Broken News: Journalism in Crisis
Chicago Television Producer Examines Four Decades of Troubling Media Issues, Trends
“True journalists are not the enemies of the people, but the guardians of democracy.” This is one of the key messages of Chicago television journalist Roy Santoro’s new book, Broken News: Journalism in Crisis. It’s Santoro’s labor of love, a book that draws upon his 40 years in broadcasting and is designed to remind the American public how important a free and independent media is to democracy.
“The public needs to know there are journalists working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year in some of the most dangerous places on Earth to bring you the news and information you need,” Santoro explains. “They work long into the night digging through documents, making phone calls, knocking on doors and following the truth wherever it leads to bring you the news of the day. Many do it for little pay; others face enormous budget and time constraints. They do it because they are the Fourth Estate, the invisible branch of government created in the Constitution to watch over politicians, powerful business leaders and others. Without them citizens live in the darkness.”
Santoro continues, “The news that was once put together by 100 people at many television stations is now done by half that number. Many of the best and brightest in the industry are leaving because of low pay, brutal hours and the endless stress. The economic model that once supported broadcast news, newspapers and even radio has changed dramatically. The advertising dollars that once supported those journalistic endeavors have now gone to social media, leading to massive budget cuts in all forms of news.”
The emergence of social media aside, Santoro believes the growing cultural divide in the United States and other parts of the world is causing serious damage to the news and information universe. Charges of “fake news,” high profile mistakes and other issues have put the news media in a perilous position, he believes. “The fight for ratings and survival has sometimes forced some news organizations to do things that are irresponsible or foolish. More and more Americans now shop around for their news, choosing liberal outlets or conservative outlets, to confirm their beliefs. And the growing number of choices for news sometimes makes it more difficult to get the truth. For that reason, everyone must now become a more discerning news viewer. You must pay attention, use multiple sources to get your news, and listen to opinions that may not always agree with your own.”
Below, The Reporters Inc. is pleased to present three exclusive excerpts from Broken News: Journalism in Crisis.
FAKE NEWS, RUSSIAN TROLLS, AND THE CLUELESS
Many people think the term “fake news” is actually something new, created in the days since Donald Trump was elected president. Trump has accused the news media of making up stories about him and twisting the truth. The media has fired right back, challenging the president at every turn. The funny thing is, “fake news” goes back decades, even centuries. It goes back as far as government and the news media have been around.
The problem with the term “fake news” now is that it’s being used all across America and the world, by politicians and others as a weapon to attack critics and degrade the news media.
A local official in Kentucky used the term against journalists when they started to ask questions about his purchase of a home from a political supporter. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, responsible for gassing his own people and a civil war that has left 500,000 dead, called the murder of his own citizens “fake news.”
Call it lying, deceiving the public, or twisting the truth; whatever you call it it’s nothing more than government, politicians and others in power trying to control the message.
Now, let’s not pretend people in the media don’t lie, make things up or play with the truth like other people do. People in the media are human just like everyone else and can make mistakes. But in real journalism, mistakes cannot and should not be tolerated. If a journalist at any level is caught making up facts, lying or trying to deceive the public I would recommend they be fired on the spot and permanently banned from ever working in the industry again.
I don’t know a single journalist I ever worked with who has ever engaged in the practice of “fake news.” I think people like Trump, who throw the term around like someone throwing a piece of paper in the trash, need to provide proof when they make the charge. Perhaps some journalism group should set up a court to hear Trump’s complaints and rule on them. Just like he gave out “fake news” awards. Perhaps this court could render verdicts on his charges and try to hold him accountable for what he says and to hold journalists accountable for what they report.
Even in the days of Abraham Lincoln you could find fake news. During the Civil War both Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, fed phony stories to the media, which they published, in an effort to bolster support for their causes. Lincoln was so good at it some historians refer to him as the Great Manipulator.
THE CHICAGO WAY: POLITICS AND JOURNALISM COLLIDE
You furnish the pictures, I’ll provide the war
Woman Jumps From Brooklyn Bridge, Survives Mad Leap
56 Jailed in Chicago Election
They sound like headlines or teases you would hear on the news today. But they’re all actually more than 100 years old. They can all be traced back to the days of yellow journalism and muckraking. And things weren’t a whole lot different then than they are today.
To understand where journalism is in 2018, you need to look back at its roots, look back at how it was born in America and specifically Chicago and Illinois. That journey takes you all the way back to the 1800s, to a time when America was just beginning to grow. The newspapers were all owned by politicians or people promoting political agendas. As you’re about to learn, politicians, corruption, money, power and the media have a long history together. They actually grew up together, so it should come as no surprise that the media is so political today.
During my days in the news business in Chicago, I was able to witness, cover and write about some of the most amazing events in the history of the city. From the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series, to the City Council Wars that followed the death of Mayor Harold Washington; from the the Great Blizzards to the Great Chicago River Flood; from the John Gacy Murders to the Crash of American Airlines Flight 191 at O’Hare – and the endless other stories that changed the shape and course of the city.
The one storyline that has been constant over the years is the level of violence, corruption, and waste not only in the city of Chicago but also in Cook County and the State of Illinois. Chicago is considered so violent that filmmaker Spike Lee renamed it “Chiraq” and followed it with a movie of the same name. It’s the home of Al Capone, a mobster who has inspired a whole industry of movies, books, and other museum exhibits. Cook County is often called “Crook County” and Illinois has been labeled “America’s Failed State.” How corrupt is it? Let’s just say I collect political campaign pins and I have an entire display case dedicated to the local politicians who have been sent off to prison.
Every year, Illinois finishes in the top three of the most corrupt states in the country. It’s so bad that analysts now have two classifications for corruption in the state. First, there is illegal corruptionfor crimes like accepting bribes, using political funds for personal use to remodel vacation homes or sending a kid to college, or for downright street crime like shooting someone or selling drugs.
Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich caught trying to sell Barack Obama’s seat in the United States Senate after Obama became president can define illegal corruption. You have politicians handing down offices from generation to generation as if they own them. You have Illinois politicians accused of raping young men and going to prison for having sex with underaged girls. You have Chicago politicians throwing out the signature petitions of challengers.
And then there was theman who became a United States Senator and later President after the media was told by his campaign about some dirt in an opponent’s sealed divorce documents. Reporters got a judge to unseal the divorce documents againstObama’s Democratic primaryopponent, Blair Hull, who was accused of abusing his wife. Hull had a lead in the polls, but the news destroyed his campaign. Those same reporters then got a judge to unseal another set of divorce records involving Jack Ryan, Obama’s Republican opponent in the general election. These records accused Ryan of pressuring his wife into kinky three-way sex in nightclubs. Those documents destroyed Ryan’s campaign. With no opposition, Obama easily won election to the United States Senate. Only in Illinois.
Then there is legal corruption, activities within the law that result in the personal enrichment of a politician and his/her friends.
Illinois is also at the top when it comes to what researchers call legal corruption. Chicago, Cook County, and Illinois politicians are very good at this. Researchers at Harvard University define it as “the political gains in the form of campaign contributions or endorsements by a government official, in exchange for providing specific benefits to private individuals or groups, be it by explicit or implicit understanding.”
What that really means is the stuff politicians do to screw taxpayers while helping their friends and themselves get elected and re-elected. An example, granting unions juicy contracts with big, fat pension benefits they know the state can’t afford. The politicians get elected and the government employee unions keep voting for them to keep the gravy train rolling. It works, until the taxes needed to support it become so oppressive people can’t pay. Citizens and businesses start to leave the state taking tax revenue with them. Soon those government officials start skipping the pension payments because they no longer have the money. They cut funds for education, healthcare and everything else they can, but it just isn’t enough. Some people lose their homes or their businesses because of the taxes and fees, but no one goes to jail; it’s all legal.
It is this kind of legal corruption that gets a pass from the media, which is too busy chasing fires and murders and rarely holds politicians accountable for anything. Exposing corruption is not easy. It takes a lot of work, research and sometimes the courage to take on sacred cows. Corruption isn’t just the province of politicians, everyone contributes to it, sometimes in subtle ways. It’s difficult to report and no one wants to see those pensions taken away from government employees.
According to the Illinois Better Government Association, there are currently 483,300 retirees and their survivors getting paid pension benefits in Illinois. There are another 264,000 public employee union members still working. When you add up those numbers you are going to get a pretty big voting block willing to vote for just about anyone protecting those pension benefits.
Furthermore, 63,000 of those people get pensions of more than $100,000 a year. A Chicago firefighter retiring with at least 30 years of service could be eligible for a pension of $80,696 a year. A police officer can get $73,300annually. A Chicago public school teacher with 30 years of service can get $71,717 a year. These numbers are based on a 2013 Freedom of Information Request filed by the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative think tank group.
According to a survey done by Towers Watson, just 5 percent of American companies in the private sector now offer pensions to new hires. Only 32 percent of people retiring from the private sector have pensions because of recent cuts and changes in company benefits. The average pension for one of those private sector workers is anywhere from $12,000 to $20,000 a year depending on where you worked. But for government workers in Illinois, the gravy train keeps rolling. Taxes go up, fees are raised as the biggest money transfer of wealth in state history takes place.
To be fair, all of these government workers receiving pensions pay money into the system. And over the years these sweetheart deals were made with the approval of both Democrats and Republicans. No one broke any laws, but the deals have broken budgets in Chicago, Cook County and Illinois. Illinois taxpayers are paying higher property taxes, higher license fees, taxes on plastic bags and pretty much everything else you use in your daily life.
WOMEN IN BROADCASTING
2017 was the year of the rooster on the Chinese calendar. But it turned out to be the year of the pig in America – the year of Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, Al Franken, Roy Moore, Matt Lauer, Anthony Weiner, Roger Ailes, Louis CK, George HW Bush, John Conyers, Kevin Spacey and, of course, Donald Trump. They were just some of the men accused of inappropriate behavior. The women who broke the silence were named Time’s Person of the Year, an award the magazine gives every December to the person, groups or organizations that made a difference in the previous year.
The Weinstein scandal broke just as I was writing this chapter and I found there were a number of cases just like it all around the newsrooms I worked in. It was rough and actually depressing to listen to women I worked with and respected tell me their stories of abuse. I talked with women from all over the country about the issue: young, old, black, white, Hispanic, gay and straight. They all had a story. Some were anxious to go on the record, others wanted to remain anonymous.
Let me be clear from the start here. This issue is not limited to broadcasting. I have heard from women in many other industries as well, who complain about some of the very same things you are about to read. And as you will see, this issue of harassment is sometimes a two-way street. Women are not always the innocent parties in these cases. A number of women are now being accused of the very same thing, including one of the leaders of the #MeToo movement and a woman who had to end her campaign for Congress when charges surfaced against her.
I used to joke with the women I worked with in the newsroom telling them Taliban law governed the newsroom. That meant only men talked. Women should just do what they were told. Women could say things, but no one would really listen to them because, well, they were women. I even joked with one young female producer who complained that her male boss would never listen to her. She said if a man said something it would be a big deal. But when she talked it was like she didn’t even exist. At this point, I interrupted her and said, “Where is your male relative or man handler? You should not be speaking to a man unless there is a male from your family here. Do you have his permission?” I said it as a joke. She did not find it funny. Mainly because it was true.
Women first came into the industry in a significant way back in the early 1970s. One woman who was a pioneer in the field told me, “There were people who told me almost from the very beginning that they didn’t want women. They didn’t like women. They didn’t think women belonged in the business. I had one guy tell me to go home and let your daddy support you. You are taking a job away from a guy who has children.”
Versions of this story came up time and time again with women who entered the business during the early 1970s. There was this sense that women couldn’t do the job, that they were stealing jobs from men, and that even women who watched the news would not listen to a female reporter or anchor.
It was a view shared by many at the time. Reuven Frank was the legendary president of NBC News. He was once referred to as the father of broadcast journalism. In 1971, he told Newsweek what he thought of women as anchors and reporters, “I have the strong feeling that audiences are less prepared to accept news from a woman’s voice than from a man’s.”
Almost every woman I talked to who entered the business during this period says they ran into the same problem. Newsrooms were filled with men and they were run by men. There might have been a few female secretaries or a writer or reporter here and there, but the business of news was man’s work. Especially when it came to the editorial and technical end of things.
I worked with Colleen Dudgeon Ransdell and she is one of the many women I interviewed for this book. Colleen was just 32-years-old when she was named the news director at WBBM-TV (CBS) in Chicago in July of 1988. She started as a writer for UPI in the late 70s and became a news writer in 1981. She slowly bulldozed her way to the top.
I think she will agree that she is not a very shy girl and doesn’t put up with a lot of nonsense. She has crushed a lot of skulls, souls, and egos along the way, but such is the life of a news director in local TV news. I asked her what it was like to be the first woman to sit in the big chair at Channel 2, which was legendary for its coverage of local news.
“People would say to me, ‘what’s it like to be a femalenews director?’ and I would answer, ‘I don’t know. I’m the newsdirector.’ Maybe I was getting it (abuse) and didn’t know it. I’m a pretty decent person, but I don’t put up with a lot of bullshit and I think people knew that and that’s a reason I think people weren’t making comments about me as a female.”
I asked her what her favorite part of being a news director was and her answer was the same one all of the men gave me. “I liked putting the news on,” she said. “I think I enjoyed being a producer much more than I enjoyed being a news director. But I really truly liked the experience of being news director. I liked working with people who were highly intelligent, highly motivated news professionals at the time. What we did at Channel 2 back in the late 80’s couldn’t be done today.
“Back then 24/7 news wasn’t around. Cable news was just in its infancy. The pressure to produce minute by minute, 24 hours each day was not there. So, we were allowed the luxury of working a story that happened at one in the afternoon. We could go and gather the facts, to vet the facts and that just doesn’t happen in a lot of cases now.”
Deb Segal was another of the female trailblazers of Chicago TV. She was the second woman hired at WLS-TV (ABC) back in May of 1973, as a summer relief technician. She had no experience but did have a first-class operator’s license needed to do the job. She was hired because the government was pressuring the stations at the time to hire women or face issues with their licenses. She tells the story of a wife who called the station looking for her husband. Deb says the wife was shocked to hear a woman answer the phone, “I’m in the videotape room and the phone rings and there is a woman on the other end of the phone. And she says I want to talk to one of the engineers. I said I am one of the engineers. And she said, ‘No, I want to talk to an engineer’ so I hand the phone to my supervisor and I don’t think anything of it.
“Two days later, one of the older technicians, who looks like somebody’s grandfather, walks in and says, ‘Damn you. You got me in so much trouble with my wife.’ And I’m like, ‘What did I do?’ And he says ‘She didn’t know we had any women working at the station and she especially didn’t know we had any women working at night. She was pissed as all-get-out at me.’ She called because she wanted to call her husband in sick and she apparently was stunned to find out I was working there.”
As it turns out, Reuven Frank would be wrong about his thoughts on female news anchors. When stations first put women on the air, it helped make them stand out from the competition. And once their ratings went up, their competitors had no choice but to add women as well.
The wall began to crumble in 1972 when Jean Enersen became the first woman to win a permanent anchor job at a local TV station. She was hired to anchor the news at KING-TV (NBC) in Seattle. She would spend the next 42 years at that anchor desk until she finally retired from the chair in 2014. She stayed around as a reporter for two more years until giving it all up in 2016. Enersen won an endless list of awards along the way and cleared a path that other women could follow.
And follow they did. Jane Pauley became the first female anchor in Chicago in 1975. Judy Woodruff broke the barrier in Atlanta. Jessica Savitch, the woman who would eventually become known as “Golden Girl” in the biz, did it in Houston. And African American women like Monica Kaufman, Beverly Draper, and Deborah Mathis would soon follow. Diann Burns would become the first African American woman to anchor a prime-time newscast in Chicago when she was assigned to the big desk in 1985 at WLS.
But life was rough for women in the newsroom in the early days. This is one account from a woman I interviewed who began at the bottom of the food chain and eventually worked her way up to become a top executive. She agreed to tell her story on the condition I not use her name or the station she worked for.
“I was in news from college (late 70s) until 1997. That was a time when women were weather bunnies and got the fluff stories. When I started as a reporter there was more concern about my hair than what I was saying. I literally had five different haircuts in three months because the General Manager didn’t like the look. The main anchors at the time were always male, and the assignment editors always deferred to males when it came to who got the stories with the most impact. The women were expected to be one-man bands (meaning they carried their own equipment and acted as both reporters and camera operators at the same time) in the field like the guys, and while wearing skirts. I always said I needed to be twice as smart and twice as hard working in order to be taken seriously. I had one GM flat out tell me they were not going to invest in me because I was probably just going to leave after I got married.
“The viewers were just as bad—the phone would ring off the hook with disapproval if a young female anchored the news solo. And there were always calls about what we wore, our hair etc.—never for the guys. We were also held to a higher standard in the community. Heaven help if we were seen with friends out for the night with a drink in your hand.”
The sexism of the 1970s lives on today. You see it in the absolute crap that is palmed off for women to “report,” especially on early morning TV news shows. There are cooking segments, fashion segments, relationship segments and a lot of other nonsense that make it seem like women are dysfunctional idiots who can’t feed themselves, dress themselves, care for their kids or find a man or woman to live with.
I’ve had a long list of women tell me they refused to watch shows I’ve produced over the years because they just didn’t connect with them. One woman singled out a fashion segment that particularly annoyed her. She told me she saw the segment and thought it was stupid because she knows where to shop, how to dress. She said we were missing the most important part of the story any woman would love to know: where can I get that outfit for half price.
Now, I know a lot of women and they were absolutely right. Women don’t need lessons on how to cook or dress, but they all love deals. In my opinion, as an older white man, I have learned a few things about women in my life. First, they love their families and kids more than anything on Earth. Second, they want to look good and feel good about themselves. Third, most women love a sale.
I asked several women who work at the public relations agencies that feed this garbage to the local and network morning shows why it goes on. Many of the publicists who offer this stuff to the networks and local stations are former news people who left the business because they were either fed up with working conditions or simply wanted to spend more time with their families.
A publicist who works to promote clients by getting them appearances on television stations around the Midwest told me, “The segments that would be really, truly worthwhile are going to take time and effort and newsrooms don’t have that. They have slashed their staffs, they have cut their resources so that the things that would have true value, they don’t have the capacity to take on. So, what you get are food segments and fashion segments because they take minimal effort.”
She continued, “While I like skirts and pretty things, I also swear like a sailor and am concerned about the political leadership and the financial solvency of my state. I can do both. I can be a girl and be interested in girly things, but also still have a brain. And there are probably a lot of men who don’t think that. And if those men are in leadership positions in a newsroom they will project those viewpoints on to stories and entire newscasts.
“But more than anything,” she told me, “it comes back to cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap. Bringing a PR person on is inherently cheaper than adding another reporter to go do a real story.”
Roy Santoro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Broken News: Journalism in Crisis is available for purchase here on Amazon.
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