This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 4, 2010 - Tuesday evening, the Beacon and KETC-TV's Nine Network got together and put on a show the likes of which you never see on local channels anymore, and the same situation obtains on national commercial networks and most cable channels as well. For four hours, we worked together to bring viewers and readers in the region an indepth look at what was going on in their political world.
Those of us who work for the Beacon and the Nine Network weren't alone. Starting about a month ago, the producers of "Nine Election 2010" asked a representative group of regional experts and politicians to come to the studio to discuss the election. Results were important, but we knew going in that many races were done deals and others wouldn't be decided while we were on the air, so we spent most of our time talking about consequences and potentialities.
The conversations were robust. Former U.S. Sen. John Danforth came by before the show started, so we interviewed him in advance and asked him to talk about the wretchedness of so many of the campaigns, and what might be done to bring a sense of civility to political contests. U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill appeared on the set about an hour into the show and we had a good, serious discussion with her about her plans for working in a dramatically changed political atmosphere. Former Missouri Gov. Bob Holden gets a marathoner's medal for sticking with us all night and providing sensible analysis of results and plans for the future.
Many others were on the show, each ready to articulate intelligently their individual perspectives as well as the positions of the diverse organizations they represent. Although brevity is the hallmark of live television, participants had the time on our show to give thoughtful answers to questions. It was pretty much sound-bite free, thank goodness. Far from soliciting one-word answers to complex questions, we went for depth and breadth.
That's the sort of journalistic behavior that gets us tarred with the earnest-wonky brush, and we wear our tar proudly and with distinction.
My routine includes a visit to a gym where it is impossible to escape commercial television; every Stairmaster, every treadmill, every rowing machine and stationary bike seems to have a dedicated television monitor, and they are tuned to either sports or heavy-breathing-issue channels. I found a Stairmaster with the Today show, and thought I'd be able to watch something halfway sensible.
But with a feast of leftovers of Tuesday's election waiting to be chewed upon, Matt Lauer was earnestly uttering inanities about the misbehavior of some actor.
I'm not dissing Matt Lauer here. He seems like a nice enough guy, and besides, it's unproductive getting exercised about the abysmal quality of television news, either on cable or on commercial stations. After all, Edward R. Murrow predicted commercial TV's precipitous decline in his "This just might do nobody any good" speech in 1958. Sure enough, decline it did. The news is equally compromised in the commercial newspaper business, too, of course. We veterans saw institutions we loved and trusted get in the race a long time ago, chasing television to the bottom.
One doesn't get much time for reflecting on anything but the subjects at hand in the middle of live television shows. But when the producer announced a break about halfway into the show, I thought about how fortunate, how incredibly blessed we journalists working for serious not-for-profit public media publications and broadcasters are.
I looked around at the controlled chaos of the set, at the cameras, ladders, cables, laptops, anchors' desk chairs and lights and felt very proud of every single one of us involved, not to mention very, very thankful.