Saturday, October 20, 2012

"Binders": the biggest non-story of the election

When Mitt Romney said his now famous line, "binders full of women," I knew exactly what he meant.

Because I used to have a box full of women.

And a box full of men.

And a box full of sports anchors.

And a box full of meteorologists.

Oh my God, I had boxes full of people. The horror! Yes, this makes me an evil, evil man.

When you're staffing a newsroom, as I once did, you have to divide up the resume tapes. So I got a bunch of boxes and put the tapes in the appropriate box. Male anchors, female anchors, etc. Most NDs do similar stuff. Consultants and agents do the same thing. Call up an agent and tell him you need a female anchor, and poof! You've got another box full of women.

Sometimes you can even take a box full of women home with you, and your wife doesn't bat an eye. Then again, she didn't bat an eye when I brought home a box full of men so I could watch tapes in peace.

Of course, in any other business that doesn't use resume tapes, the people who work in Inhuman Resources collect paper resumes and store them in... wait for it... binders.

There are two points to be made, one about quotas and the other about non-stories.

First, if you don't think there's a quota system in this country, you've obviously time-warped here from the fifties. Just look around your newsroom and you see a melting pot. Every station in American looks for a certain demographic when hiring. They might need a white male one time, a minority woman the next. Of course, no one will ever admit that, as it's the dirty little secret of the business and will get you sued. But it's true of every business in America.

Second, we live in an era in which someone, somewhere, will be offended no matter what happens. I once did a heart warming story about a guy in a wheelchair, a very inspirational piece. During the story I used the phrase "confined to a wheelchair." Some viewer who was in a wheelchair called and reamed me out, saying she was horribly offended because she was "liberated by her wheelchair, not confined." It didn't matter that I was trying to do a nice story. She wanted to be offended.

And so do a lot of people. Some people just look for words to twist to make someone look bad.

So do some news people.

When the Sopranos first started airing people asked me if I was offended by it. After all, it stereotyped all Italians as being in the Mafia. After breaking their kneecaps I responded that I was not bothered by it at all.

Look, I'm not trying to stick up for one candidate here, but be honest: this "story" is ridiculous. We have a big election coming up, and in the coming weeks our news coverage needs to focus on the issues: the economy, foreign policy, health care. In the grand scheme of things, does it really matter if Romney looked at resumes in a binder or Obama likes to play a lot of golf? Does anyone really care about a poll that asks which candidate would be best to babysit your children?

Can we please stick to real issues?


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

As we head to Del Boca Vista, we're oh-for-three on moderators

After watching three moderators either channel an empty chair, get steamrolled, or both, I've decided to throw my hat in the ring to moderate one of the 2016 debates since I figure I cannot possibly do worse. Today I'm sitting down for lunch with one of the decision makers in that process, Maude R. Aytor.

Maude: So, you'd like to moderate of the debates in 2016. Tell me why.

Grape: Well, so far all the debates have gotten totally out of control of the moderator. I think I could do a better job enforcing the rules and keeping things fair.

Maude:  How so?

Grape: Well, in television we are very much in tune with time limits. If a package cannot run one second longer than a minute-thirty, it doesn't. The six o'clock news doesn't start at five minutes after six. The first thing I would do is strictly enforce time limits for the candidates.

Maude: Our rules state each candidate will get two minutes for a response, With that in mind, how much time would you give each candidate?

Grape: This a trick question?

Maude: No.

Grape: Then I would give each candidate two minutes.

Maude: (shakes head in disgust) Oh, I can see we're gonna have a problem here.

Grape: What's the correct answer?

Maude: There is no correct answer. The two minute limit is bogus. Nobody enforces it, and the candidates don't pay attention to it.

Grape: So what's the point of the rule?

Maude: It's just there to make the general public think we're fair. Now, moving on. Who are you going to vote for in November?

Grape: I'm not telling you that.

Maude: Why not?

Grape: Because as a journalist I'm supposed to remain objective and not reveal any personal opinions.

Maude: Uh-huh. (Shakes her head and writes some notes on a pad.)

At this point a waitress arrives to take our order.

Waitress: Hello, my name is Mindy and I'll be taking your order today. Our lunch specials are grilled salmon with a creamy dill sauce, pasta primavera--

Maude: I'll need a list of any politicians who attended your wedding.

The waitress glares at Maud.

Grape: Uh, she's still talking.

Maude: Oh, interrupting is no big deal and is encouraged. I'm just preparing you for the debate if you're selected.

Grape: (to waitress) Give us two minutes.

Maude: Or five. Or ten. Whatever! Time doesn't matter! Meanwhile, politicians at your wedding?

Grape: None. Thank God. My wedding was not a photo op. Except for the bride.

Maude: (Writes more notes down on her pad.) Give me a few examples of your best "gotcha" questions you've posed to politicians.

Grape: I don't believe in using gotcha questions.

Maude: So how in the world do you make politicians look stupid?

Grape: They do that quite well on their own without any help from me.

Maude: I see. Your opinion on Big Bird?

Grape: Seriously?

Maude: So, bottom line... you're not biased, have no personal friends who are politicians, and don't use gotcha questions. You have opinions but won't tell me any of them. And I take it from your tone that you apparently don't watch Sesame Street. Have I left anything out?

Grape: Well, I think the moderator of any debate has to be in control and run it with a strong hand. You can't let it become a free-for-all with no rules.

Maude: (Writes more notes and closes her notebook.) Well, thank you for your time, but I'm afraid this isn't going to work out.

Grape: Did I say something wrong?

Maude: Look, I'm sure you have good intentions, but we have certain... qualifications... we require.

Grape: And those would be?

Maude: Oh, it's a secret. But I'm sure you can figure it out. (Big smile.)

Grape: Thanks. That was a gotcha question, by the way.


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

What constitutes a "gaffe" in politics?

Google the word "gaffe" and you get a bunch of definitions ranging from "an unintentional remark causing embarrassment" to "a clumsy social error" to a "faux pas." (Scroll down a little and you'll see something called the "Joe Biden gaffe-o-meter.")

During this political season, the word is being tossed around with regularity, for even the slightest missteps by any candidate.  Whether something is a gaffe or not is open to interpretation.

Examples: Some journalists saw Mitt Romney's comments about the London Olympics as a huge gaffe while others thought it was no big deal. Others saw President Obama's quote on Egypt not being an ally of the United States as a major gaffe, while others say it wasn't.

So who decides? If you're doing the deciding, you might be showing bias unintentionally.

Best to avoid the word gaffe altogether. When you say one candidate or another has committed a gaffe, you're telling viewers that the candidate said something stupid. That's your opinion, and might be that of many others, but it's up to the viewers to decide. Labeling sound bites as "controversial" or "raising eyebrows" injects opinion into the story, something I hope you're trying to avoid in this era of media bias.

Let the sound bites speak for themselves, and let the viewers decide.


Monday, October 15, 2012

Clock management

That's usually a football term, and often coaches who are bad at it can lose a game in the crucial moments because they don't manage their timeouts corrctly.

But it's very important in the news business as well, touching everything from the length of your packages to managing your time during the day to letting Presidential candidates run over their allotted time as you channel Clint Eastwood's empty chair as moderator. (Memo to CNN's Candy Crowley: Will you please, please, please control tomorrow night's debate? The last two reminded me of those days when we ran roughshod over substitute teachers.)

Back to that clock. One of the more common concerns I hear from people in smaller markets is the package length question. They're worried that their packages are too long, that a two-minute piece will be dismissed because they're applying to stations that demand nothing longer than a minute-fifteen. Or they're worried they won't be able to cut down the time to what will be the standard at the next job.

Let's deal with the first part: News Directors in bigger markets know that packages often run longer in smaller ones. They know you've got limited resources, a small staff and often few stories to fill the allotted time. So they're not going to eject your tape simply because your package runs a little long.

As for learning to cut down your time when you get to that new job, you might start doing that now. Take some of your scripts home tonight and look at them. Are there extraneous words you could do without? Too many sound bites that say the same thing, or soundbites that are too long? Too much voiceover stating the obvious? Could you have used two seconds of nat sound to convey the setting instead of two sentences?

Personally, I love longer stories that let the package breathe. But many NDs are obsessed with story count and package length, so you have to give them what they want. Best to learn how to do it in case you have to comply with those standards.