Friday, October 25, 2013

COMMENTARY: A Sad State of Affairs in TV News

WACH news anchors Darryl Hood
and Bree Boyce.
Photo: Free-Times.com
Just because "The Camera Loves Her” doesn’t mean Bree Boyce is qualified to anchor a newscast.  This article in the Free Times (Columbia, SC) written by Otis Taylor, whose work I have enjoyed and respected for many years— seems to take the glossy approach to a ludicrous hire that makes me wonder if television news has come full circle when it comes to hiring some people, particularly women, for frontline anchor positions.  It seems to feed the notion that it's okay for a main co-anchor of a newscast to have no other credentials but a pretty face, a pageant title and the fact that she lost a life changing 100 pounds.  I was astounded when I first heard of this move by WACH-TV, my former employer, and I remain astounded to this day.

My frustration is not rooted in anything personal against Ms. Boyce.  I have never met her. My frustration is rooted in the poor messages this hire sends to the community and to all of the aspiring young broadcast journalists spending tens of thousands of dollars of their money, their parents' money, scholarship dollars and grants to get formal training for a career that apparently requires only a certain level of celebrity and beauty to obtain.  Students, forget about all that crap your college professors and other professionals who visited your classes told you about "paying your dues" or "having to cut your teeth in Podunkville, USA" before you get the chance to anchor a newscast in a place like Columbia, or better.  Don’t worry about learning the craft or gaining experience.  Just go out and do something that garners you major attention because those are the people television station general managers favor for anchor slots— one of the most high profile and significantly important jobs in the newsroom-- over formally trained and experienced journalists.

In addition to the message this sends to aspiring student journalists, what message do you think it sends to the folks already working in the newsroom-- in this case, the WACH newsroom-- who worked their butts off to get a degree, learn the craft and gain experience in those Podunkvilles so they could land a job in a newsroom where they hoped to grow and possibly advance to the anchor desk?  If I were still at WACH and this was happening, I would be livid.

The viewing community should be livid, too.  Clearly, the powers-that-be making these decisions think viewers are pretty shallow.

Don't get me wrong.  A journalism degree, per se, is not necessarily needed to do the job.  As Bryant Gumbel said during his farewell from the Today show many years ago, "this is not rocket science."  A lot of good people work in television news who don't have journalism degrees, but they have other credentials (more than a pageant title and significant weight loss) and the ability to communicate effectively that allow them to be great journalists.

Craig Melvin
Photo: MSNBC
I do take issue with Otis Taylor comparing Boyce to the likes of former WIS, now MSNBC anchor Craig Melvin.  Melvin had been gaining television news experience since his days at Columbia High School.  He was a WIS "Our Generation" student reporter. He then went to Wofford College and earned a degree in government/politics.  He worked as an intern at WIS while at Wofford then returned to the station after graduation as an associate producer turned morning news reporter turned evening news anchor. In this article, we learn that Boyce hasn't even finished her undergraduate theater degree.  There really is no comparison.  Though he may not have originally intended to be a television journalist, Craig Melvin's credentials at the time of his becoming an anchor far exceed Boyce’s.  Melvin paid his dues.

Sources tell me Boyce is going through what amounts to a crash course in how to be an anchor with a talent coach.  Working with a talent coach isn't an issue. We all do it.  But, if you don't already know how to anchor before you're hired to be an anchor... Ummm, "Houston, we have a problem."

Having said all of that, I'm asking the questions that I wish Otis Taylor, or some other journalist or, heck, anybody would ask: What in the world is WACH-- and other stations who make these kinds of decisions-- thinking?!?  What effect does this have on newsroom morale?  What do community leaders think?  What do journalism academics think?  What do viewers think?  I have a difficult time believing that everybody thinks it’s fabulous that the former Miss South Carolina is about to instantly become a main anchor with no previous experience.

Before & After: Bree Boyce
Photo: People.com
Decisions like this make it easy to understand why so many people think 21st century television news is a joke.  It’s not about good, experienced journalists bringing us the news.  It’s not about anchors/reporters adhering to objectivity.  It’s about them bringing opinions and a point of view to the table.  "I don't care about journalists."  That’s what MSNBC President Phil Griffin told the National Association of Black Journalists in 2012.  It's about pretty faces who can bring “a fresh look” and “compelling story of personal success” to the table.  Those are WACH General Manager Jim Bleicher’s words to Otis Taylor.  Notice that he said nothing about journalism experience.  The quality and credibility of what Ms. Boyce brings to the table won't matter as long as viewers keep watching that “fresh” face and remembering her “compelling story of personal success” losing 100 pounds and winning the Miss South Carolina crown.

WACH anchor Mike Woolfolk and 
Arielle Riposta in 2005.

Photo: The Woolfolk Group
I know that I sound angry. I am.  I helped birth WACH FOX News at Ten in 1996 and had a lot invested in that newscast.  But I didn't embrace the many changes that have come down the pipeline in television news and was ultimately phased out in  2010.  Three years later, I still hear from many people in Columbia who say they do not watch WACH FOX News at Ten anymore because it’s just not the same.  I suspect that this latest move won’t do much to bring them back.

Bree Boyce is scheduled to make her television news debut on tonight’s WACH FOX News at Ten broadcast.

21 comments:

  1. Mr. Woolfolk,

    The most revealing comment in your blog comes when you say you've never met Bree Boyce.

    As a media consultant and former TV journalist, you have to admit that's a great hole in your critique.

    Unless you can see if someone has presence, how can you decide whether they'll be successful on the air?

    The folks at WACH FOX have seen her, followed her and think they've found someone special. In fact, they have.

    Bree can learn what consultants like you say about buzzwords and getting the audience to pay attention to the television, not their phone. And she can learn the basics of reporting.

    But what she has goes far beyond what the average broadcast student has.

    So I think Bree's hiring was a bold, gutsy decision.

    To be honest, WACH found in her everything it needs in a young, hard-working anchor.

    Bree's smart. She's sassy. She's intelligent. She has great instincts. She knows the news. She's trained in the media, in being on stage. She's great on camera. She's comfortable in front of the camera. She has a great back story. She will attract viewers. She will support her co-workers and managers.

    Bree brings a fresh, upbeat perspective to the anchor desk.

    If anyone will work hard for success, it's Bree. She lost 100 pounds and became Miss SC in the face of long odds. She's motivated for success.

    If you ask me, yes, it was bold to bring it Bree. But it also was a stroke of genius.

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    1. I appreciate your comments. But, will respectfully disagree. I don't need a "sassy" anchor. I need a credible, commanding anchor. I don't need an anchor with a "back story." I need an anchor who can dig into, report and deliver a story. the decision to put her on the anchor desk may have been bold, but it was nothing remotely close to genius, in my opinion. It was completely disrespectful to legitimate journalists and viewers who expect much, much more.

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    2. I have to agree with Mr. Woolfolk. Bold but missing the point. This hire is simply another example of how the cult of personality has taken over. Are there other former beauty queens out there working in small markets around the country? Absolutely. But they are learning how to report. They aren't, typically, putting themselves at the center of the story.

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    3. Mr. Bennett, I'd have to say you are dead wrong also. This is why local TV news has become a running joke: hence, the movie with Ron Burgundy. It is a parody of itself. Viewership is at an all-time low. It is a culture of celebrity, not of journalism. Journalism is supposed to be the "fifth estate," the institution that keeps our government honest and our people informed through experienced reporting. This is also happening in TV weather which, like news, was supposed to be a public trust..a service to keep people safe and informed.
      It is all a part of the beginning of the end of electronic journalism: TV news is all "show biz," not substance. Anchors are supposed to have *earned* the position through years of work in the field, learning civics, understanding how the world works. A former beauty queen who lost some weight over someone who spent years cutting their teeth in smaller markets?
      Puhleeez, Mr. Bennett. With all respect, you are totally ignorant. I hope WACH falls flat on its face.

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    4. Anyone who says all it takes to be a good anchor is "presence" is clearly completely ignorant of the workings of a TV news station. These people don't just sit in chairs and look pretty, reading the words that some (hopefully) qualified journalist has written. The anchor is the final stop for facts, the final sieve of information, and the final yes or no vote in an ethically gray situation. I'd like to see an untrained, uneducated beauty queen make the quick and weighty judgement calls that are required of all on-air talent. This is live TV we are talking about, and real information, not a puff Q&A session about world peace. It is disrespectful to the other employees of that station, and honestly disrespectful to the intellect of their audience, to presume that all they care about is a pretty face and a (mildly) compelling back story.

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  2. I absolutely wish Bree the best of luck!! But for someone to get a "crash course" before getting on the desk...is unfathomable! You cannot teach some things! What will happen, when there is severe weather and you have to stay on air for hours upon hours? What happens when breaking news comes into the station 45 seconds before airtime & the producer doesn't have time to write up a script...instead you (the anchor) have to deliver the news on the fly? I agree with Mr. Bennett, that it was a "bold" decision by WACH! But as Peter Beinart--political pundit--wrote when Romney picked Ryan as his running mate, in order to shake things up "Bold Doesn’t Always Work!"

    And I agree with Bryant Gumbel (via Mr. Woolfolk) that "this is not rocket science," but being a reporter/anchor brings with it great responsibility to your community...to be credible and an expert at your job!

    But i will never forget a former News Director of mine, always reminding us to push for "high standards of excellence!" And often times (not always) Excellence comes with Experience!

    But, from a former WACH Fox'er to a current WACH Fox'er...I truly wish Bree Boyce the best!!!

    ~Jerrita Patterson

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    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Jerrita!

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  3. http://www.pageantrymagazine.com/Digital/pageantry-summer2010/index.html

    Take a look at page 72. This is an OLD phenomenon (aka: trick). While I very well appreciate the skills set overlap between the anchor desk and the pageant runway, I do find something erosive about perching the pretty girl on the anchor desk before she’s done some field reporting, line producing, or editing on deadline.

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  4. The issue is not whether Ms. Boyce looks or sounds good on TV (although that IS part of television journalism, whether you like it or not!). It's also not whether she has formal training or journalism experience, and as a broadcast journalism professor who also spent 20 years working in local news, it pains me to say that. The issue is when breaking news hits, and she has to lead live, unscripted coverage, can she do it?

    The days of anchors surviving as pretty faces who can read well, is long gone. I've worked with former pageant winners, with and without degrees, who worked very hard to know their communities and educate themselves so they could bring context and understanding to the stories they reported. They survived and thrived in a newsroom environment. And I've worked with trained journalists who didn't. They usually got fired or didn't have contracts renewed.

    I strongly believe in journalism education and newsroom experience for those in leadership roles, such as anchor, but it's not the only way to get there. There are many kinds of life experiences that are just as valuable for someone whose job it is to relate to viewers and share the important information they need to make decisions in a democracy.

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  5. Whether WACH or other, news in general is just not the same. It has gone from intellectually reporting the news to a new bifurcated road. There seems to be a great need to report pop culture and be a part of pop culture (GMA then Today has switched to that format) and to making the news with the investigative reporting angles. It is no longer we report you decide type journalism. I was once a news junkie, often reading three papers a day and switching between newscasts. I have quit watching Today and GMA because of the diminishing news they offer over the infatuations with the royal family and pop culture. People like us are dinosaurs and are not wanted or needed. But as for me they won't get my viewership and they won't get my ability to watch the ads. This is not a commentary on this young lady at all, but the state of affairs in general. Mike you did a fine job while in Columbia and I enjoyed having the opportunity to work with you.

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    1. I am truly humbled by your comments, Sheriff Foster. Thank you.

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  6. By the time the news comes on at the pre-set time I have already read all of that via 5 or 6 instant news feeds.... I can't remember the last time I sat down to watch the news at dinner or before bed and thought "wow, that is news to me".

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  7. MSNBC President Phil Griffin said nothing about "pretty faces". His exact quote was, "I'm sorry, I don't care about journalists. … I want fair-minded, smart people who understand the world and can interpret it," he said. "If they're journalists, great. This notion that you somehow you have to have done something to earn so-called journalists' credentials? Stop."
    He was talking about diversity in Rachel Maddow type anchors (very different than local or national news anchors). He was talking about MSNBC's hiring of Melissa Harris-Perry, a Tulane University professor, author and contributor to the Nation magazine, as a weekend-morning host on MSNBC despite her having little traditional journalism experience.

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  8. Though I agree with the argument that a pretty face does not a newscaster make, this article does not take into account a significant fact. Ms. Boyce's platform and personal story created a national buzz which resulted in her making appearances on many local and national news programs and entertainment shows. That considerable experience (including serving as a co-host on an episode of The View) in conjunction with the college education she has received (though short of the degree) should at the least put her on equal footing with a graduate fresh out of journalism. She may need personal coaching, but it is no less training than a fresh B.A. graduate would require, though it may be of a different nature.

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    1. How does what you describe put her "on equal footing with a graduate fresh out of journalism" when she does not know how to report, write a script, edit video, etc.?!? All of which the person who studied the craft and/or gained the experience through working their way up the newsroom ladder has?

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  9. I would be curious to copyedit her first report from the opening session of the General Assembly. Or how a decision by the Federal Reserve affects viewers in Pelion. Of course, it's a big assumption that any television news organization covers such trivia these days. But when I applied for at WIS-TV, the first thing the news director wanted to see was my writing. When I interviewed for my first job at a cable news network, they sat me down in the middle of a busy New York newsroom and gave me a writing and current events test.

    I don't know this young lady, have never seen her on air or in any forum, and am willing to give her the benefit of a doubt. I think it would be great for her to prove you wrong and grow into a great writer and reporter. Edward R. Murrow never finished college and faked his resume to get his first job. But you'll recall when we began at WACH Fox News at 10, we tried to grow a great weather presenter. The powers-that-be rolled the dice on a sweet, attractive young lady with zero experience forecasting the weather. As it turns out, when tornadoes or hurricanes are threatening the community, we learned that experience is vital - degree or not. And as sweet, attractive, smart, and enormously talented as she was (and still sweet, attractive, smart, and very successful today), everyone - including her - concluded that it really wasn't working.

    So we'll give the new woman a chance. But I hope they don't treat her with kid gloves, and she gets the opportunity to do more than "play journalist." Report live every 20 minutes from Seawell's on election night. Chase a hurricane or tornado with a cowboy photographer who needs to get a little bit closer. Cover a plane crash where dozens of people have died. Knock on the door of the home of five children who died in that plane crash. Take the newsroom phone call from someone about to jump off a bridge. Do an unflattering story on the governor's mistress and be prepared to go toe-to-toe with the press secretary.

    These are all things reporters do. Go to work, Bree. Show us what you've got.

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    1. Good perspective from my friend and former colleague!

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    2. It is shameful that a woman (or anyone else for that matter) garners such responsibility as a main anchor when the experience is apparently lacking. I've been a local sports anchor in markets such as Casper, Wyoming, and Amarillo, Texas. I've been told I'm "talented but should go to another small market to get more experience". Obviously, younger, prettier...and especially cheaper talent isn't being told that. This business isn't rocket science but you are made sometimes to feel in the news business like you're not good enough, not bright enough, not tough enough. I've seen an assignment editor with NO on-air or manegerial experience be promoted to news director. I've seen an unqualified person with no experience in sports rise to Sports Director. It's ridiculous and idiotic to put someone with that lack of experience in such an important role. It makes the station look silly and reeks of a lack of credibility. As I've always said regarding hirings in the news business: People do what they want to do.

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  10. I rarely watch WACH since Mike, Ashley, Arielle & Adam left. My husband & I would see Mike at Starbucks in Trenholm Plaza. Always friendly to everyone. We really miss him reporting the news.

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  11. Great article, Mike! The fact Bree Boyce was canned a few weeks ago is all the proof you need. Looks aren't everything in TV...and it appears Ms. Boyce was marketed with photos from her past. The girl I saw attempting to anchor a newscast (at which she miserably failed) is not the same girl whose pageant photos were thrown all around the Columbia metropolitan. You'd never know she'd ever been a beauty queen. And that combined with her lack of education, TV experience and life experience did nothing but draw laughter and disdain to WACH FOX 57. Thank goodness they've put Brian McConchie back behind the desk!

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  12. I wish they didnt fire Darryl Hood along with her though. It's really awkward between Janet and Brian!

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