The appearance of WRC Washington anchor Jim Handly delivering a breaking news report as part of the cold open of NBC’s The Blacklist post-Super Bowl broadcast did a disservice to him, his station, owner NBC and the viewers. Journalists should avoid putting themselves in any situation that would undermine their credibility. Pretending to be a TV reporter spouting words from a script is one such obvious situation. Local TV news still has a great reservoir of credibility, but it is not bottomless. Producers of that news should be careful not to dribble it away.
Last Sunday night, after Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll made THE WORST PLAY CALL in the history of the professional football, Australian Rules and soccer included (do they even have plays in soccer?), some of the record 114 million people who witnessed the game left the TV set on.
What they saw was the usual post-game festivities, a lame explanation from Carroll, another batch of commercials and then, suddenly, a breaking news report.
WRC Washington anchorman Jim Handly appeared over the NBC peacock and after a full screen “Developing Story” graphic to report that authorities had apprehended FBI most-wanted criminal Raymond Reddington in Hong Kong.
Who? What? Where?
Even those addled by a half day of Super Bowl coverage and a surfeit of food and drink soon figured out that this wasn’t news at all, it was a cold open to the NBC action drama The Blacklist. Raymond Reddington is a character played by James Spader. You can take a look at it here.
NBC had used the Super Bowl — the mother of all lead-ins — to give a boost to the series and it worked. Some 25.7 million viewers stuck around, making it the third most-watched show of the week ending Sunday.
But NBC paid a price for the gimmick.
By allowing one of WRC’s anchors to deliver the faux report, NBC traded away some of the station’s credibility and dignity.
Barbara Cochran, a well-known Washington news veteran who teaches journalism as part of the University of Missouri’s program in the nation’s capital, saw the broadcast and found it disturbing, not just because of WRC’s and Handly’s roles in it, but also because it may have alarmed local viewers.
Handly’s scene hit the air at just about the time locals would expect to see the late news, she said. “Washingtonians are highly attuned to emergency bulletins and local news is considered a trusted source.”
I don’t mean to pick on WRC or Handly. Local and national TV journalists appearing in TV shows and movies is rather commonplace these days. I would say the frequency is increasing, although that is just my impression.
I guess they see it as a way to have a little fun, mix with Hollywood stars and promote themselves. Particularly in this age of social media, people aren’t just people anymore. They are brands.
But, as mom used to say, just because everybody is doing it doesn’t make it right.
And news folk straying into the land of make believe is wrong. The job of journalists is, in some measure, to point out the difference between fact and fiction, not to fudge it. Journalists playing journalists “fuzzes a line that shouldn’t be fuzzed” is how NewsLab’s Deborah Potter puts it.
Journalists are supposed to avoid not only conflicts of interests, but also the appearance of conflicts of interest because they can have the same effect in lowering the public’s confidence in their reporting.
In the same way, journalists should avoid putting themselves in any situation that would undermine their credibility. Pretending to be a TV reporter spouting words from a script is one such obvious situation.
I am continually defending local TV news from friends and family who contend that TV news is insipid and shallow, that it is far more show biz than news biz. What must they think when they see a familiar face from a network in the latest blockbuster?
The damage done by WRC and Handly was less than it could have been because few outside of Washington would recognize Handly as a working newsman. To most, he was just another actor like the ones playing the cable anchors who immediately followed him on the show.
The real culprits, I think, are the network news people. They are cast because they are celebrities and add verisimilitude. For instance, according to the IMDB.com, Netflix’s House of Cards has featured Candy Crowley, John King, Ashleigh Banfield, Kelly O’Donnell and Major Garrett. Et tu, Morley?
Ironically, as the practice diminishes the credibility of TV news, it enhances the credibility of the TV shows and movies no matter how distorted the fictional view of the world may be.
That’s a dangerous thing. House of Cards is a dark comedy. But it perpetuates a deeply cynical view of Washington. The presence of all that highly paid journalistic talent endorses that view. Is that what the talent really intends?
It’s easy to dismiss this concern. Shouldn’t grownups be able to tell the difference of what’s true and what’s not? Not always, and their job is made more difficult when journalists fail to stay on the side of what’s true.
I will confess that I fell for some of the hype and sensationalism surrounding the Ebola outbreak because my understanding of deadly pandemics had been informed mostly by movies like Outbreak. It took some effort, mostly newspaper reading, to filter out all the pseudo-science I had picked up.
I spoke to Matt Glassman, the assistant news director at WRC, and he makes no apology. He said the station carefully weighs each request from Hollywood and it had OK’d Handly’s appearance as well as those of several others in earlier episodes of The Blacklist.
He said the station was “highly selective” is what it approves, but he declined to articulate what criteria the station uses. “It really is just sort of what feels right or doesn’t feel right,” he said.
In the case of the Super Sunday broadcast, Glassman noted that the station had received no complaints and that the social media reaction was overwhelmingly positive. In other words, no harm, no foul.
But no complaints and positive social media are dubious standards for a news organization.
Local TV news still has a great reservoir of credibility, but it is not bottomless. Producers of that news should be careful not to dribble it away.
Like Carroll, WRC made a bad call.