The story aired many months later, at less than its original 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 Microsoft 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 documentary 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 September 11 firefighters of the coming Iraq invasion: the soldiers. To be certain, the story of the troops was newsworthy, but as subsequent 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 production studio. The so-called Bloom-mobile, named for NBC correspondent 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 formation, 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 audience the visual (and emotional) experiences of the advancing 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 hurricanes in the fall of 2004, to little success, and was eventually mothballed. The loss of one of NBC’s most talented journalists 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 effort.
The focus on gadgetry meant once again that the deeper story about technology and the war was missed. Technology 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 efficient could improve the production of television news. This had some truly bizarre consequences. To say that this Dateline correspondent with the messy corner office greeted these internal corporate changes with self-destructive skepticism is probably an understatement.