Chris Buck, Larry Chollet and Steve Ives are starting a new nonprofit, RetroReport.com, that will examine high-profile stories from the past to find out if they were true and what has happened since. They hope the site will educate people to be more critical about what they see on TV.
Remember when those Mad Cows had you scrambling to analyze your local food supply? Or, the time you ran to interview the folks living in the shadows of potentially cancer-causing power lines?
Those and countless other big stories, often aired with a sense of urgency, have long since fallen from the TV news radar, inevitably giving way to the Next Big Thing that captivates media and their audiences.
Now, Chris Buck, a self-proclaimed New York “news junkie,” has teamed with former newspaper reporter Larry Chollet and TV documentarian Steve Ives to form Retro Report, a nonprofit that would produce follow-ups on once-big stories like crack babies, Chandra Levy and biospheres.
“The news cycle moves so fast that we never see an end to any story,” Buck says. “We are an investigative news project, but it is retrospective investigative news.”
The video segments, six to nine minutes long, would be available to all on the venture’s website, retroreport.com. A rudimentary version of the site is already up and running with “trailers” of the some of the dozen or so stories now in production.
Buck is now shopping for a managing editor, and hopes to get the first batch of videos online within the next few weeks.
Buck worked as a TV editor for the National Basketball Association before taking over his family’s Peter and Carmen Lucia Buck Foundation (Peter Buck, Chris’s father, was founder of the Subway sandwich chain).
He says he has received a private grant to get Retro Report off the ground, but would not identify the source other than to say it was not the family foundation.
Lending credibility to the venture is Ives who is the principal producer of the segments. Over the past two decades, he has created a series of historical documentaries, including the The West for PBS in 1996.
Other films he has directed for PBS’s American Experience series include Lindbergh, Seabiscuit, Kit Carson, Roads to Memphis and Panama Canal. He is currently working on a film about George Armstrong Custer, which is scheduled to appear on PBS next year. And he’s also worked with Ken Burns as a consulting producer on The Civil War and Baseball.
Ives says Retro Report piqued his interest. “As someone with a background in historical filmmaking, I was also interested in the way hindsight could help generate a fresh approach to media criticism, and dissect the way news is presented and has shaped perceptions of important events,” he says.
As Buck tells it, the idea for Retro Report dates back about 15 years when he and his dad were stopped by a local newscast promo asking, “Is your water killing your children?”
“Dad and I got to talking about the advantage newscasters have being able to tease and be coy and not have to answer later on,” says Buck. “They never have to follow up. They never have to answer for their hyperbole.”
Buck envisions the website evolving into a TV news library, replete with updates, clips and resources to track stories back in time. Users will even be able to contribute and comment on content in a Wikipedia sort of way.
What that means is that users could watch a Retro Report video on, say, mad cow disease and then click through layers of information about the story, down to the location of the farms on which mad cows lived.
And Buck hopes the site will educate people to be more critical about what they see on TV.
“If we understand that the sky wasn’t falling in when they said power lines caused cancer, if we can see where that ended up today and see it’s really another low-level risk … then we see the hyperbole,” Buck says. “So when someone comes on our TV tonight and says grass is cancerous we are going to say, ‘Wait.’ ”
What’s unclear is how Retro Report expects to sustain itself. Buck is hoping to entice foundations to step in when the seed money is gone.
“This is a new media venture that is entirely Web-based, so as such there are no real models for how it will play out,” Ives says. “But I think people have a genuine curiosity about these stories, and will be captivated by a balanced and insightful new take on them.”
“We are a nonprofit venture, which I think is critical to our ability to remain objective and credible,” Ives says.
Al Tompkins, the Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online, has spoken with Buck about the project. He says he is all for the concept of Retro Report, especially in light the abundance of unanswered issues out there.
Diana Marszalek writes about local TV news every other week in her Air Check column. You can reach her for comment on this column or with ideas for upcoming ones at [email protected]. For other Air Check stories, click here.