JESSELL AT LARGE

WRC Fumbles Ball Letting Anchor Be Actor

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.

BRAND CONNECTIONS

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.

Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. He can be contacted at 973-701-1067 or [email protected]. You can read earlier columns here.


Comments (29)

Leave a Reply

Lindsey King says:

February 6, 2015 at 4:13 pm

Take it easy Jessell at Large. YOU are the one sounding so dramatic trying to protect anchors and their credibility. NBC is basking right now, let them have their chance. If the viewer cannot distinguish between fiction and reality then its on them, not you. NBC has done a fantastic job with the Blacklist and using the Super Bowl as a lead in to reintroduce the public with the move from Monday to Thursday? EXCELLENT JOB WELL DONE!

    Keith ONeal says:

    February 6, 2015 at 9:43 pm

    Well, NBC WAS basking, but then the Brian Williams scandal showed up!

Teri Keene says:

February 6, 2015 at 4:43 pm

WBBM in Chicago did this before, loaning their anchors to “The Good Wife”, so I really don’t see the big deal…

    Keith ONeal says:

    February 6, 2015 at 9:44 pm

    “The Good Wife” is on CBS. WBBM is a CBS O&O.

    Linda Stewart says:

    February 7, 2015 at 7:23 am

    As I said, reporters playing reporters has become commonplace. That doesn’t make it right.

    Teri Keene says:

    February 7, 2015 at 7:41 pm

    @FlashFlood Yes, I know that since I happen to live there. But thanks for pointing it out…

Dale Godfrey says:

February 6, 2015 at 4:50 pm

CBS affiliate KLAS-TV, CBS 8, often supplied anchors as well as their logos for faux news reports in the Fox show “24” a few years ago. Its one thing to weave a news report in as part of a scripted show, but quite another to do what NBC allowed to happen with Blacklist after the Stupor Bowl.

    Wagner Pereira says:

    February 6, 2015 at 8:21 pm

    Wow. The Blacklist is not a scripted show? Who knew!!!

    Keith ONeal says:

    February 6, 2015 at 9:46 pm

    The Blacklist IS a scripted show.

Don Thompson says:

February 6, 2015 at 5:15 pm

Right on, Harry Jessell. I am a D.C. resident. I saw this live. I was confused a for a few seconds and did not appreciate the deception after I figured out what the heck was going on. In a post-9/11 world with talk of lone-wolf terrorism in the USA, should FCC-licensed media charged with serving the public interest really be messing with the news in this way, especially in D.C., a DHS cynosure? Please follow me on Twitter @TedatACA ….

    Wagner Pereira says:

    February 6, 2015 at 8:09 pm

    I have spoken to several I know in DC NOT IN THE MEDIA and they actually have a HIGHER opinion of Jim Handly that their local newsperson was chosen to play a part in a National Show. One would have to had been seriously drunk to confuse this with a real report. Ted, there is always AA. http://www.aa-dc.org/

    Keith ONeal says:

    February 6, 2015 at 9:48 pm

    Good for a laugh, Insider!

Andrea Rader says:

February 6, 2015 at 5:18 pm

Leave it to Ted Hearn to take Harry’s reasoned argument and run it over a cliff.

    Don Thompson says:

    February 6, 2015 at 5:27 pm

    Take your best shots over Local Choice and retransmission consent and the like. But why be so glib about public safety? Ever been in, say, a building fire? Well, I have and I take public safety seriously … Please follow me on Twitter @TedatACA

    Wagner Pereira says:

    February 6, 2015 at 8:14 pm

    Because someone would clearly have to be out of their mind to confuse the two. You have yet to explain how a “fake breaking news report” reporting a fugitive’s CAPTURE is a hazard to Public Safety. Clearly, you just want to make up something else to blast TV Broadcasters after the horrible month your members have had. Please follow me on Twitter @NotTedatACA ….

    Wagner Pereira says:

    February 8, 2015 at 10:07 pm

    I JUST REALIZED I HAVE SUPERBOWL ON DVR. HOW STUPID DOES ONE HAVE TO BE TO THINK A “DEVELOPING STORY” LOGO IS REAL WHEN IT HAS A TV 14 LV RATING ON IT?

Ellen Samrock says:

February 6, 2015 at 6:45 pm

“Well I could have been an actor but I wound up here. I just have to look good I don’t have to be clear.” Don Henley summed it well about TV news anchors both then and now. They’re actors. Nobody takes them seriously. “NBC traded away some of the station’s credibility and dignity.” Now there’s a laugh. The news anchor on our local NBC affiliate used to do commercials for Irish Spring–fake brogue and all and, up until recently, did commercials for a local bank. Besides, the days of the “War of the Worlds”/Orson Welles panic are long gone. The public is far more jaded about these things and can usually spot the difference between real and fake right away. As it is, with the scene in question, not only does the lower third show the name “Reddington” at the start but in the anchor’s second sentence he mentions “Raymond Reddington.” For those of us who are “The Blacklist” fans, waiting for the season premiere to start, it was an immediate cue that it had. This is much ado about nothing, Harry. Sorry.

    Ellen Samrock says:

    February 6, 2015 at 8:31 pm

    I should also remind Harry that if anything is going to truly hurt the credibility of NBC News it would be a well-known newscaster giving a Walter Mitty-like account of being in a helicopter hit by RPG in the tail rotor…or not. For a real local news anchor to moonlight an acting role as, of all things, a news anchor, is no big deal. It’s been done many times before.

    Keith ONeal says:

    February 6, 2015 at 9:52 pm

    “Dirty Laundry” by Don Henley ~~ One of my all time Favorite Songs!

    Linda Stewart says:

    February 7, 2015 at 7:33 am

    I would point out most Americans have no idea who Raymond Reddington is. Fewer than 10% watched the post Super Bowl episode.

    Ellen Samrock says:

    February 7, 2015 at 11:39 am

    Perhaps. And I realize that the people who live and work in or near D.C. view their locale as the center of the earth and that everything they say, do, touch, think and watch reverberates across the country if not the world. But in reality only tiny fraction of the nation’s population know who Jim Handly is. I’m from Central California and I thought he was an actor. I’m sure the good folks in Colby, Kansas or Ely, Nevada who were watching “The Blacklist” that night thought so too.

    Wagner Pereira says:

    February 7, 2015 at 9:14 pm

    @Harry Jessell. I would point out that most Americans have no idea who Jim Handly is. Only 2.117% of the TV HH are in the DC DMA. 2.4 Million total in DC DMA and 25M watching Blacklist. This was without the biggest audience that had ever seen Handly. In fact, Handly only anchors the 4PM and 5PM news, he is not even the main anchor on WRC (who is Jim Vance). When you consider that, how few people in Washington, much less the USA, knew who Jim Handly was? 10%? 20%? of the 2.4M TV in DC? This whole discussion is ridiculous and is only an issue for anyone over 50, based on numerous conversations with people in Newsrooms over the last 24 hours. Its 2015 and Media has changed. Change with it or become a “FormerGM”.

    Linda Stewart says:

    February 9, 2015 at 8:33 am

    NBC used one of its anchors to air a fake news bulletin leading out of the Super Bowl. Need I say more.

    Wagner Pereira says:

    February 12, 2015 at 5:24 pm

    News Bulletins DO NOT have a TV 14 LV logo taking up the left upper quarter of the screen on the graphics and set over the “Anchors” right shoulder.

James Diaz says:

February 6, 2015 at 11:31 pm

I’m with you, Harry.

Wagner Pereira says:

February 8, 2015 at 8:05 pm

It is comical that this is a controversy (actually, it is not….not mentioned anywhere but on sites like this) when on the same page of TVNewscheck.com is another story of a DC NewsBroadcast with the Headline ” WTTG Celebrates Working Naked Day” with a Weathercaster essentially naked on-screen. Who lost the most credibility this week in DC? the Anchor who was asked to air a bulletin for The Blacklist or the Person on air during the Newscast naked? WRC has nothing to worry from “The Blacklist” in terms of credibility when this is their competition.

Eric Koepele says:

February 9, 2015 at 8:09 am

Yes but…couldn’t The Blacklist simply have hired an actor to read the news on a fake set? Why on earth would they use a real anchor, and why would that anchor sacrifice credibility with the local TV audience who know him so well? Or…perhaps they don’t know him so well and he wanted more visibility?

Carol Hudler says:

February 11, 2015 at 9:50 am

“I guess they see it as a way to have a little fun, mix with Hollywood stars and promote themselves.”

Or maybe they do it to make some money. I’ve been on TV and film sets where real journalists were brought in to play bit roles. Most of them were print scribes, and we all know they don’t make a dime. If these hallowed news organizations paid their people, the temptation to perform in fictitious roles would be greatly diminished.

And this baffles me…

“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.”

I understand and generally agree with that tenet of media ethics, but then what, may I ask, is advertising? Aren’t news organizations diluting their objectivity every time they sell an ad? It’s merely a coincidence local CBS affiliates don’t cover NFL players getting arrested, and CBS has exclusive rights to broadcast the game the following Sunday?

If media ethics are to be adhered to, then lead by example. The rules need to be applied from the top down, not the bottom up.

Julien Devereux says:

February 11, 2015 at 1:31 pm

What about the newscasters doing the “Good News” segments now and then on Jimmy Fallon? What about the newscasters that appeared at the end of the Avengers movie? Sometimes its about the chance to make a few extra bucks; sometimes it could be about (I hate this phrase) expanding the brand. News today is barely news anymore. Every night KPRC (NBC affiliate) in Houston reports on something happening to a DOG in the market. Top 10 market and they have to fill part of only 10 or 11 minutes of news with a DOG STORY? This article is no more than a tempest in a teapot. The real story is how people like Cronkite and Rather have been replaced by fluff, TMZ and Cable Not News. When was the last time you heard updates about what your local, state and federal politicians were doing and voting? (Other than the blather from Fox or MSNBC?) I can’t remember.


More News