3/21/2015

Like most viewers of the NBC Nightly News, I've weathered the absence of Brian Williams with aplomb. Outside of deleting and reentering the series in my DVR's scheduled recordings, just to avoid looking at his picture in the channel descriptor, I've done nothing different. Naturally, they didn't replace Brian's picture with one of Lester Holt. No, that would be too much of a commitment, but I won't digress. Suffice it to say that NBC's reluctance to recognize what the market already knows, that Lester's straight-up style is a relief from Brian's gravitas, confirms a tone-deaf management in thrall to the past.  

Bringing Andrew Lack back would appear to be an attempt to retake the high ground, a return to the so-called glory days of the 90s, before Brian took Tom Brokaw's chair. Certainly, Brokaw, who evidently suspected his successor's casual approach to the facts, won't return in any capacity beyond guest commentator. He doesn't need the money, and I believe his private assertions include a eulogy for the news in general.

You'd think Lack would restore order by mandating a return to quality journalism. Perhaps his work at Sony Music Entertainment and the Bloomberg Media Group altered his commitment to serious reporting, though it's difficult to imagine the latter organization tolerating such an indulgence. Maybe Lack hasn't taken full control of the situation at Nightly News, another implausible scenario.

Whatever the reason, last night's astounding fall from grace signals a network in jeopardy, and I don't mean the game show.

Full disclosure: I'm a fan of Clay Shirky, which is the digital media equivalent of being a yellow-dog Democrat. That means I'd sooner watch a yellow dog read the news than accept where some forms of journalism, and I use the term loosely, are headed. Unlike some folks at Time Inc., I'm not a fan of Buzzfeed, but they're rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, and will do anything for a buck. We are in the first years of the digital news revolution, so it's bound to get messy.

The old school mindset won't go quietly. A few years ago, I attended a Bay Area event for Columbia alumni, where Nicholas Lemann, then dean of the journalism school, spoke about the current state of his profession. During Q&A, I asked about the importance of brand. His reply? "That's not a word we use in our building."

I hope the kids in his program today have a different opinion.

But you've got to draw the line somewhere, even in a brave new world. Last night, I settled back after a long day to watch the recorded Lester go through his paces. Story after story unfolded in a punchy sequence of clips and live delivery. Once again, I enjoyed the upbeat style. And then, all hell broke loose.

Cut to Lester sitting in front of two full-size images: a montage of photos showing a mother and child, and head shots of a dark-haired guy wearing a suit and hat (not Don Draper), and a shot of the well-fed tyke today. Superimposed over the montage, the phrase "Past Lives?" raised an immediate red flag.

Luckily, I was on my first cocktail. Lester's lead-in about Ryan, the boy who remembers details of a past life as a gangster, was oddly soothing, lulling me into complacency until they rolled the footage. I almost dropped my glass when I heard the creepy music. Suddenly, we were on Dateline NBC, Lester's other gig. The segment began with a summary of the "facts" before devolving into complete conjecture. No, that's too good a word, but my hangover precludes effective cursing.

Music under a news story? Call me old-school. I don't care because I know that I'm not. But the news is not a lap dance, and Lester should not be a lap dog for an NBC that mistakes streetwalking for brand management. Can you imagine Brokaw doing the piece?

Here's the link, until they take it down, no way to avoid the 15-second commercial: Expert Investigates 10-Year-Old 'Reincarnation' Claims.

No words.

2/25/2015

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

- from "Dreams," by Langston Hughes

I lost a close friend yesterday. Dori Maynard, head of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, lost her battle with lung cancer and passed away at the age of 56. We had drinks last October, during one of her frequent visits to New York City, a place she could call home as much as Oakland. This was several months after our previous get-together, when her severe cough made me think that she had been running herself more ragged than usual. She seemed better in October, and said as much, as if to reassure me, but her resigned fatigue, the wan smile in place of the beaming mischievous expression I knew so well, spoke volumes that I chose not to engage.

She was more than a sister, but I'll start there, because we had that type of connection. Her father, Robert Maynard, was Barbadian-American, like my father. Both men pulled themselves up out of a Brooklyn that gave no quarter to anyone, let alone black intellectuals. Bob Maynard became the first African-American editor of a major daily newspaper, the Oakland Tribune. He was a Nieman Fellow, an honor later bestowed on his daughter as well.

Dori was ten years younger than me, and went to Middlebury College in a different time than my turbulent days at Columbia. Had we been contemporaries, we might have dated, or something...whatever our insouciant hormones would have permitted.

Beyond the sibling fantasy, our reality centered on words: articles in newspapers, audited for demographic coverage. Dori hired me as a consultant to the Institute in 2002, to convert a manual content audit process into a web application. I had just come off a great run in Silicon Valley: several years at Cisco during the late-Nineties heyday, followed by three glamorous startups in LA. But then, the dot-com bust took everyone down, and I had to spend my winnings to support my family. The part-time gig at the Maynard Institute was a lifesaver, and though I struggled to admit it, a welcome change from the lockstep Valley mentality that had proven strangely inequitable in difficult times.

After commuting from my home in San Carlos, a fairy-tale town with no sense of hardship, down to Beverly Hills, or back east to Manhattan, I took BART every day out to Oakland, coming up out of the 12th Street station and dodging the human traffic in front of the Tribune Building where the Institute had its offices. In those days, the street commerce was so fierce that a pair of Oakland's finest were continuous fixtures on the corner. I like to think that this was one of many lessons Dori taught me: "You might have been all that, but here you are now, so make the best of it."

She was always supportive, and firm. Whatever my accomplishment, she would be gracious with her remarks, not effusive, but appreciative. Over the years, we grew together, taking the Institute into the digital age, to the extent that her resources permitted. She was constantly raising money, as if shoveling coal in a locomotive cab. No foundation, or donor, was too distant. Frequent flier miles were her staple, and she enjoyed the travel that in the end must have been such a challenge.

Above all, Dori was humble, and tolerant, except when it came to the dignity of all ethnic groups. On the rare, inevitably drunken occasion when I might make a politically incorrect joke, she would recoil in horror, knowing my inherently liberal nature, but abhorring even superficial slights to others. And yet, she was one tough cookie in the trenches. When her good friend Chauncey Bailey was murdered on an Oakland street in 2007, Dori spearheaded the Chauncey Bailey Project, as if daring evil to show its head again: “We cannot stand for a reporter to be murdered while working on behalf of the public," she said. "Chauncey’s death is a threat to democracy...We will not be bullied.” This took courage, because the threat was real, local to Oaktown.

She and I used to have the greatest conversations, skewering everyone from George W. Bush to more challenging targets. We talked about books, politics, anything and everything that came to mind. She listened with a gimlet eye when I whined about this or that, the challenge of writing fiction and software at the same time, the lack of respect in the Valley, and she kept me on as a consultant past the time when she could afford to, sensing the importance of whatever she could pay me.

Generosity, along with championing journalistic diversity, will be Dori's legacy. Her work is too important to end with her passing. I aspire to the audacity of her efforts, and miss the pleasure of her company. RIP.

2/7/2015

It's been the kind of weekly news cycle that reminds us how quickly people, and their encapsulating brands, can wither in the public eye. The consequences of carelessness, duplicity, self-aggrandizement and downright fraud have never been clearer. We barely had time to process the shameful exit of New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (an event I am happy that my father, himself a Democratic Assemblyman, was not around to witness) before the latest onslaught:

Amy Pascal steps down as head of Sony Pictures after the blowback from racially tinged emails made public by a merry band of hackers.

Benjamin Netanyahu throws John Boehner under the bus, claiming that this Speaker led him to believe that Obama knew about Bibi's plan to "dis" the President in front of a joint session of Congress.         

Brian Williams delivers a prime time mea culpa about inaccurate war coverage, using his best spaniel expression to soften the blow of outrage over his apparently false assertion that in 2003 a helicopter carrying him as a passenger was shot out of the Iraqi sky.

The balm of Gilead does flow, however.

After the ruckus over Silver's exit, we see that a sexual harassment suit against him was settled under new management, his successor Carl Heastie proclaiming "zero tolerance" for such behavior in the future. Talk about burying the lede. 

Pascal will get a "major production deal," which is showbiz for "don't let the door hit you on the way out." No harm, no foul. This is how the food chain works in the Southland. In the words of the late Bernie Brillstein, you're no one in Hollywood until someone wants you dead.

But Brian continues to take fire. The announcement that NBC will conduct an internal investigation of Williams, reviewing not only his wartime coverage of Iraq, but also his reporting on Hurricane Katrina, "as well as any other issues that arise during the investigation," does not bode well. While some dispute the notion of an internal probe, believing such scrutiny would be more appropriate at arm's length, outside the network, no one has offered Brian their unconditional support.

The Huffington Post reports that Tom Brokaw "pushed back" against a New York Post story claiming he wanted Brian fired:

"I have neither demanded nor suggested Brian be fired," Brokaw said in an email to The Huffington Post. "His future is up to Brian and NBC News executives."

In the wake of this tour de confiance, we spot the dorsal fin of Katie Couric, who would evidently have no qualms bolting from the gulag that is Yahoo News. Have you seen the restaurants in Sunnyvale? Please.

While Couric's less than stellar performance as CBS news anchor would appear to be disadvantageous, it ain't over 'til it's over. 

Or, to paraphrase another of Yogi's gems, the news is ninety per cent mental, and the other half is physical.

This is just the latest problem for NBC. Of course, it's the mother of all disasters, a flagship anchor losing public trust overnight, but the brand was tarnished with David Gregory's unceremonious, albeit anticipated, ouster. No one could have taken Tim Russert's place on "Meet the Press," and Gregory had an allegedly brittle personality, but the network had already bungled its public firing of Ann Curry. 

And then there's Dr. Nancy Snyderman, whose constant presence on Brian's program reminded us that, if nothing else mattered, responsible reporting about medicine would always ring true. Until she was caught violating her Ebola-related quarantine.

The furor over Williams is serious. Whatever the outcome, NBC has been damaged, weakening its position against its rivals. In the case of ABC and CBS, perhaps this will improve the quality of journalism. Fox News? Well, you know what Bernie Brillstein said.