Mistakes Are Bad News

We all make mistakes, don’t you? O.K., that you should be we. But don’t you find other people’s mistakes more interesting? So let’s look at theirs, then mine. The most interesting—and most serious—mistakes are made by some news directors:

  1. Hiring people who think English is the spin you put on a cue ball.
  2. Encouraging use of the false present tense. Writers of teases justifiably use the tense called the historical present: “Robber Shoots Bank Teller Dead, Steals Millions.” And we use that tense in writing certain stories when appropriate: “Governor Grover says he’s going to China Sunday.” But almost all stories logically require the past tense.
  3. Misrepresenting yesterday stories as today stories, and today stories as tonight stories.
    This isn’t a complaint about follow-ups or updates; it’s about falsification.

  4. Tolerating the ing thing: writing with participles and shunning verbs with a tense: “Governor Grover’s office saying today the governor going to China Saturday but returning Monday.” That’s Inglish, not English.
  5. Treating listeners as customers, strangers they’re trying to sell, even trick, rather than friends they’re talking with. Broadcast news should be based on journalism—not debased by hucksterism.
  6. Slapping the banner “Breaking News” on stories long broken. In fact, using that banner at all. Same for “Exclusive.” And “A story you’ll hear only here.” Even when a station has a clear scoop on a big story, how is a viewer helped by hearing it’s exclusive? And what does that mean? That the reporter has scooped the competition on an important story? That the reporter was the only one present—an hour after the last reporter departed and an hour before the next one arrived? Or that no other station wanted it? Even when those labels—Exclusive and Breaking News—are true, they have almost nothing to do with news. They’re mostly hype to hoodwink hoi polloi.
  7. Pounding viewers on the head with teases like “What They Found Will Shock You.”
  8. Introducing reporters as “live.” And requiring reporters to sign off declaring they’re alive. Also: trumpeting “team coverage.” Assign one good reporter, and you won’t need a team.
  9. Assigning reporters to conduct man-on-the-street interviews instead of assigning reporters to report. In most cases, assigning MOS’s (or POS’s) is a sign of mental fatigue.
  10. Imploring viewers, “Stay right here.” If you have a good program, you don’t need to plead with me. In any case, I don’t like being treated like a dog: Fetch. Sit. Stay.
  11. Picking up stories from newspapers without confirming them. Newspapers are good tip sheets, but no broadcast newsroom should rewrite newspaper stories unless properly credited. As the English writer Samuel Butler (1835-1902) said, “The most important service rendered by the press and the magazines is that of educating people to approach printed matter with distrust.”
  12. Allowing anchors and reporters to thank one another endlessly. And letting reporters tell anchors, “You’re right” and “As you know.” Also: letting on-air personalities greet one another with a hearty “Good morning to you”—even though “to you” is implicit in “Good morning.” Would you ever say, “Goodbye to you”? Hello?
  13. Green-lighting anchors’ chit-chatting, giggling and ceaseless, senseless smiling.
  14. Cheapening newscasts with hokey stories like “What your bagel baker doesn’t want you to know.” No, I haven’t heard that one, but I hope it doesn’t give any producer an idea.
  15. Not holding post-mortems after newscasts and discussing what was good, what was not so good and how to do better. William S. Gilbert (1836-1911) said: “I never read favorable criticism; I prefer reading unfavorable ones. I know how good I am, but I do not know how bad I am.”
  16. Depriving listeners of news worth our time.

Now, how about my mistakes? Sorry, but I don’t remember any. Maybe, as Freud says, because we tend to suppress unhappy memories.

I know I’ve made mistakes. But I have trouble recalling the specifics, maybe because I’ve made so many mistakes. My latest mistake may be this column.

If a hypnotist regressed me to a previous life, maybe I could recall a heap of mistakes. Sure, I made them. But not enough to provoke anyone to throw a phone at me. Yes, I knew a network editor who used to fling phones. And I knew an editor at another network who used to scream—often. But he didn’t scream at me. Perhaps he thought I was impervious to intimidation—and instruction. Over the years, I’ve worked for other screamers and shouters; some were executive producers, two were heads of network news (yet I wouldn’t call either a screaming success).

On second thought, I do remember a mistake that I kept making. When I was a new writer at CBS News, I sometimes started stories with “in” before a place-name: “In Washington today,” or “In London today,” or “In Paris today.”

One day, Bob Siller, my producer, pointed out the error of my ways. He told me that starting a story that way is weak, dull and uninviting. He called it a lazy man’s way of writing. He was right. Bob was a fine editor and a fine writer. Not always true of editors. As T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) said, “Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers.”

Every story originates somewhere, so you can start any story with “in.” That’s one reason we hear so many stories start that way. A listener in Miami who hears a newscaster start, “In Guam today,” isn’t going to lunge for his volume control to turn it up. And a listener in Seattle isn’t going to be arrested by a script that starts, “In Rome today.” What captures a listener’s attention is a strong, newsy start.

At or near the top, though, the writer needs to place the “where” of a story: “F-B-I agents in Miami have seized….” Or “The mayor of Seattle has admitted…..” Or “Denver police say the man who shot Liberty Valance has been caught off-balance.”

There are exceptions. If you have an umbrella lead, it is O.K. to start successive sentences with “in.” If your umbrella is, “The United Nations called on members today to send food to Fredonia,” you could then write, “In Washington, President Bush said this country would start shipping grain next week. In London, Prime Minister Blair said Britain would…. And in Paris, French President Chirac said….”

Come to think of it, why should I be sorry I can’t remember my old mistakes? I should be glad. Glad I learned something from them, glad I’ve forgotten them. If I had to carry all that mental baggage with me, I’d run out of memory for my new mistakes—and lessons learned.

The RTNDA Communicator published this column in February 2005.