One week since NBC devoted an hour of Prime Time on a Sunday night to a special on the City of Detroit and the reaction is still touching nerves across the 313 area code and its surrounding area. Recent local news items have ranged from level-headed to emotional to unrealistic.
I carefully viewed the special last week while wearing a few hats – former TV journalist, public relations professional, someone born and raised in the region and a fourth generation business owner here. After a week of reflection and paying attention to the reaction of others, it is my education in broadcast journalism that most influences my opinions on Dateline’s coverage. You could say, with apologies to Robert Fulghum, “All I Really Need To Know I Learned in RTN 564.”
In analyzing the show, I have thought back to the Broadcast News Reporting class I took at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University – RTN 564. Two quotes, said by the class’ instructor (a respected longtime anchor and reporter) in the early days of the semester, rang true throughout my career in TV news and apply to the broadcast that has caused so much local controversy. He said, our job as TV journalists, was, essentially “…to get people to watch commercials.” Another quote I remember is that TV news “…doesn’t cover the 1,000 kids who make it home from school OK today. It’s the one kid who doesn’t make it home.”
Both quotes should help keep the Dateline show in perspective. NBC put it on the air not just to enlighten the nation to Detroit’s situation, but to sell advertising to help its parent company, General Electric, turn a profit. That motive shapes coverage. Also, “the positive side” just doesn’t qualify as news by traditional definitions (and network news is, if anything, traditional). That’s just the way the news business has worked which has been, historically, very profitable.
Critics of the show should continue to express their opinions, but they can’t change network TV. I remember a PR executive I worked with early in my PR career who used to pitch CNN on stories that CNN just didn’t cover. His hubris actually led him to believe they would change for him and suddenly cover stories like local retail grand openings. No matter who you are, you have to accept the rules of the game and work with them to do the best you can. In the case of Dateline, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, for example, did that.
So how likely is a “Part 2” with “the positive side” that many would like to see? Unlikely. Dateline’s hour of truth – factually presented but largely negative- got trounced by 60 Minutes, with market-by-market ratings ranging from abysmal (2s and 3s in the largest markets) to modest (6s and 7s in medium markets). As much as NBC showed the one kid who didn’t make it home from school, it couldn’t compete with an Al Pacino interview on CBS. As usual, “celebrity news” trumps all.