Behind the Scenes

"Hello, how may I help you?"

news logosI've probably said these words more than 30,000 times this summer, but I say it again with aplomb, at an annoyingly high pitch. I say it like the young, naive, educated, unpaid and exploited laborer that I have enthusiastically become. In short, I say it like any super striving Washington, DC intern worth her Mary Jane shoes, understated A-line skirt and potential to cause scandal. But unlike many other Washington interns in the thick of gossip on Capitol Hill, I've spent my summer pursuing the harried career of a long-form TV journalist at an ABC news show.

The show is a half-an-hour news program broadcast nightly. It is devoted to examining one topic or issue in as much depth as 22 minutes can realistically allow. The show began as an hour-long look at the Iran Contra Crisis of the early 1980s. For many viewers above 50 (I'm guessing from all the Viagra sponsorship), the show has remained a reliable and credible source of information.

Being in the "thick of things" at the show has actually meant I've been paying some serious dues. In between surviving off complimentary peanut butter and jelly packets to compliment Safeway bargain bread (a staple in my Unpaid Intern Diet), I've done much transcript photocopying, tape time coding, and phone and email answering -- all of which are somehow meant to guide me through the fundamentals of journalism.

What I've really learned from handling mountains of viewer mail is that the relationship between a TV broadcast and its viewers is as intense as it is intimate. And nowhere is this made more clear than in the angry and sometimes indignant correspondence I sort through. Every day, the show is bombarded by furious emails, phone calls and letters declaring the show's bias. Liberal bias. Conservative bias. Bias towards the gay community or George W Bush. Or the gay community and George W. Bush. And so on.




The question of bias in the media continues to worry activists and advocates of free speech and democracy.

The question of bias in the media continues to worry activists and advocates of free speech and democracy. The recent Federal Communications Commission ruling makes that fear even more justifiable and far-reaching. The ruling, which allows media companies to own more television stations and newspapers in the same market, means that a single company has the option to buy television stations reaching 45 percent of the nation's households. In a city like New York, the same company would be allowed to own up to three television stations! The ruling has since faced some resistance by factions in government who want to see market share reduced to four percent. In fact, the House disregarded the preferences of its own Republic leaders and decided to approve a spending bill with provisions to block the ruling.

"Supersizing your meal isn't good for your heart," said Jonathan Adelstein, FCC Commissioner, on a Nightline broadcast. "Supersizing your media isn't good for America's heart, either." Indeed, it seems as if the American public is in for a heart attack if the current trend continues. According to the same broadcast on which Adelstein appeared, remarks made by a member of the Dixie Chicks just before the war in Iraq ("we're ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas,") were not only censored, but the entire group was banned on 42 radio stations by the nation's second largest radio chain, Cumulus. Just because a few executives at Cumulus didn't like what the Dixie Chicks had to say, a large portion of America did not hear them on the radio. If five or six people ultimately own the "free press," do only five or six people get to decide which stories (or music) are revealed to the public?

Disney owns ABC News, which in turn houses the show at which I am interning. This fact looms in the back of office life like the Mickey Mouse banner cheekily adorning a nearby cubicle. As you would expect, the show's staff -- from editors to producers to the celebrity anchor himself -- have vehemently denied the potential for the parent company to meddle in the show's news making. And, in response to any allegations of bias for whatever reasons, the show assures its audience, "we are trying to bring unbiased and objective news coverage to our viewers."

In my own process of testing the waters at a major network, I had many chances to hear what the staff of the show had to say about the idea of a Disney Executive calling up to influence "what makes news." All felt genuinely convinced that the show is able to autonomously provide a meaningful service and contribute to the good of society. However, despite the lack of Disney influence, the show isn't completely objective.



However, despite the lack of Disney influence, the show isn't completely objective.

In TV news there are executive and senior producers who field story ideas from producers, who in turn go about gathering the important elements of a newsworthy story. The producers usually get their ideas from whatever sources they happen to have access to. If the producers decide what stories are going to be told to the public, it's important to realize that their decisions will be influenced by their background and lifestyle. The ideas that make it to production reflect important elements of any newsworthy story, but also are chosen by "gut instinct," or what the producers subjectively feel are important issues.

When I look around at the show's staff, I realize that this is where the twin specters of race and culture come in. At work, I found that the people who make critical decisions are white and male, with the exception of one senior producer who is white and female. This, perhaps, reflects the state of mainstream media on a whole, where major decisions makers -- high-level producers and editors -- tend to be white, male, middle-aged and middle or upper class. This of course, doesn't affect one's ability to do a great job, but it does affect the kinds of resources a person can draw upon in order to tell a good story. It can affect what a person considers a good story and it can certainly influence "gut instinct."

This bias towards the familiar can even extend to the guests chosen to appear on the show. Bookers are responsible for booking people to make guest appearances on the show. It is important that the guest have what is popularly considered to be an articulate and adequate television presence. Guest-lists are composed through personal or professional connections and research. In the early 1990s, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a watch group whose objective is to monitor its namesake, found that of the total number of guests that made up the show's guest-list, 89 percent were male, and 92 percent were white. In my brief time behind the scenes, I would venture to say that the race and gender composition of the guest list has changed very little since this survey.

In an interview with Nightline, Condace Pressly, President of the National Association of Black Journalists stated that journalism "still lacks the kind of diversity, the additional voices in America's newsrooms, to tell the stories of a growing, diverse population." Despite the overwhelming lack of diversity within the show's senior producers, there are some younger producers who are women and/or people of color. Their presence on the staff is positively reflected in the stories they produce and signifies a discreet, but ever present, professional struggle over what reaches America's living rooms.

An example of such a story is the treatment of the war in Liberia. The show's coverage of the issue managed to brilliantly anticipate posturing between Liberian President Charles Taylor and President Bush, which came to a head later during the President's trip to Africa. The producer of the Liberia broadcast is of Liberian descent and I see her story as a testament to what diversity in the newsroom can do.

When I look around the intern cubicle, I see a pointed attempt at racial and cultural diversity. We are Asian, Black, White and Ethnic Jewish. Four out of five of us are women. I realize that to have any tangible effect on the state of journalism in this country, we have to move up and beyond our tokenized intern status to a place where we can exert our will. I don't know when that might be or how it will happen -- or whether we will ever get to decide "what makes news."

Kimberly Davies is a recent college graduate. This is not her real name.

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