footage. “We’ve got some explaining to do,” began Smith. With the “we” Smith spread the blame across the organisation. “While we were taking that car chase and showing it to you live, when the guy pulled out of the vehicle, they went on five second delay. So that’s why I didn’t talk for about ten seconds,” he said. “We created a five second delay as if you were to bleep back your DVR five seconds, that’s what we did with the picture we were showing you. So that if we would see in the studio five seconds before you did, so that if anything went horribly wrong, we’d be able to cut away from it without subjecting you it.” Smith paused before adding “And we really messed up.”
That they were continuing to mess it up was shown in the strange editing error that followed immediately afterwards (36 seconds into the video) that makes a double-voiced Shep say “I am all very sorry”. Shep said the footage “didn’t belong on TV” but he didn’t explain why. Instead he worried about the internal systems that failed to keep the content out. “We took every precaution, we knew how to keep that from being on TV,” he said. “And I personally apologise to you that is what happened. “
Looking to the side rather than direct into the camera, Shep continued: “Sometimes we see a lot of things we don’t let get to you, because it is not time appropriate, it’s insensitive, it’s just wrong. “ He turned back to face the camera. “And that was wrong. And that won’t happen again on my watch and I’m sorry,” he said. “We’ll update you on that guy and how that went down tonight on the Fox Report.” Smith repeated he was sorry and then set up his voice for the next story: “Now, the attack on…” It is 24 hour news after all and the show must go on.
Despite Smith’s hopes for “his watch”, a lot of people weren’t going to wait for the Fox report to see “how it went down.” Smith’s patriachal protection of his audience might have worked 10 years ago but not any more. He must have known that someone would grab the footage and it would go viral. Gawker were quick off the mark publishing a link (with caution) to the original footage via Buzzfeed and also to Smith’s on air apology.
The first Gawker commenter picks up an obvious problem: “I’m confused. If they went to 10 delay, how did the suicide end up on screen anyway? I don’t understand Shep’s explanation,” Scout’s Honour said. It was five seconds not ten, but Scout’s point holds up. Wrapped up in his godlike role as narrator, Shep overplayed his hand and took six full second after the death to realise they had “gone too far”. In panic, he takes another five seconds to realise someone has pressed “dump” button out of the broadcast. So we get the strangeness of viewers watching him shouting at some-one to get rid of the delayed footage.
It was a category error on several levels that asked many questions of Fox in particular and 24 hour news in general. Car chases are popular time sinks for the networks and easy to follow once you’ve invested in a helicopter. While one such chase unfolded on air in 2009, Smith quipped on air about the energiser bunny and how he had enjoyed this type of entertainment for many years. So after Buzzfeed, Gawker and others quickly pounced on the mistake, it was surprising to hear several journalists blame the messenger. The Columbia Journalism Review tweeted, “Who’s worse? @FoxNews for airing the suicide, or @BuzzFeed for re-posting the video just in case you missed it the first time?” while Reuters social media editor Anthony De Rosa asked “Why is Buzzfeed sharing a suicide video?”
Al Tomkins in Poynter answered both questions when he picked up on the hypocrisy of the apology. Tomkins wanted to know the guidelines for broadcasting chases. “Are you prepared to air the worst possible outcome that could result from this unfolding story?” he asked the broadcasters. “What outcomes are you not willing to air? Why? How do you know the worst possible outcome will not occur?” It is unlikely any broadcaster has asked themselves too deeply on this or about Tomkins other concerns about car chase coverage: motivations, truth, consequences, tone, safety nets, training and time of day. Broadcasters show them for the same reason they show the 1-800-444-Meso ads: they make money.
Tompkins said he was not an absolutist and there are situations when chase coverage is useful for people near the scene. But his unspoken argument was that they served mostly commercial ends. “These are humans involved, struggling with their lives as we transform them into “stories,” he said. “They are humans, they are not ratings points.” But as long as there are ratings points, we will have to put up with the occasional pious homily about live deaths.