Home' Technology Review : January February 2008 Contents ESSAY 69
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"Sure, but he just looks like he's being restrained."
"But," I pleaded, "the man died. That's just a fact. The prison
guards shot this footage, and I don't think their idea was to
get it on Dateline."
"Look," the producer said sharply, "in an era when most of our
audience has seen the Rodney King video, where you can clearly
see someone being beaten, this just doesn't hold up."
"Rodney King wasn't a prisoner," I appealed. "He didn't die,
and this mentally ill inmate is not auditioning to be the next
Rodney King. These are the actual pictures of his death."
"You don't understand our audience."
"I'm not trying to understand our audience," I said. I was get-
ting pretty heated at this point---always a bad idea. "I'm doing
a story on the abuse of mentally ill inmates in Connecticut."
"You don't get it," he said, shaking his head.
The story aired many months later, at less than its origi-
nal length, between stories that apparently reflected a better
understanding of the audience. During my time at Dateline, I
did plenty of stories that led the broadcast and many full hours
that were heavily promoted on the network. But few if any of
my stories were more tragic, or more significant in news value,
than this investigation into the Connecticut prison system.
Networks have so completely abandoned the mission of
reporting the news that someone like entrepreneur Charles
Ferguson, who sold an Internet software company to Micro-
soft in 1996 [and whose writing has appeared in this magazine;
see "What's Next for Google," January 2005 ---Ed.], can spend $2
million of his own money to make an utterly unadorned docu-
mentary about Iraq and see it become an indie hit. Ferguson's
No End in Sight simply lays out, without any emotional
digressions or narrative froth, how the U.S. military missed
the growing insurgency. The straightforward questions and
answers posed by this film are so rare in network news today
that they seem like an exotic, innovative form of cinema,
although they're techniques that belong to the Murrow era.
In its way, Ferguson's film is as devastating an indictment of
network television as it is of the Bush administration.
Even when the networks do attempt to adopt new technology,
they're almost as misguided as when they don't. As the nation
geared up for the invasion of Iraq back in 2002 and 2003, NBC
seemed little concerned with straightforward questions about
policy, preparedness, and consequences. It was always, on
some level, driven by the unstated theme of 9/11 payback, and
by the search for the emotional center of the coming conflict.
From the inside, NBC's priority seemed to be finding---and
making sure the cameras were aimed directly at---the Septem-
ber 11 firefighters of the coming Iraq invasion: the soldiers. To
be certain, the story of the troops was newsworthy, but as sub-
sequent events would reveal, focusing on it so single-mindedly
obscured other important stories.
In 2002 and 2003, NBC news spent enormous amounts of
time and money converting an army M88 tank recovery vehicle
into an armored, mobile, motion-stabilized battlefield produc-
tion studio. The so-called Bloom-mobile, named for NBC cor-
respondent David Bloom, brought a local, Live-at-5, "This is
London" quality to armed conflict. Using a microwave signal,
the new vehicle beamed pictures of Bloom, who was embedded
with the Third Infantry Division, from the Iraqi battlefield to
an NBC crew a few miles behind, which in turn retransmitted
to feed via satellite to New York, all in real time. While other
embeds had to report battlefield activities, assemble a dispatch,
and then transport it to a feed point at the rear of the troop for-
mation, Bloom could file stories that were completely live and
mostly clear. He became a compelling TV surrogate for all the
soldiers, and demand for his "live shots" was constant.
But Bloom's success in conveying to the viewing audi-
ence the visual (and emotional) experiences of the advanc-
ing troops also meant that he was tethered to his microwave
transmitter and limited in his ability to get a bigger picture of
the early fight. Tragically, Bloom died of a deep-vein blood clot.
The expensive Bloom-mobile remote transmitter eventually
came home and spent time ghoulishly on display outside 30
Rockefeller Center. It was used once or twice to cover hurri-
canes in the fall of 2004, to little success, and was eventually
mothballed. The loss of one of NBC's most talented journal-
ists was folded into the larger emotional narrative of the war
and became a way of conveying, by implication, NBC's own
casualty count in the war e ort.
The focus on gadgetry meant once again that the deeper
story about technology and the war was missed. Technol-
ogy was revolutionizing war reporting by enabling combat
soldiers to deliver their own dispatches from the field in real
time. In 2004, I pitched Dateline on the story of how soldiers
were creating their own digital networks and blogging their
firsthand experiences of the war. The show passed. My story
appeared in Wired a year later.
SIX SIGMA IN THE NEWSROOM
Perhaps the biggest change to the practice of journalism in the
time I was at NBC was the absorption of the news division into
the pervasive and all-consuming corporate culture of GE. GE
had acquired NBC back in 1986, when it bought RCA. By 2003,
GE's managers and strategists were getting around to seeing
whether the same tactics that made the production of turbine
generators more e cient could improve the production of
television news. This had some truly bizarre consequences.
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