I was over 60 years old when I first heard it, nearly eligible for Social Security after four decades in newsrooms, dealing with Sputnik, assassinations in Dallas and Memphis, rioting in America's streets, Vietnam, a man on the moon, the lies of Richard Nixon, an awful Sunday in Beirut that left many U.S. Marines dead, the Gulf War, the collapse of the sham called the Soviet Union, and on and on.
It was only three words long. A good radio sentence. "It's show business," the man said. There it was, right out in the open, and here all this time I thought I was in the news business. I had, I swear, started out in the news business and gone about my work almost religiously. Then a woman cut a man's penis off and it got picked up (both the penis and the story), Tonya Harding's ex-husband took care of a competitor, O.J. took himself and all of us for a ride, and the world I had always known got turned upside down.
I was as guilty as anyone else. These were legitimate news stories, right? I sure thought so at the time. Maybe it was the never-ending, day after day, hour after hour emphasis on them that led to where we are today. "It's show business," the man said, walking through the CBS News, Radio newsroom where he was the new boss and his credo was all that mattered. When you're in show business, you can't be BORING. Ya gotta keep things zippy, sassy and breezy (ZSB). So say Auf Wiedersehen to most foreign stories. They are so lacking in ZSB. Dump'em. What ya wanna focus on is anything involving sex, celebrities, and unrepentant trash of all kinds - white, black, Asian, butterscotch, whatever. That's the real news, or what passes for it, much of the time now on many radio and TV outlets and Web sites.
With show business as their mandate, editors and anchors at CBS Radio looked to Hollywood. On at least two mornings - when radio has its biggest audience - a lead story was the opening of widely-hyped movies. Is not something really messed up when "The CBS World News Roundup," a distinguished broadcast going all the way back to 1938, starts the day sounding like "Entertainment Tonight?" I had lived long enough to see a serious profession, mine, become a frivolous one. A joke.
The packaging of fluff and gossip as news may have been inevitable at CBS and other networks because of the lust of many radio station owners to mimic the perky pace and mindlessness of local TV news and to make damn sure their news and talk station sounded exactly like everyone else with that format. CBS Radio's discarding of serious journalism was hurried along when refrigerator peddlers, Westinghouse, bought the Tiffany Network and tossed out its culture. "You can be sure if it's Westinghouse" it was all money, all the time. Quality was no longer part of the equation. The less spent on anchors, editors, freelance reporters, technicians, overtime, benefits, the better. After my boss was sent packing, Mr. Show Business was put in charge, and I was soon out the door too.
Having never done anything else, I had no way of comparing the changes in "news" to what was happening in other businesses. If I had been a carpenter, hired by a company with a reputation for using the best materials, employing the most skilled artisans and not leaving a job until things were picture perfect, what would have been my reaction when the business was sold to people whose sole passion was how much money could be made and how fast expenses and personnel could be cut? Let's say I stayed on, and we were told to use cheap sheetrock instead of quality cement board as before, to substitute plastic for metal wherever possible, and to not sweat making every joint, every beam fit tight. If I did what the new bosses wanted, would I still be a carpenter? Or would I be something else, even if I didn't know it or wouldn't admit it?
That question became more relevant than ever when CBS News, Radio introduced the iCast, a "newscast" for Ipod users. In the first iCast, the anchor used the word "smart-ass," ridiculed Wal-Mart employees as well as a professor CBS News had interviewed, made at least two factual mistakes and, suddenly, set loose rock music in a "story" about Israeli shelling of Lebanon. At least one manager claimed the affiliates loved the iCasts. Maybe so, but like many love affairs it didn't last long. The iCast is no more, yet it wouldn't surprise me if the devotees of show business came up with something even worse. Just give them time.
It's common for geezers in any profession to believe the "punks" who came after them don't know as much or work as hard. A former pressman for the New York Daily News, Frank Amato, says of some of the younger guys there now, "They don't even know how to make a hat," referring to the caps "real" pressmen on the night shift traditionally made from old newspapers to keep ink out of their hair. Charles Oakley, formerly of the Chicago Bulls and the New York Knicks, was asked in a TV interview what he and former teammates Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing talk about when they get together. "How bad the players are today," I heard Oakley say, and he didn't look like he was kidding.
There are some very good journalists at commercial radio networks and stations today, but their bosses – lovers of show business and buzz – have made it clear that's what they expect to hear on the air. Although it isn't funny, I chuckle when I think about what those who are dispensing trash disguised as information today are likely to say about the "punks" who follow them: "They don't have any standards." No kidding. And whose fault is that?
About the author:
Larry McCoy retired more than three years ago after 45 years in the news business. In addition to CBS News, his employers included ABC News, United Press International and Radio Free Europe. He has written a memoir called "Everyone Needs An Editor (Some Of Us More Than Others. " A collection of his humorous essays on aging will be published soon by Sunstone Press.
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