Monday, August 24, 2009

Media: Tell Me A Story

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The death last Wednesday of CBS superstar producer Don Hewitt, who has been influential since the early days of television and whose seminal project, 60 Minutes, continues in his format to this day, has set a lot of people thinking about his influence on the industry. Admittedly, I have mixed feelings, but in my final analysis I have to conclude that Hewitt and 60 Minutes have been a clear positive influence; the decline in the medium lies elsewhere.

It would be hard for me to criticize 60 Minutes too much as I have watched or listened to it essentially my entire life. Not only has it been a staple of my Sunday nights, but it is a touchstone with virtually everyone else in my life. I can ask anyone from my grandparents to old high school friends living across the United States about a story that just ran on 60 Minutes and the odds are that they have watched it and have opinions shaped in part by what they have seen. No other weekly hard news-based program has that kind of power with so many people that I know.

How can that be? As has been said many times in recent days, it all comes down to Hewitt's mantra: "Tell me a story." 60 Minutes tells good stories. Every week I look for a quality radio program to share, and the most likely candidates are shows like This American Life and As It Happens that tell good stories. I may not pick those shows every week, but they are only rarely not good radio. 60 Minutes is good television for the same reason, how it tells stories. It was Hewitt that worked unceasingly to make sure that it did.

Some, including Hewitt himself, have pondered whether 60 Minutes ruined news on television. First, by showing that a news program could make money, it may have started a death spiral for the standard nightly newscast. I think that argument is crazy--if 60 Minutes had never been tried, I suspect news departments just would have been cut faster. Secondly, by emphasizing stories rather than facts, it distorted journalism into entertainment. This is a more serious charge, and it has substance to it. Anyone who was in Washington state in the 1989 will not forgive 60 Minutes for single-handedly creating the ALAR scare, which the apple industry to this day claims cost it $100 million. A long list of people have similarly been made out as villains because it made a better story.

Yet, the genius of 60 Minutes is that it is fundamentally based on journalism. When they make large enough mistakes, they correct them explicitly themselves. Smaller ones are addressed by other journalists reporting on other programs or other media such as newspapers or these days on web sites that refute the stories told on 60 Minutes. Newspapers make mistakes as well for a variety of reasons, and these also get corrected in the media space by competitors. I don't think 60 Minutes can be faulted for being in error on occasion just because its format is more susceptible to bias than the front page of a newspaper, especially in an era of explicitly biased media like political bloggers, Fox News, and MSNBC.

The decay in the quality of television, particularly its journalism, didn't come from 60 Minutes or similar programs on other networks like 20/20 or Dateline. It came from entertainment programs masquerading as news like Inside Edition and Hard Copy. (I don't even fault Entertainment Tonight--I mean, the title says that it isn't a serious program, and it arguably doesn't pretend to be.) It came from cable networks with way too much time to fill who turned to contrived debate and opinions, sometimes borrowing from talk radio, and placed it on supposedly-news channels. The worst segments on 60 Minutes compare favorably from a journalistic perspective with any segment of the now-canceled programs Crossfire and A Current Affair.

The 60 Minutes special on Don Hewitt that aired last night solidified this opinion in my mind. Seeing Hewitt work on storytelling, even his arguments with Mike Wallace over what facts to include, showed me that he may represent style over substance, but he was dead in the water without the substance. There's nothing wrong with selling sizzle with the steak, as long as it is steak and not hamburger, and if that is Hewitt's legacy, I find that to be a positive one.

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