Old Tricks

Illustration by Tony Millionaire

In May 1974, Roger Ailes got his first television-news job as a PR consultant at a fledging network called TVN, founded to combat the perceived liberal consensus of the Big Three. Ailes, despite his inexperience, was promoted to news director four months later. In a 1975 programming memo, excerpted below, Bruce Herschensohn, a former Nixon aide and film director, described how TVN could adapt the tricks and tropes of television news to conservative ends.

Creation of News:
We can send a newsman and a camera crew over to the Capitol and talk to a congressman or senator about “the story.” If the congressman or senator is willing, we can create news in an instant. Most are willing. It is an opportunity to be seen and heard. If it doesn’t turn out [the way we] wanted, we can throw it away.

The most obvious examples were the congressmen and senators selected for interviews during the period of time charges were being made against President Nixon and his administration. At the outset of the charges, when there was a balance of views in the congress, the viewer received an unbalanced selectivity of people chosen for interviews. At the time [Watergate special prosecutor] Archibald Cox was discharged the networks ran nineteen congressional attacks and two defenses, though this was not representative. Within days Walter Cronkite had an eleven minute interview with Archibald Cox on the CBS Evening News, without any defender.

Pretense Balancing:
The motive is to show that the presentation is showing “all sides” of a particular story when, in fact, the balance is tilted.

On Vietnam Veterans Day of 1974, there were three segments to CBS’s news coverage of that event. The first was the ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, the second was Vietnam Veterans who were dissenting on Capitol Hill, and the third was the story of a veteran who had his face blown to bits in the Vietnam conflict, and who had terrible and unjust problems with the Veterans Administration. This left the audience with three stories “regarding Vietnam Veterans Day,” one favorable and two unfavorable. The favorable story and the first unfavorable story (the dissenters on Capitol Hill) were truly news stories of activities performed in recognition of Vietnam Veterans Day. The third story, which tilted the balance, was not a news story, but a story that had been reported months previous to this newscast.

Commentator Speculations Which Appear to Be Factual:
Though the words are couched and the periods are in the right places separating information from speculation, the end effect of this technique achieves a particular purpose.

Dan Schorr wrapped up his October 18, 1974 report on the CIA by stating: “The era of covert operations isn’t ending, just evolving. There’s reason to believe that right now in there, they’re working on contingency plans, if called upon, for some of the world’s unstable areas. Portugal, Spain, Italy, the Arab Oil States could be the next target.” The last sentence was totally speculative and couched with the words “could be” but because of the specificity of nations and regions named, the audience impression was that Daniel Schorr was reporting facts.

Catch-phrasing is a printed word and an audio technique which has been streamlined by television newscasts with the use of easily remembered catchphrases which seem to be factual though they are, in fact, editorializations.

“The Saturday Night Massacre,” “The Mysterious Alert,” “Operation Candor,” and the word “Watergate” itself, which was used to house any and all unrelated charges against the administration by the use of a word where a known criminal action did, in fact, take place.

Sex Appeal:
A pretty girl in a crowd or as an interviewee can do miracles in influencing a particular point-of-view. It can be utilized at will.

CBS coverage of the anti-Cambodian incursion demonstration in May 1970. It seemed as though all the pretty girls were against the incursion, and all the ugly ones were for it.

Old Tricks

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