For more than a dozen years I worked as a television reporter, anchor and investigative reporter in various markets around the country. I began as a street reporter for an ABC affiliate in Bozeman, Montana. KCTZ Channel 7 served Gallatin County and Southwestern Montana for several years. It vanished not long after I left. I don’t think that is a reflection on me but one might wonder.
During my time in Bozeman I had the privilege to work for a News Director that had been in the trenches for many years including a violent time in Paris in the mid 80’s. Gene Brodeur challenged me to get the facts right and was a solid writer and a great teacher.
I learned a tremendous amount about journalism. Yes, real journalism. My sources were checked and challenged and he made sure I understood my job was to deliver facts for the audience to make of what it they would. Gene was also a liberal. No, make that a raging liberal. We became good friends despite not agreeing on much of anything and have remained so over the years. We talked at length in those days about politics, people and life in general. We agreed on little but we agreed that dialogue was the key to long-term success, not only in journalism but in politics and life too.
Gene and I also talked about the encroachment of the sales department into the news department. He knew it would likely be the death knell of real news as more and more sponsors were dictating was passed off as hard news. More and more sales guys would come in with a great idea for “news”.
During my first year in Bozeman, 1988, an epic wild fire season roared through the Western United States. Yellowstone National Park saw over one million acres scorched by the flames. I flew with the National Guard, rolled tape and filed stories. I won three awards for excellence from the Associated Press along the way too. It was an incredible journey for a young reporter. I interviewed Michael Dukakis that fall on the tarmac of a small airport and believed I was doing something of great importance.
I took a job in Lansing Michigan on the second leg of my journey in TV news. I was the 6 and 11 O’clock news anchor for several years and then set my sights on something bigger. I arrived at the NBC affiliate in Columbus Ohio late in 1997 and hit the ground running. Before long I was anchoring weekends and had landed the coveted Investigative Reporter gig. I also met my second major mentor, Jim Sanders. Sanders was an old-school shoe leather reporter that sounded like he’d been kicked in the throat and pounded two or three packs a day even though it was frowned upon by then. He again instilled in me respect for ‘the craft’ of journalism and emphasized the critical importance of getting the facts right every time.
Jim Sanders was the very best writer for TV news I ever met. He could spin a tale outside the backdoor about rock music, political conventions and the sexual revolution. “Gruber you’ve got some real talent, don’t forget to use it.” Jim moved to San Francisco to take over the news operation for NBC in the #4 TV market in America. He left far too soon for me. I had so much to learn but Gene and Jim gave me the foundation from which I still operate today.
I was real hotshot for awhile. My stories got more time on the air and I got nominated for some Emmy’s. I thought what I was doing mattered. At least I thought that for awhile.
One day however I had a shocking realization it was far more likely I was actually working in the shallow end of the cesspool. Kids either just out of college or still finishing their degrees often dictated the stories we were covering. Most of them had never made a mortgage payment or had children or done any of the things the majority of their viewers had done. The producers who came from privileged families and didn’t know squat about most of the world made the calls on what was on the news each day.
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A year after Jim Sanders had left for California I had a realization that TV was in fact killing journalism. Gene and Jim taught me the basics of journalism.
I learned an economy of words was often more effective than the opposite. Less is really more, more often than not. I also learned those kinds of larger than life people were being extirpated from the newsroom each day in pursuit of the bottom line.
Anonymous sources were almost unheard of in those days and could only be used in the rarest of circumstances.
Can you imagine Walter Cronkite watching CNN today and wondering what the hell had happened to the institution he helped define? I realize they all understood the financial power of high ratings but they stopped short of selling their souls. At least that’s what I choose to believe.
Today I listen with some degree of horror and contempt to young reporters who have been hired for personal assets they possess but have nothing to do with integrity or ethics and certainly nothing to do with journalism. These kids don’t even try to hide their politically perverted coverage of one story after another. I was as former members of Presidential Administrations are passed off as unbiased voices inside the swamp. Please, I think we know better.
‘The Beast’ and the news was called in every newsroom I’ve worked had to be fed every day. That meant that for every newscast there had to be a good story count. It didn’t matter if the news was worthy of being put on air it just meant there was a half hour to fill and advertisers wanted the biggest numbers possible. You may have noticed the local news has been coming on earlier and earlier. 6 in the morning became 5 and then 4. I mean how much news is there really that you just cannot live without?
On cable Ted Turner launched the 24-hour news cycle onto the unsuspecting world on June 1, 1980. Who knew how that would change everything? In the beginning he was mocked for such an idea. I mean who the hell wants to see that 24 hours a day? Of course these are the same people that predicted Americans would never watch much TV at all because they were too busy and worked too much.
What people didn’t realize was ‘The Beast’ would be fully awakened by this new cutting edge news cycle. The Beast was hungry before but now it was ravenous and it would require thousands of additional anchors, reporters and journalists to meet the demand. Resume’s got thinner and the talent pool continued to get more shallow. Along the way the sales department walked in and a lot of talented journalists walked out.
I cannot tell you the number of young reporters or interns I spoke with that got into news just so they could be a ‘news anchor’. I’m serious. I got into because I loved telling stories and asking people questions they didn’t want to hear. But most of these clowns are motivated by the idea of being famous. “I just wanna be a news anchor” has been regurgitated so damned many times in the newsrooms of America that it is itself a symptom of the collapse of journalism.
Jim died many years ago now from the effects of smoking too much and taking care of himself far too little. Gene walked away to feed the goats, pigs and chickens of his 25 acre hobby farm outside of Belgrade, Montana. His wife is an amazing artist who captures the pastoral scenes with pencil, pen and paint.
I left in 2000 because it was clear then; journalism in America was sliding into oblivion. The sickness has only gotten worse. The sales department would have news anchors wear NASCAR type shirts if they could get away with it, the reporters are ever younger with even less knowledge of the world than the kids did 20 years ago when I fled. Now we have social media and TMZ masquerading as news outlets.
It is sad but it is true. TV killed journalism and it isn’t coming back.
The nightly circus of alleged experts paraded around on cable news channels are a poor excuse for reporters and ones I hazard to say would have gotten a perplexed look and a raspy “what the f are you thinking”, from Jim Sanders. Rightly so.