Karen Lurie

TV News Gets Freaky

The “voice” of television news is expected to be more conversational and less formal than newspaper writing. But lately, as cable news organizations try to fix what ain’t broken, that voice is becoming more and more wince-inducing.

Back in October, a CNN Headline News producer sent an internal e-mail to the writing staff that read: "In an effort to be sure we are as cutting-edge as possible with our on-screen persona, please refer to this slang dictionary when looking for just the right phrase." Words such as “freak” (sex), “fly” (sexually attractive), “jimmy cap” (condom), and “ill” (to act inappropriately) followed.

The e-mail instructed the writers to “use this guide to help all you homeys and honeys add a new flava to your tickers and dekos” -- that is, the graphics that appear on the overcrowded, seizure-inducing Headline News screen.

The revelation of this memo gave humorists a nice little shot in the arm. James Earl Jones intoning "This is CNN, beeyotch" -- this stuff writes itself!

But by the time it had come to light, AOL-Time Warner's news war-horse was already wedging terms like "bling bling" into its crawl. This e-mail merely revealed that the man behind the curtain has a glossary.

CNN, with its average viewer age of 62, was no doubt responding to the belief floating around out there that coveted younger audiences, the 18- to 34-year-olds who command the highest ad rates, get their news from hipper television sources, including comedians like David Letterman, Jon Stewart and Tina Fey. Even if that were true, it's not like those three are peppering their jokes with hip-hop lingo; when was the last time you heard Letterman complain about Saddam being all up in our grill?

Slang is an ever-changing organism, which makes it impossible to keep a dictionary current or relevant; wouldn't squeezing obsolete slang into the "dekos" completely undermine the purpose of using it to sound hip? The claim that slang "modernizes" a newscast only makes sense if they are replacing old slang with new, but it's not like Judy Woodruff has been calling Wolf Blitzer “Daddio” all these years.

And it's just as cynical to believe that everyone in a certain age group, or any other group, is hip to certain (or any) slang as it is to believe that a target 20-year-old would flip by, see that "jimmy cap" has been shoehorned into CNN's crawl, not recognize that she's being pandered to or having her culture exploited, and lock in CNN with "favorite channel" status, saying to herself, "Finally, news that speaks to me."

Or maybe that should be "Finally, news, speaking to me," because CNN fronting with the slang is just one change in the language of TV news. Tune in to CNN, Fox News and occasionally even the broadcast networks, and you'll hear elliptical, participle-filled sentence fragments like these, recently uttered by Fox News Channel's Shepard Smith: "Meantime, the Navy, looking for another suitable training location, the Navy secretary saying it will be tough but not impossible. The Navy using Vieques for the past 60 years."

Or this bit of verblessness, from NBC's Andrea Mitchell: "Gary Condit today, the first sighting in weeks."

Or these shards, from CNN's John King: "Those negotiations continuing. Mr. Bush speaking to reporters earlier today. Suddenly optimistic."

This phenomenon was explored by the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, where it was somewhat mistakenly called "The Vanishing Verb" (the verbs are usually there, they're just tense-less), and, more recently, in The New York Times. Smith of Fox News calls it "people-speak." He told the NewsHour's Terence Smith, "I try to talk like I speak when I'm yakking with my buddies."

But this really isn't the way people talk in conversation, casual or otherwise, unless you go around saying things like "Me, suddenly stuffy. A cold today. Buying cough drops."

This flashy, spliced speech has also been implemented to save valuable time (of course, "Those negotiations continue" is actually shorter than "Those negotiations continuing"). Even if it does occasionally shave a couple of syllables off a sentence, is that really necessary? Is there really so much more to cram into a newscast than there used to be (when 24-hour news channels didn't exist) that words need to be squeezed out of sentences?

Judging from the numbing repetition, examination of minutiae, and parade of "usual suspect" pundits, the biggest problem the 24-hour cable news channels seem to have isn't making time, but filling up the time.

The addition of hip-hop slang and "people-speak" are two misguided "solutions" to the same imagined "problem": that the “on-screen persona” of TV news has to be changed to accommodate the supposed throngs of young people who aren't interested in, or can't focus on, straightforward information, and who need to be lured in by choppy, faux-chummy incomplete sentences and forced, contrived lingo -- like trying to focus and entertain an infant by shaking a shiny, jangly set of keys in its face. But if the result is the loss of credibility with younger viewers and the repulsion of older viewers, who is left to tune in?

"It's definitely not your mom's Headline News anymore," Headline News chief Rolando Santos told the San Francisco Chronicle about his revamped product (ironically using a stale cliché in the process). But has anyone in this focus group-crazy business even asked if people thought the news sounded too "old-fashioned" before? What makes the ratings go up on cable news channels is a big juicy story, not how chatty or “down” the middle-aged, overly-coiffed anchors sound. When the story goes away, so do the ratings. That proves that people tune in to 24-hour news channels when they are looking for information.

It seems odd, then, that news, just news, is becoming harder to find on cable. Cable channels, underestimating the very viewers they’re trying to attract, are coming off like that desperate high school teacher who tried in vain to be "cool."

Karen Lurie is a writer living in New York City.

News Anchor Or Games Show Host?

What's the difference between Tom Brokaw and Tom Bergeron? Not much.

Brian Williams was just coronated as Brokaw's replacement when the NBC anchor steps down after the 2004 election. As obvious a choice as the clean-cut, straight-arrow Williams would seem to be, there is some hand-wringing about this decision among nostalgic types.

You see, Williams will be the first anchorman of a network news program who does not have gritty reporting experience (covering the Clinton White House doesn’t muster the same respect as dodging bullets or bombs). Americans instead know him best as the perpetually tan, behind-the-desk Brokaw substitute with the unnervingly perfect hair.

But maybe the worry warts would feel better if, instead of "anchorman," the new title for the man who comes to us from MSNBC's The News with Brian Williams were "News Host." After all, isn't this what all anchormen have become?

Broadcast news has changed over the years from the days of craggy-faced, hard-bitten, seen-it-all ex-reporters earning their well-deserved semi-retirements while sitting at desks in front of multiple clocks. Suave Peter Jennings still sits at a desk, but Brokaw now stands in front of groovy video screens, and Dan Rather, certainly the most unpredictable of the Big Three, seems to alternate between sitting and standing. But sitting or standing, they are called "anchormen" because they stay in the studio, the nucleus of the broadcast, and the reports and reporters revolve around them like trench-coated electrons.

All three of these men have reporting backgrounds. Is it necessary for the jobs they have now? Not really. But the necessary traits for a good News Host are the same traits you expect to find in a good Game Show Host:

1. Both should be able to read smoothly from teleprompters.

2. Both ask questions that hard-working underpaid writers research and prepare for them.

3. Both should be reasonably attractive in an accessible, non-threatening way.

4. Both should project a well-informed and caring image.

5. Both should inspire trust, and be worthy of being invited into our living rooms on a daily basis.

The comparison to Game Show Host is no exaggeration. Tom Bergeron, the host of Hollywood Squares, was recently mentioned as a possible replacement for the as-yet-unreplaced Bryant Gumbel, former co-anchor of the CBS' The Early Show. So was Meredith Vieira, formerly of the news magazine 60 Minutes, and now of that Cosmo-of-the-airwaves, The View. Bergeron elected to stay on his game show, and Vieira decided to add a game show to her resume -- she will soon be host of the syndicated version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

Thirty years ago, "You want Art Fleming to do the NEWS?" would have bellowed through the hallowed halls where dignified, avuncular, well-informed types like Cronkite once roamed. But news is now entertainment, and entertainment needs to be hosted, not anchored.

For proof, look no further than the "branding" of cable news "stars" like MSNBC's Chris Matthews (has the expression "Let's play Hardball!" been copyrighted yet?) and Ashleigh Banfield, who, according to her promo featuring the Michelle Branch song “Everywhere,” is well, everywhere. Hey, it's important to know where to find Banfield -- you wouldn't want your email questions about her hair and eyeglass frames to end up in Fox News' John Gibson's mailbox.

If Bergeron and Vieira can seamlessly switch back and forth between gladhandling game show schmoozer and Trusted Source of News, TV news executives must think it's acceptable for anchormen and game show hosts to be considered interchangeable. The message is that integrity, knowledge of public policy, and a sense of responsibility to inform the public take a back seat to having a pleasant face and being conversational.

So why shouldn't Dan Rather consider taking the helm of Win, Lose, or Draw when he steps down from the CBS Evening News? His homespun ad-libs would fit in perfectly when interviewing a homemaker from Ventura, Calif., who likes to yell, "Big Money! Big Money!"

We seem to be evolving toward one generic Host Figure who will handle the delivery of all information. "The Mets beat the Dodgers last night ... there's a cold front coming in ... 6,000 people were massacred yesterday ... how would you like to win a new car?" Is there any reason to have four separate people to do that? All we need is someone so genial and adaptable, he can be plugged into all of those roles, like an evolutionary Ubermensch.

I cast my vote for Al Roker.

Karen Lurie is a writer living in New York City. She contributes to HoleCity, Modern Humorist and Flak Magazine.

Making Cancer Sexy

Attention, teenage boys: The cover of the Feb. 18, 2002 issue of Time magazine features a naked, airbrushed, very thin woman with blond hair, shown from the waist up, standing sideways, covering her breasts with one arm while the other is awkwardly bent upward. She is staring off into space with a completely disengaged expression, like a mannequin, or a blow-up doll.

Page three, the table of contents page, shows her again, this time facing forward, arms bent in front of her, head thrown back in ecstasy, eyes closed. She is back on page 51, in the same shot, but this time we see more of her torso, right down to her pubic bone.

Oh. She's there to tell you about The New Thinking on Breast Cancer.

Breast cancer is a terrible disease. It is the most frequently diagnosed non-skin cancer among women in the United States, second only to lung in cancer fatalities. It has those of us on the distaff side nervously kneading ourselves in the shower once a month, having our breasts flattened and crushed in mammogram machinery while our fingers are crossed, and wearing pink ribbons on our lapels. Early detection has done much to lower the mortality rate of this disease, and we owe that to public awareness.

But you might not know that more women die of lung cancer than breast cancer (although a woman can't fondle her naked lung on the cover of Time). And, more women -- more people -- die of heart disease than of all forms of cancer combined. In fact, the top three leading causes of death in 1999, according to the National Center for Health Statistics:

1. Heart disease -- 30.3%
2. All forms of cancer combined -- 23%
3. Stroke -- 7%

Much of the press coverage of heart disease focuses on diet tips. But then, heart disease isn't "sexy."

Breast cancer coverage, whether in the press or in well-meaning TV movies, is obviously aimed at women. Lifetime touts itself as "Television for Women"; you won't find a newscast, but Designing Women and The Golden Girls air in perpetuity. It's a land where Judith Light, Valerie Bertinelli and Nancy McKeon get battered by Gregory Harrison, starve themselves, fall fatally ill, fight for their children and wear sweatshirts and no makeup. Breast cancer is a popular Lifetime movie disease. Movies about this disease always touch on the "Will I still be attractive to my husband?" aspect. And it is a sad fact that a woman who has to lose this part of her body does indeed have to confront issues of sexuality and body image -- not the case after a woman loses a lung or has a heart attack.

Is this why we'll never see a Lifetime movie about a woman with heart disease? Is it why we'll never see Jill Eikenberry struggle with a low cholesterol diet ("Damn it! I can't stop eating bacon. It's who I AM!") while Michael Tucker promises to stay with her even if she loses interest in sex as a side effect of her blood pressure medication? Because the struggle with heart disease doesn't seem noble or feminine enough? Because it can't be trivialized and reduced to sexual terms? Because it doesn't require actresses to be filmed examining their naked selves in the mirror?

Then there's the age of the woman on the cover of Time. She's clearly in her 20s. And yes, women in their 20s can get breast cancer. But according to the National Cancer Institute, a woman's chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer is one out of 257 from age 30 to 40; one out of 67 from age 40 to 50; one out of 36 from age 50 to 60; one out of 28 from age 60 to 70; and one out of 24 from age 70 to 80. But you don't see a 70-year-old woman fondling herself with her head thrown back on the cover of Time.

And let's not forget gender. Prostate cancer has the highest incidence rate among men, and it gets a lot of attention from the media too. Would Time feature a young, buff, naked guy cupping his "family jewels" as he looks thoughtfully into the distance on the cover for that story? No, the editors would no doubt go with the hangdog-yet-resolute face of either Joe Torre or Rudy Giuliani.

Young naked women are used to sell things to men and women alike. And the argument could be made that if a naked woman on the cover of Time gets you to read about breast cancer, then it's done its job. Maybe any coverage is good coverage, if it can save lives. But as the mainstream media keeps the focus on young healthy naked breasts and how they identify and feminize women, one can't help but wonder if breast cancer gets so much coverage because of the first word in the disease, not the second.

Karen Lurie is a writer living in New York City. She contributes to HoleCity, Modern Humorist and Flak Magazine.