We’re celebrating Thanksgiving with a conversation about what it’s like to have spent a professional lifetime in local television news.
To camp out for three days at the site of a horrific plane crash or rush to a major rail crossing accident. The insanity of getting an assignment at 9:30 and knowing that in just a few hours you are to have raced to the scene or coerced people into being interviewed, often against their will, gathered as many facts as you can and be prepared to report at 4, 4:30, 6 and 10, most likely live and each time with a new top on the story.
“And I’ve been asked – people say, I see you on the news at the end of the day, what do you do the rest of the day?” laments Channel 5’s Phil Rogers.
“Do you write your own stuff? Who writes that?” adds Channel 7’s Paul Meinke.
They’re competitors, but good friends. “We call this the media conspiracy,” Rogers reveals. “The much-talked- about Fox News Media Conspiracy? Well this is where it’s hatched.” They’ve been to so many stories together that we kid them that the cost-cutters at their stations could save money by sending them both in one truck.
They joke about how often their newscasts, begun every morning by completely different managers and crews end up creating remarkably similar shows. “It’s a cookie-cutter mentality,” Meinke kids. “I call him up and tell him what we’ve got, he calls me up…” And Rogers adds, “We get our marching orders from the Trilateral Commission, whoever they are…”
Meincke has just retired after 30 years of full-time reporting, but now works on a part-time basis. You may have seen him in the last couple of days working the Laquan McDonald story for Channel 7. Rogers still has a few years to go, but he’s worked 25 years at Channel 5.
They both worked at their stations during the heyday of the so-called “if it bleeds, it leads” philosophy and have done their share of live-shots-in-the-middle-of-nowhere. “The emphasis was to do live. And then you’re standing at the scene of the cable guy who was shot in the alley six hours after it happened,” Meincke explains. “But for logistics and also because there may be an event forthcoming that’s gonna add a new top to the story, you can’t not go. You have to be there.”
Both men cite examples of laws or policies that have been changed because of the vivid reporting of tragic events on television. Meincke says a gruesome plane crash he covered in Indiana was so badly mishandled by the airline that his and other TV reports resulted in the NTSB changing air crash protocols. “They have an emissary now. They have a whole division that deals with people, and the relatives. Because we were getting information before the families were, and that’s not right,” Meincke explains.
We talk about journalism.
“Journalism drives the middle,” asserts Rogers. “Journalism looks at the facts from both sides, presents them to the viewer, and says you make up your own mind. I’ve always believed my job is to sit in the back of the room, take notes, and then go back and write a story. My job is not to tell people what to think. Now, there is interpretive reporting. There is a responsibility to call nonsense on things. Mayor, I’m sorry, that doesn’t make any sense. That’s nonsense.”
But Meincke says TV news needs to evolve from the traditional model, and perhaps do more of that interpretive reporting.
“We don’t do that internally enough. Because we don’t have the ability to change the direction of the ship that’s sailing, whose mission is dictated quite often by what the weather is, or what’s being said on social media. A lot of what comes out on social media is fabulous. It now takes us in a direction we wouldn’t ordinarily have done. We’ve gotta get down off of our perch.”
(And one side note, Paul Meincke maintains a fascinating Facebook page covering a historical event for each day. It’s worth putting it on your list of daily check-ins. Here’s yesterday’s, which reminds some of us older folk of a very different time in Chicago.)
Also on this Thanksgiving day, we offer our sincere thanks to Allison, Carrie, Chris, Greg, Kenny, Luis and Rob for all of their great work getting our show on the air and on-line every week. Thanks, CAN TV!