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Divorced from Reality

NBC’s reality is something I’m proud to be out of touch with.
January 12, 2008

It was with some trepidation that I submitted my essay in this month’s issue of Tech Review. Whether it was the perceived ruthlessness of my former masters at NBC/GE or simply the shame of being seen as a disgruntled former employee ranting in print, I presumed there would be a response. I was dragged away from Christmas carols at the piano in New England by a call from the Philadelphia Inquirer on December 23. The essay was picked up by blogs all through the holidays, and then shortly after the new year, the people at The O’Reilly Factor were among the first to call. In the weeks since the posting, I have received hundreds of e-mails and observed at least as many references in blogs and links, besides the coverage in Hollywood Reporter, Variety, and the Daily Kos.

In Hollywood there was much interest in my description of NBC head Jeff Zucker as a toy action figure from The Simpsons or The Sopranos, while O’Reilly was most interested in allegations of GE dealings with Iran and the bin Laden family. In general the coverage ignored the central point about how networks confuse technology with gadgets and miss the important transformations taking place in media of all kinds. Mostly I was left with the impression that there is enormous pent-up anxiety over the state of network television in the U.S. I received numerous e-mails from former subjects of Dateline segments relating personal stories of being crammed into some preconceived emotional narrative by NBC or Dateline. Journalists hired as consultants by NBC told me of having their own story pitches dismissed or ignored. I was creepily worried that perverted targets of To Catch a Predator would contact me and declare me their hero for going after Dateline. Instead, it was people directly concerned about child exploitation who were happiest that I had taken on Dateline. To them the Predator concept was a stunt that didn’t aid in addressing child exploitation on the Web.

There were numerous people who contacted me from within the networks who assured me that their experience was even worse than what I had described. To these stalwart but more than a little disgruntled TV news producers and journalists, my essay seemed to read as a secret diary smuggled from inside the gulag.

I received many requests to go on the air and talk about the essay but in the end refused them all, including the one from The O’Reilly Factor. The Fox producer explained that the show wanted to focus on GE inserting itself into editorial decisions at NBC and also suggested that Bill O’Reilly personally has an interest in keeping a watchful eye on the competition at MSNBC. “You mean Olbermann?” I asked the producer, referring to how Keith Olbermann, whose show competes with O’Reilly, has made much sport of calling the Fox anchor “the worst human being on earth,” a very NBC/GE-esque experiment in branding. “Well partly,” he said. “The way MSNBC has acted makes the whole profession look bad.” I agreed but perhaps for a different reason.

Corporate media such as NBC/GE seek a single truth: the reality of Audience (or: the supremacy of ratings). If lefty performances such as those delivered by Keith Olbermann deliver eyeballs, fine (Don Imus’s offenses were fine on MSNBC until they offended sponsors). If faux-conservative screaming about politics from pundits like Chris Matthews and Joe Scarborough demonstrate traction, they can dutifully remain part of the revenue engine of GE. Even the bizarre corporate rituals of GE have been mined by NBC for the successful comedy 30 Rock. Any thought that journalism might embody the values of factual truth, a moral right, or civic accountability is merely arcane unless such virtues can also prove themselves by delivering revenue.

In the end, O’Reilly put on a story without me. Fox News did quote extensively from Tech Review and had a picture of me. Headlining on Fox News amounted to something of a milestone for Tech Review and I was proud to have been a part of history. The story O’Reilly ran was about GE, the bin Ladens, and Iran. They also noted NBC’s official response to my essay. A spokesman had said that I was so out of touch with reality that there was no reason for them to respond.

But hearing O’Reilly quote NBC about my departure from reality made me proud. As painful as it was to have been axed after nine years of service at NBC, I felt quite happy and a bit relieved to have left this network “reality.” For that I owe NBC a debt of gratitude, but I suspect the network brass is too busy figuring out such urgent matters as how to make the Golden Globe Awards a “news event” despite the writer’s strike, or picking which bimbos will open suitcases on Deal or No Deal, to accept my thanks.

NBC’s reality is a little too real for me. I think I’ll just stay detached for now.

Read the Original Essay: You Don’t Understand Our Audience: What I learned about network television at Dateline NBC. »

Read the Reuters’s article: Former “Dateline” Reporter Blasts NBC.

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