Bonnie M. Anderson Looks
at the "News"
This is Part 1 of a 2-part BuzzFlash Interview with Bonnie M. Anderson.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW | Part 1 | Part
Call me old school. Call me old fashioned or a dinosaur, but I
think government should be about protecting the Bill of Rights.
should be truthful to the American public, and not about trying to
manipulate the public and, in this case, also manipulating the media.
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Bonnie M. Anderson won 7 Emmy Awards and was a finalist for the Pulitzer
Prize during her 27 year career as a print and broadcast journalist.
as author of News
Flash: Journalism, Infotainment, and the Bottom-Line Business of Broadcast
she turns a critical eye on what passes today as America's free press.
In Newsflash, she details the decline of independence and truth
in the media, which has gone hand in hand with the ever greater consolidation
of the media in the hands of a few. She talks with BuzzFlash here about
infotainment, journalistic ethics, preoccupation with the bottom line,
ageism, and the politics of the news rooms.
* * *
BuzzFlash: In the preface of News
you recount an experience when you were in charge of recruiting for CNN.
A new executive at CNN asked you the question, ďWhat is a journalist?Ē
He also told you, we need "younger, more attractive anchors,"
male and female, who project credibility. My question concerns the issue
of perception versus reality, which seems to be at the core of the discussion
over what is news nowadays. As you point out, the individual you were
talking about had been at NBC Entertainment before that.
Bonnie M. Anderson: Yes, with a very impressive resume,
when it comes to the world of entertainment, but, obviously, not for news.
BuzzFlash: You were looking for seasoned people, but as you point
out, they looked older and more worn because they had been out in the
field. So there was a conflict between finding younger, more attractive
faces and people who had a lot of experience.
Bonnie M. Anderson: I should give you a little background.
When Garth Ancier arrived at CNN in 2001, he came in as number two at
Turner Broadcasting. He decreed from the get-go that he needed to okay
and approve anybody who was going to be on air. This had never been done
before. The corporate side of the company had never really interfered
in hiring or news gathering at all. So he took a lot of the authority
out of the hands of the individual network chiefs and various division
chiefs. Still, he was the big boss.
I had culled through hundreds of tapes for a number of
openings at Headline News and at CNN, and some of the other networks.
We had narrowed down the people, and I had five or six tapes with me,
I believe, from people who matched our criteria. At that time, the criteria
for all of us were that, CNN is the largest network in the world, a very
powerful network, and there is no reason why CNN should not be hiring
the absolute best in the world. So weíre talking the best journalists--but
also people who can communicate on camera--who "pop." Pop alone
should not be a hire--you donít hire somebody just because they look good
on camera, but thereís no reason why CNN could not find people who had
the full package. Many of these people, if they are experienced and good
enough to work at the network level, have got some years on them. Never
before had that been a no-go. In this case, though, I brought him the
tapes of people that the network chiefs wanted to hire. But he had sent
me an email earlier in the day ordering me to only go after "younger
and more attractive anchors who project credibility." He was saying,
ďNope, we want young and attractive people.Ē
BuzzFlash: How does that tie in to the word you use
in the subtitle to your book, News
Bonnie M. Anderson: What theyíre trying to do is get
more viewers at all costs. And ďat all costsĒ means, we donít care if
theyíre journalists or anything else, we want them to look good. We want
them to attract younger viewers. This is the strategy that they started
employing, and Iím still not sure it has any weight to it, that if you
have younger people on air, theyíll attract younger viewers. Advertisers
like younger viewers and pay more for younger viewers, so it gets down
to the bottom line. But the infotainment part was, letís entertain these
people while weíre maybe also imparting a little news. In the case of
Garth Ancier, when he asked me whatís a journalist, I truly thought
he was kidding. Then I turned around and saw his face, and realized that
he wasnít. This is the guy who, as the head of entertainment for a couple
of different networks, would hire an actor to play a doctor, and hire
an actor to play a journalist on TV. He really didnít see the difference.
He did not see the value of the training journalists go through. He did
not recognize or appreciate the fact that a lot of us abide by the canons
of journalism--that we do believe strongly in the peopleís right to know,
and in the First Amendment. We try to be fair and truly balanced and responsible
journalists. To him, here is a product. And if he had to bring in Hollywood-type
strategies to sell this product, that was fine with him.
BuzzFlash: Well, we seem to have come full circle because
the White House has been outed for using, on at least two occasions, if
not more, these promotional video releases presented as news.
Bonnie M. Anderson: Yes.
BuzzFlash: The videos imply that a journalist is covering
the story, when itís really an actor. This prepackaged footage is called
"B-roll," but itís really B-roll being used as a news story.
Bonnie M. Anderson: To me, this was a huge development
and itís what's wrong with journalism in this country. You have an Administration
lying to the public and participating in pulling the wool over the eyes
of the public to advance their own agenda. Call me old school. Call me
old fashioned or a dinosaur, but I think government should be about protecting
the Bill of Rights. Government should be truthful to the American public,
and not about trying to manipulate the public and, in this case, also
manipulating the media. We also had commentators who were pretending to
give their honest opinion on issues, when they were being paid by the
Administration to promote an agenda. This, to me, is very, very frightening.
Red flags should be going up all over this country. Unfortunately, Iím
not so sure that there will be that sort of national debate or alarm over
this. It is horrific.
BuzzFlash: You also have in your book's subtitle, reference
to the "Business of Broadcast News." Laurie Garrett recently
resigned from Newsday, and in a long piece on Poynter,
she said that she could no longer work for Newsday because the parent
company, the Times-Mirror Corporation, was only concerned with being number
one. She came to journalism to be accountable to the people, and to get
a story to the people, but she felt that had been turned upside down.
The number one accountability that news divisions or newspapers have now,
because of their corporate structure, is to the shareholders. Number two
is to Wall Street. And then, way, way down the list is the reader. Do
you have any thoughts about that?
Bonnie M. Anderson: I fully agree with her. Iím not even
sure the reader is on the list, in terms of the corporate honchos. They
truly only care about the bottom line and see news as a product. What
I will say on the positive side is that there are still some very, very
good journalists laboring away, trying to do what they can against tremendous
odds. Unfortunately, most of these are the older journalists who are still
employed because the younger journalists, and I even hesitate to call
many of them journalists, donít have as many role models as we used to
have. Theyíre indoctrinated into this infotainment world from the get-go.
From their very first jobs, theyíre looking around, and the people who
should be modeling ethics to them, and principles, arenít there. I do
agree with Laurie Garrett. This infection starts at the corporate level.
It has now been infecting high-level executives at all of the news organizations
who are making huge salaries, great stock options and bonuses.
BuzzFlash: You list some of these salaries in your book.
Bonnie M. Anderson: Millions of dollars are being paid
to the heads of news divisions. And I have to just keep saying, why? These
are folks who are protecting their own jobs and their money stream. Then
they are expected to take care of journalism and news and the public trust?
BuzzFlash: You mentioned "product." We saw
in the beginning of the Iraq war a lot of government preparation of the
media. And the night of the attack on Baghdad, the news coverage we saw
on CNN and other stations really treated this as though it were almost
a fireworks show.
Bonnie M. Anderson: Yes, "shock and awe." This
is propaganda. And news networks fell for it hook, line and sinker. They
did not want to be seen as anti-patriotic, they wanted to be seen as supporting
the troops, which means supporting the Administration. If you remember,
the President had said youíre either with us or against us. And that was
taken literally by the network honchos and the corporations that own the
networks. They were very complicit in going along with this entire propaganda
campaign. You know, technology can be wonderful and bring news to people
faster. It can take you to things that are happening live around the world.
But technology is not necessarily journalism, and itís not always a good
BuzzFlash: I was brought up believing that technology
was going to be a liberating force. It was going to bring more information
to more people more quickly. But at this point, technology seems to be
used mostly to muddle issues and to create news thatís consistent with
entertainment programming. In the Middle East, the U.S. military had a
Hollywood set designer build their base for briefing reporters. The person
who did most of the briefing was a Hollywood type of character, even though
he was in the military. It was a Hollywood-like environment.
Bonnie M. Anderson: Youíre absolutely right. Real news
isnít always pretty. The best coverage that I have seen in recent years
was on 9/11. If you remember, a number of different stations were having
problems with audio and with video, and feeds were going bad, and that
was real. You had hard working people out there trying to bring the latest
as quickly as possible, and it was very difficult under the circumstances
to give any context to it. What too many people are trying to do now is
have seamless, perfectly produced live shots and newscasts. To do that,
they bring in all of these Hollywood-type strategies.
Whatís being lost in all of this is news, and the concept
of informing the public. Not entertaining them, but informing them. That
also means, by the way, telling them things they may not want to know.
But it is our responsibility as journalists. And you want to do it accurately,
and you want to offer context. That is one of the problems with the use
of technology today--there is very little opportunity for the reporter
on the ground, or the producers back at a TV station or network, to actually
do the research and be able to think about what theyíve seen, and then
to pass this information on to the public in a responsible manner. Itís
happening too quickly most of the time.
BuzzFlash: Is the problem that weíre drowning in information,
and we canít see the forest for the trees? Who does one turn to? How does
one even decide whatís a credible news source, if there is a credible
Bonnie M. Anderson: I would maintain that weíre drowning
in garbage, not in news. We may have far more news outlets, but thereís
far less news being given to the public. Thereís far more entertainment.
Producers will spend a minute and a half on the story of the dog that
jumped out of a car and traveled 500 miles to get home across country,
instead of on what is happening on the West Bank, or in Somalia or in
BuzzFlash: Is it that the bean-counters started to take
charge of news divisions? And the news divisions are subsidiaries of large
corporate entities, most of them entertainment industry entities? Viacom
owns CBS. ABC is run by Disney. NBC is run by General Electric, which
isnít entertainment, but is beholden to the government for contracts.
Bonnie M. Anderson: Right.
BuzzFlash: For advertising purposes, and to please those
concerned about the bottom line, news shows look at the demographics and
try to gear certain news to a certain demographic.
Bonnie M. Anderson: Or they pass entertainment off as
BuzzFlash: If advertisers want to appeal to the 21 to
41 crowd, they look for news that appeals to the 21 to 41 crowd?
Bonnie M. Anderson: Absolutely. What you see on the morning
shows is a prime example. Good Morning America, the Today show and CBS
Morning News are all part of their news divisions. Yet every time some
poor schmuck is kicked off of "Survivor," that's going to be
the morning news the next day.
BuzzFlash: A lot of these companies own or are affiliated
with or receive some sort of bartering compensation from publishing companies.
Bonnie M. Anderson: These mega-entertainment/news
or infotainment corporations do own publishing houses. Theyíre basically
making choices about what is going to be on the air based on the bottom
line, not what the public needs to know. This is very dangerous. When
the end of the "Friends" show was approaching, a big money-maker
for NBC, they had everybody who was ever on "Friends" on the
Today show for weeks leading up to the last episode. This is all self-promotion,
cross-promotion. These are wonderful tricks to make more money, but it
had absolutely nothing to do with informing the world about anything.
BuzzFlash: Let me ask about soldiers dying in Iraq. Weíre
all aware that the Bush Administration wonít allow photographs of soldiers
returning in caskets to the United States. What is the justification for
that with the media? With the Vietnam war, we felt we were there when
we watched the news. We saw soldiers dying, we saw the blood and guts.
Today the media completely comply with the Bush Administration request
not to show injuries or deaths of soldiers. It's almost a war that doesnít
exist, except in sound-overs and accounts in the newspaper.
Bonnie M. Anderson: It exists only within the framework
in which this Administration wishes to show the war. Itís an outrage that
networks are going along with this. The American people need to know the
cost of war, and the cost of war is body bags coming home. The cost of
war is the injured coming back. This is what the public needs to know.
It's a perfect example of the lack of integrity or ethics in the news
organizations that are going along with another propaganda move by an
I want to say very clearly, I would say the same thing
if it were a Democratic administration. My issues are not left or right.
My issues are journalistic principles and ethics. Weíre not informing
the American public, we donít want them to see these things. But we will,
of course, allow them to spend hours watching the statue of Saddam Hussein
come tumbling down, because that glorifies and justifies the invasion
BuzzFlash: Which many argue was a fabricated event.
Bonnie M. Anderson: I would like to believe that the
networks havenít gone to that extreme yet. Or that, if they knew it was
fabricated, they would have said something. But I am becoming more and
more disillusioned as I see the complicity between the networks and news
organizations and government. Journalists need to remember that weíre
watch dogs and not lap dogs, and it is our responsibility, whether itís
popular or not, to tell the truth. I didnít go out and do stories, and
live in Lebanon during the civil war, because I wanted to be popular or
I wanted to be a star. I wouldnít risk my life for something so minor.
BuzzFlash: Thereís the bottom-line theory that the parent
corporations of most media outlets today wonít risk doing anything that
will really offend the White House. Theyíll cover something every once
in awhile, but nothing thatís really going to get the White House in a
heat. They donít question, in essence, the credibility of the President
of the United States. They may uncover a torture scandal, but then kind
of let Bush and Rove off the hook. Itís always someone at the bottom who
is blamed. Is that because theyíre afraid that Rove or someone in the
White House or in Congress will go after their media empire? They'll pass
some legislation or do something thatís going to make it very difficult
Bonnie M. Anderson: No question. A couple of different
issues tie into this. You have the FCC agreeing to allow certain corporations
to keep all of their news outlets in the same market. They raised the
percentage of ownership by a news organization allowed in a market to
accommodate two specific networks. These networks know that the same thing
could happen in reverse. And theyíre always watching their bottom line.
The other part of it, though, is that the news organizations
and the corporations that own them and the senior news folks know the
mood of the country. Theyíve seen the vote. They see whatís happening
in courts around the country, including the Supreme Court. They see the
conservative mood. They donít want to tick off the conservatives at this
point, because these folks are the majority, apparently, if you go by
votes and by whatís happening in courts. They're looking for viewers,
theyíre looking for readers, theyíre looking for listeners. So the executives
are saying, we want to go after the largest portion of the marketplace.
If it's conservative, weíre not going to tick them off, because thatís
no way to get new business and new readers and new viewers.
BuzzFlash: And you donít get fired for not going after
Bonnie M. Anderson: Right.
BuzzFlash: But the Dan Rathers, the Eason Jordans are
fair game? You worked at CNN with Eason Jordan. What do you think of
that whole controversy? He was speaking at a retreat that invites kind
of offbeat people, where they mingle and discuss things openly. Heís in
an off-the-record session. He basically did say he thought that the U.S.
had targeted journalists. When Congressman Barney Frank said, well, you
should talk to me about what really happened, he backed off and disclaimed
what he had originally said, or said he didnít say it right. This was
picked up by a blogger, and Eason Jordan is fired.
Whether one thinks the U.S. has targeted journalists or
not, there is some evidence that a reporter with courage could explore.
For instance, the movie "Control Room " shows a U.S. plane bombing
the Al-Jazeera headquarters and killing a journalist whoís on the rooftop.
The Palestine Hotel also was targeted, and it was filled with journalists.
The Italian reporter was shot during her rescue, under very questionable
circumstances. Still not resolved. Probably never will be resolved. Thereís
certainly reason to question whether possibly, somewhere in the military
command, they shot at journalists to scare them off from covering the
grimness of the Iraq war. Whether or not thatís true, no one can definitively
say at this point. But Eason Jordan raised the issue, and as a result,
was fired. What do you think of that?
Bonnie M. Anderson: Before I answer, I also want to remind
everybody that there was an incident in Afghanistan where a number of
photographers and journalists were locked up by the U.S. military so they
couldnít take pictures of some dead civilians.
Bonnie M. Anderson: Getting back to your question, I
know Eason very well. He was my boss when I was dismissed from CNN. I
donít know what information he used to make that statement, so I canít
really judge the veracity of it. But I take Eason to task in my book
on a number of other issues. One was what he wrote in The New York
Times about atrocities occurring under Saddam Hussein that CNN did
not report. He said he felt that, now that Saddam Hussein is out of power,
we can tell you these stories. Well, I donít buy his reasoning. Iíve seen
firsthand how CNN was working very hard to maintain their bureau in Baghdad.
And you piss off Saddam Hussein, you have no bureau. CNN made its name,
Eason Jordan made his name, with the coverage of the first Gulf War.
Eason got all the credit for it, and thatís how he rose through the ranks.
There have been other things, some of them never exposed yet--things that
we know from inside CNN--that I think Eason should have been called on
the carpet for. But that being said, it seems very clear to me that this
was a case where he stepped on the toes of the Administration. Whether
he had the proof or not, he stepped on the toes of the Administration
and that is why he was fired.
BuzzFlash: He said something off-the-record and was fired.
That seemed like an extraordinary thing--to fire a man for something that
was said in an off-the-record session.
Bonnie M. Anderson: Being off the record should free
somebody from responsibility to offer proof, but somebody blew confidentiality
and broke the basic ethics of journalism. Remember that we all took Connie
Chung to task when she reported a little conversation that was ďbetween
you and me,Ē an off-the-record kind of thing. Should Eason have been fired
for this? Probably not. But what also disappoints me is that he recanted.
The fact that he apologizes and recants, once again, is an example of
somebody trying to hold onto their job and do whatever it takes, regardless
of whatís true. If he felt sure enough to say something in an off-the-record
meeting, he should have been sure enough to defend his position.
BuzzFlash: You have already expressed that you were critical
of CNN's cozying up to Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War. You criticize
their not reporting on his atrocities in order to curry favor and not
be kicked out of Baghdad. You also have said news bureaus have done similar
things with Fidel Castro.
Bonnie M. Anderson: Exactly. I am not left or right.
Iím talking about what is happening in the news world, and what CNN has
done with Fidel Castro. That leftist regime is equally as heinous, as
far as Iím concerned. And again, the truth has been sacrificed and the
public is not served.
BuzzFlash: You bring up something in your book that was
just startling to me, and that is that your father was executed by Fidel
Bonnie M. Anderson: Yes.
BuzzFlash: He was the first American to be executed as
an accused spy?
Bonnie M. Anderson: Yes, he was accused of counter-revolutionary
activities. His big crime was being an American, and owning a chain of
gas stations that Fidel Castro wanted to control.
BuzzFlash: You were five at the time?
Bonnie M. Anderson: I was.
BuzzFlash: You really do see the downsides of tyrannical
regimes that attempt to control the news, wherever they fall on the political
Bonnie M. Anderson: When I was five years old, my Dad
was tortured--had the blood removed from his body prior to being put up
against a wall--they wanted to use his blood for transfusions for some
of the revolutionaries. I didnít understand the impact of that, but I
knew something was very, very wrong. As I grew up, I realized that, had
there been a free press in Cuba at the time, thereís no way Fidel Castro
and his regime could have gotten away with murdering, not just my Dad,
but 20,000 others, and imprisoning hundreds of thousands of people because
of their belief in democracy. I realized the importance of a free press.
With my book, Iím trying to remind people in this country
that it can happen anywhere. We should value a free press. Support the
media. Support investigations, whether they are uncovering something that
is for or against the government you may like. It doesnít matter. The
point is that we need to nourish the free press. We need to nourish exchange
of information and support the people who are doing it. We need to demand
higher standards. We need to remember that news is not just a business.
Iím not saying you canít make money from it, but there is a higher calling
No other business has protection from the Bill of Rights--no
other business. The media does. But along with those special protections
comes a responsibility. The responsibility is to inform the public as
best we can. And as U.S. citizens, itís our responsibility to protect
our First Amendment, and protect the rights we have, and not give them
up because there is the threat of terrorism. Donít give up your rights
to privacy and your rights to a free press and your rights to speak freely.
If we do that, weíre going to be marching down a very dangerous road.
And unless youíve been somewhere and unless youíve lived someplace where
you have lost all freedom of speech, where you have no ability to speak
or publish freely, itís hard to understand. I just donít want people to
learn the hard way, as I did.
BuzzFlash: Bonnie, thank you.
Bonnie M. Anderson: Thank you so much. I really appreciate
your interest in the issues.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
* * *
News Flash: Journalism, Infotainment and the Bottom-Line Business
of Broadcast News by Bonnie Anderson
Bonnie M. Anderson profile