Thursday, March 06, 2003

How They Handle It

For my news fix, I watch local news at 4:30PM (WREG, Channel 3), then the BBC World News Service on WNKO, then ABC World News Tonight at 5:30. Last night the BBC and ABC both carried stories about the "unity" meeting of Arab states that descended into name calling between Iraq's representatives and the Kuwaitis. The differences were instructive.

The BBC simply showed the video, with bland translator voices carrying the load. It was hilarious to listen to diplomats calling each other "monkeys," I must admit. But when ABC did the story, they showed the same video, but Peter Jennings provided some of the translated words, not correctly attributing them, and then threw in some comment in his "just walked into the studio, but I read the New York Times, so I'm ready" style. It served to highlight Jennings and to garble and diminish the story.

Which is the point. On the BBC, the people who read the news are called "presenters." There's no pretense that these people are little more than handsome news readers, although many have some journalistic experience. The emphasis, though, is that these folks are merely reading the news, and nothing else.

But in America, the "anchor" is the star. It's as much about Rather, Brokaw or Jennings (or any other news host you care to name) as it is about the news itself. That's why there are so many cut-away shots to the interviewer, and why the questions serve the anchor and not the story.

Look, for example, at the kinds of questions that get asked on the morning shows. Couric, Lauer, Gibson, Sawyer and whoever the hapless bunch at CBS are, all ask "closed" questions, intended to force short answers from the interviewed. "Did you feel frightened?" "You didn't mean to shoot him, did you?" These shows have snappy paces that can't handle slow or long answers, or confused subjects. The need is for the anchors to set things up so that they get the answers they're looking for, which tends to put the emphasis on them over their subjects.

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