In addition to interviews, another net gainer of airtime at every one of the American channels was live interactions—“two-ways,” they’re called—between anchors and correspondents. They can work sometimes, but once correspondents become recognizable people, there is curiosity not just about their opinions but about their emotions, a subject often probed during these conversations. “I remember telling my reporters, one thing I never want to hear in your reports is, ‘I think,’ ” says Frank Sesno, a former CNN White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief. He laughs at the memory of a different, more buttoned-up time, but he worries, too: “We have celebrified the news to the point where we are losing the news, where it is more about what some people think than what they know.
“If we were producing a video piece,” Sesno continues, “there was an editorial process. There was a producer assigned to it. There were interviews. There was a copy edit procedure. When people were doing live shots . . . there was no way to scrutinize every word. So you stood up in front of the camera and spoke spontaneously.”
Okay, Jonathan Klein might retort, live shots may not give viewers much depth or precision but they have other qualities. “A well-done live report has the advantage of energy and immediacy over a package,” Klein says. “Sanjay Gupta reporting live from the medical center in Haiti, as the Belgian doctors were abandoning, was by far the most powerful story to emerge from the Haiti earthquake last year, and that was a live shot. No tape package could have captured the drama of this situation as it unfolded.”
For correspondents, this “drama” comes at a price. Live shots steal time from reporting, the work which provides reporters the facts from which their authority is built.
Some TV news executives don’t agree. “I can see your worry,” says Michael Clemente, a former aide-de-camp to Peter Jennings at ABC who is now a senior vice president at Fox News Channel. “If they’re going to be doing it almost hourly, the reporting might suffer at the hand of live shots. That may be true for correspondents who grew up only filing at six o’clock for the evening news, but most of the reporters out there now at a place like Fox know how to file for radio, write a story for dot-com, do their live shot, and report.”
Alex Wallace, Clemente’s counterpart at NBC and MSNBC, says, “That’s something we struggle with. For example, when we were in Libya, when MSNBC would want three live shots and nbc wants the reporter to go out to find a small town that the rebels say they’ve taken back. That’s the demand of having five platforms.”
Both Wallace and Clemente offer the same strategy to keep such demands under control. They are always, they say, ready to break their correspondents away from the live shots, “for three or four hours,” they both estimated, of reporting.
Such talk sounds good in the newsroom, but in the world, where the live location may be miles away from “the story,” where finding and talking with witnesses is not like making instant oatmeal, the time between live shots is often not enough. And as Jonathan Klein confessed, sometimes even the best intentions get steamrolled by newsroom habit. “That’s a big problem we tried to change at CNN. We tried to push hard to reduce the number of live shots. At the White House, we tried to free up our reporter from the north lawn just to see if they could up the real reporting. It failed because muscle memory snaps back. Producers automatically schedule live shots, and we had to challenge our producers: ‘Why is Suzanne Malveaux on the lawn again? Isn’t she supposed to be doing some reporting?’ ”