Advertisers were aggressive in their use of new technologies long before network news divisions went anywhere near them. This is exactly the opposite of the trend in the 1960s and ’70s, when the news divisions were first adopters of breakthroughs in live satellite and video technology. But in the 1990s, advertisers were quick to use the Internet to seek information about consumers, exploiting the potential of communities that formed around products and brands. Throughout the time I was at the network, GE ads were all over NBC programs like Meet the Press and CNBC’s business shows, but they seemed never to appear on Dateline. (They also had far higher production values than the news programs and even some entertainment shows.) Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and N.W.A were already major cultural icons; grunge and hip-hop were the soundtrack for commercials at the moment networks were passing on stories about Kurt Cobain’s suicide and Tupac Shakur’s murder.
Meanwhile, on 60 Minutes, Andy Rooney famously declared his own irrelevance by being disgusted that a spoiled Cobain could find so little to love about being a rock star that he would kill himself. Humor in commercials was hip–subtle, even, in its use of obscure pop-cultural references–but if there were any jokes at all in news stories, they were telegraphed, blunt visual gags, usually involving weathermen. That disjunction remains: at the precise moment that Apple cast John Hodgman and Justin Long as dead-on avatars of the PC and the Mac, news anchors on networks that ran those ads were introducing people to multibillion-dollar phenomena like MySpace and Facebook with the cringingly naïve attitude of “What will those nerds think of next?”
Entertainment programs often took on issues that would never fly on Dateline. On a Thursday night, ER could do a story line on the medically uninsured, but a night later, such a “downer policy story” was a much harder sell. In the time I was at NBC, you were more likely to hear federal agriculture policy discussed on The West Wing, or even on Jon Stewart, than you were to see it reported in any depth on Dateline.
Sometimes entertainment actually drove selection of news stories. Since Dateline was the lead-in to the hit series Law & Order on Friday nights, it was understood that on Fridays we did crime. Sunday was a little looser but still a hard sell for news that wasn’t obvious or close to the all-important emotional center. In 2003, I was told that a story on the emergence from prison of a former member of the Weather Underground, whose son had graduated from Yale University and won a Rhodes Scholarship, would not fly unless it dovetailed with a story line on a then-struggling, soon-to-be-cancelled, and now-forgotten Sunday-night drama called American Dreams, which was set in the 1960s. I was told that the Weather Underground story might be viable if American Dreams did an episode on “protesters or something.” At the time, Dateline’s priority was another series of specials about the late Princess Diana. This blockbuster was going to blow the lid off the Diana affair and deliver the shocking revelation that the poor princess was in fact even more miserable being married to Prince Charles than we all suspected. Diana’s emotional center was coveted in prime time even though its relevance to anything going on in 2003 was surely out on some voyeuristic fringe.
To get airtime, not only did serious news have to audition against the travails of Diana or a new book by Dr. Phil, but it also had to satisfy bizarre conditions. In 2003, one of our producers obtained from a trial lawyer in Connecticut video footage of guards subduing a mentally ill prisoner. Guards themselves took the footage as part of a safety program to ensure that deadly force was avoided and abuses were documented for official review. We saw guards haul the prisoner down a greenish corridor, then heard hysterical screaming as the guard shooting the video dispassionately announced, “The prisoner is resisting.” For 90 seconds several guards pressed the inmate into a bunk. All that could be seen of him was his feet. By the end of the video the inmate was motionless. Asphyxiation would be the official cause of death.
This kind of gruesome video was rare. We also had footage of raw and moving interviews with this and another victim’s relatives. The story had the added relevance that one of the state prison officials had been hired as a consultant to the prison authority in Iraq as the Abu Ghraib debacle was unfolding. There didn’t seem to be much doubt about either the newsworthiness or the topicality of the story. Yet at the conclusion of the screening, the senior producer shook his head as though the story had missed the mark widely. “These inmates aren’t necessarily sympathetic to our audience,” he said. The fact that they had been diagnosed with schizophrenia was unimportant. Worse, he said that as he watched the video of the dying inmate, it didn’t seem as if anything was wrong.
“Except that the inmate died,” I offered.
“But that’s not what it looks like. All you can see is his feet.”
“With all those guards on top of him.”
“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 getting 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.