ABC’s David Muir: A Man of Learning

When you hear a newscaster say, “Tonight we’ve learned,” do you wonder what that means? And wonder whether the use of learned with tonight is merely a gimmick to make old news seem new? Or new news newsier? Is learned tonight even true?

An ABC anchor and correspondent, David Muir, used learned or learning several times last month on World News. And I wondered what in the world they meant.

On Dec. 27, when he was filling in for the regular anchor, Diane Sawyer, he said:

“And tonight we have learned that the U-S embassy in London was among the intended targets for a group of men arrested in Britain last week on terrorism charges. The nine men, ranging in age from 19 to 28, appeared before a judge today in London.”

More than 15 hours before Muir’s 6:30 p.m. EST newscast, The Associated Press moved a story from London at 2:59 a.m. EST headed: “British court holds 9 in US Embassy terror plot.” By 3:11 a.m. EST, an ABC affiliate, WHTM-TV, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, had posted the AP article at its website. And the ABC network’s own website posted a Reuters story from London sent at 9:02 a.m., EST.

The targeting of the U.S. embassy in London was worth mentioning on that night’s World News, but Muir’s “Tonight we have learned” tainted the story. If it’s true that he didn’t learn of the story until that night, he and the staff need NoDoz.

Nine days earlier, on Dec. 18, Muir’s lead-in to a correspondent also turned out to be rancid:

“Tonight we’ve learned the Los Angeles police have been flooded with phone calls, e-mails, and visits to their website after these faces were published on the front page of the Los Angeles Times….”

Twenty-nine hours before Muir’s newscast, The Associated Press–at 1:08 p.m. EST, Dec. 17–moved a story from L.A. with this head: “LAPD Deluged with Calls in ‘Grim Sleeper’ Case.”

ABC’s website posted the AP story more than 24 hours before Muir said, “Tonight we’ve learned….” And on the morning of Muir’s evening broadcast, Dec. 18, the New York Times carried a story with a two-column head: “Los Angeles: Deluge of Calls in ‘Grim Sleeper’ Case.”

On another newscast, on Dec. 5, Muir said:

“We’re learning new details tonight about that [that? This is the first time he mentioned it.] harrowing close call and rescue at a railway station. It happened in Madrid, Spain. Take a look.” [Please don’t tell me what to do, particularity to look when I’m already looking.] Next, voice-over surveillance tape:

“A man falls onto the tracks. Onlookers on the opposite platform frantically try to alert the oncoming train. Finally, a man jumps onto the tracks. You see him pulling the person [person? He’s a man] across there just in the nick of time. The rescuer, we now learned [we now learned?], was an off-duty policeman. And get this [Please don’t tell me to get this]: He was just two months out of the academy.” Muir on camera again: “Two months and putting himself to work.” Huh?

More than 25 hours before Muir said “we now learned [that the rescuer was an off-duty policeman fresh out of the academy],” CNN ran the footage on its 5 p.m. newscast on Dec. 4 with this voice-over:

“All of Spain was riveted by this video of a dramatic rescue. Just look at this. [Looky here: Please don’t tell us to look.] A man fell off the train platform and onto the rails seconds before a high-speed train pulled into the station. An off-duty police officer jumped in[onto] the tracks—there he is—and dragged the man to safety. The officer had graduated from the police academy just two months ago. Unbelievable.” Unbelievable that he attended the academy? Or that he had graduated? Or what?

And 24 hours before Muir’s newscast, the anchor Lester Holt of NBC’s weekend Nightly News also said the rescuer was an off-duty policeman who was a recent grad of the police academy:

“We have some video to show you that may make your heart race. [Please don’t worry about my heart; just tell us what happened.] At a train station in Madrid yesterday, a man fell onto the tracks. Closed circuit video camera was rolling when it happened. Passengers on the opposite side began screaming and gesturing to alert the operator of an oncoming train. Then an off-duty police officer, a rookie who had just graduated from the police academy, ran onto the tracks and pulled the man to safety just seconds before the train arrived. A very, very close call.”

On the next morning, ABC’s Good Morning America said:

“And finally, an amazing rescue caught on video. A man fell onto the train tracks at a station in Madrid, Spain on Friday.” Voice-over:

“Now, passengers started waving immediately, trying to stop an oncoming train. And then an off-duty policeman jumped onto the tracks [don’t mix past and present tenses; stick with one], pulls the man to safety with just seconds to spare before that train rolls through. As you can imagine [imagine what?], here it is one more time. That off-duty cop was worried that a train was going to be coming from the other direction. But he still jumped down there. And this guy, this cop, is just two months out of the academy. He’s fresh to the job, and immediately steps onto this….” GMA, too, said the rescuer was an off-duty policeman fresh out of the academy. In fact, said off-duty twice.

Yet, more than eight hours after GMA, Muir said of those facts—that the rescuer was an off-duty policeman just out of the police academy–“we now learned.” When you think about, you realize that everything on a newscast is something they’ve learned—from their own fact-finding and from wire services. If newscasters haven’t learned of something, how could they tell us about it? But a newscaster’s saying we’ve learned leads viewers to presume the information is exclusive or hard to ferret out or especially important.

We can say that examining Muir’s scripts has been a learning experience: now we’ve learned how much learned tonight can mean. Or how little.

© Mervin Block 2011