The irony here is so deep as to be painful. As the technology of video and television production has gotten increasingly simpler and cheaper to make, TV networks have run away from it instead of embracing it. For nearly twenty-five years, I have been preaching the gospel of the video journalist (VJ), as well as building TV networks and stations around the world based on this simple principle: give reporters laptops and cameras and show them the door. In many places in the world, this concept has been eagerly embraced—it is both less expensive (cutting the cost by as much as 80 percent) and at the same time, it delivers far more and better material.
At the BBC, we took their national network from fielding sixty-four beta crews a day to cover the country to fielding more than a thousand cameras a day—all in the hands of BBC journalists.
At NY1 (which we built in 1990/1!), we put forty-two cameras on the street of New York every day, while WCBS, where Dave Marash was then working, I believe, was fielding eight crews.
When I started Current TV with Al Gore, we unleashed literally millions of VJs with cameras and let them tell their stories—and still we are only at the beginning of this revolution. Yet, having just had meetings with all of the major networks, I can tell you that they would rather go out of business than embrace this concept. And why?
I think it has to do with the idea that “real” reporters don’t carry cameras, and that, in fact, if anyone can shoot and edit video, then they are no longer so “special.”
I saw this many years ago at Channel 1 in London, when Nick Pollard, who later went on to run Sky, replaced the small mobile video cameras with Betacams and all the accompanying gear. His reason: “I will not have my people laughed at in the streets.” It didn’t look “professional” to him.
Twenty years later and nothing has changed.
New York, NY
Open the Door!
Thank you, Curtis Brainard, for an excellent article (“Transparency Watch: A Closed Door,” CJR, September/October). The government’s press policies establish one-way information flows (them to us) and deter media efforts to get off its storyline. That’s only possible when government scientists are not afraid to publicly speak their minds on controversial matters of public interest—the last thing their bosses want to let happen.
The situation has been worsening since the Clinton administration (mostly with the FDA), and it’s heading in an Orwellian direction, which means unhealthy use of media-control techniques pioneered in totalitarian regimes (think Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union). So long as these government filters and barriers are introduced gradually and informally, rising generations of new journalists will not know better, and their acceptance will be inevitable.
Editor, fda Webview
I found Curtis Brainard’s article very useful. I, too, am disappointed that so many people believe “transparency” has been reduced under the Obama administration. But suggesting that formalized database-access programs and use of social media are somehow being used to cover for increased clampdown on access seems a bit farfetched.
Anytime you involve press officers in trying to manage access to sensitive information—and much of the information still being researched is sensitive and has significant public-health, industry, and environmental costs associated with it—you’ll generate a belief that somehow it is possible to control access to information. What is happening, though, is that younger researchers are using social media to discuss research information more openly and in ways that end-run traditional peer review or agency policy controls.
Just as it’s unrealistic to attempt to control all agency scientists’ communication with the press, it’s unrealistic for agencies to believe that research findings can be completely bottled up until some final publication is reviewed and approved. That’s just not how science works. If we overdramatize the back-and-forth jousting of agencies and journalists, we may ignore how much communication may already be taking place on a day-to-day basis.
So, yes, I believe that a journalist (or any citizen) should be able to pick up the phone and call anyone on the government payroll and expect a civil response about what the scientist is working on without Big Brother peering over his or her shoulder. At the same time, the scientist shouldn’t be pushed to release unverified, incomplete, or preliminary information that is still undergoing analysis or scientific review. I don’t call that censorship. I call that being conservative about methodology and reporting—especially if you know the political and industrial sharks are circling.
Dennis D. McDonald (www.ddmcd.com)