Seriously, why do we need anchors to tell us how they feel?
The lead story on the 10 o’clock news one night last month was about a 5-year-old Highland Park girl who was killed when a car jumped the curb and struck her while she was walking on the sidewalk with her mother and two brothers.
“Certainly feel for the family,” NBC 5 news anchor Rob Stafford told viewers.
About a week later, his co-anchor, Allison Rosati, voiced a story about a study recommending that babies be allowed to cry themselves to sleep.
“Hard for a lot of parents to do that,” Stafford chimed in.
And just the other night, NBC 5’s Rob Elgas reported on a mother who police say dumped her 3-week-old along a rural road in Downstate Illinois. Then he tossed back to Stafford and Rosati.
“Glad the baby’s OK,” Stafford said.
In each case, Stafford felt compelled to share his reaction to the story viewers had just seen. His comments provided no particular insight or useful information of any kind. They were little more than platitudes.
Stafford is hardly the worst offender in Chicago — or even at his own station — when it comes to injecting mundane opinions and personal asides into newscasts. (Earlier this week, after Dick Johnson reported on a disagreement between Cardinal Francis George and a South Side priest, Rosati chirped: “Let’s hope they get it resolved.”)
So why do I single out Stafford? Because I’m convinced he knows better. I’ve been following his work admiringly for 20 years — first as a reporter at CBS 2, then as a Chicago-based correspondent for NBC’s Dateline, and since 2007, as an anchor at NBC 5. He’s a smart guy and a first-rate journalist who’s won more national awards for reporting than a lot of his peers put together.
But somewhere along the way, I believe he was corrupted by his bosses (or, more likely, their news consultants) into thinking the way to “warm up” his image and endear himself to viewers was to editorialize at the end of other reporter’s stories.
“Time in a newscast is precious, so why squander it with a tag that usually adds nothing?” says Mervin Block, a broadcast writing coach and author of six books on broadcast newswriting. “And if it doesn't add, it detracts. Most tags I hear are needless. Or redundant. Or pointless. Or just plain no good.”
Block’s latest book, Weighing Anchors, catalogues crimes against the language committed night after night by top network anchors including Brian Williams, Diane Sawyer, Scott Pelley and Anderson Cooper. When it comes to what he calls “mini-editorials,” Block told me he considers Sawyer the most guilty (“hers are often mushy, gushy or slushy”) and her ABC News colleague David Muir a close second.
Block, who began his career out of Northwestern University as a reporter for the Chicago American and shifted to television as an executive producer at CBS 2 here, went on to work for each of the Big Three networks, including a stretch as staff writer for the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. He was honored as Chicago Press Veteran of the Year in 2004. In his books, on his website and in the workshops and graduate journalism classes he teaches, Block continues to call out networks and local stations that don’t measure up to his standards.
“Perhaps the silliest — or dumbest — tag I've run across was broadcast by a Baltimore TV station about 25 years ago,” he told me. “It was delivered by one of the co-anchors: ‘Relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union could get much better . . . or worse, possibly depending a great deal on today's events.’ I held a writing workshop at the station.”
Even Block admits to an occasional lapse back in the day.
“A correspondent put together a story on Walter Cronkite's CBS Evening News about a new gizmo that enabled a policeman to manipulate levers and knobs and ‘draw’ the face of a bad guy while a crime victim described him. In this case, the correspondent did the describing, and he described Cronkite himself. So at the end we saw Cronkite's face. In my lead-in, I referred to ‘a flip that can launch a thousand faces.’
“Cronkite also used my tag: ‘Nelson, that man looks like my Walter ego.’ ”