Pity the F-Bomb-Dropping Newscaster

I’m a Local TV News Veteran. Here’s What It’s Like.

My first reaction to the unfortunate debut of A.J. Clemente on a TV newscast was to cringe. Then I laughed. Clemente is the young television anchor in North Dakota who was broadcast muttering two very audible curse words (family version: “effing s”) into a live microphone just as his very first newscast was starting. He’s since been fired. What a way to start (and maybe end) your career.

If you’ve ever appeared on live TV, you probably think, “There but for the grace of God go I.” So many of us have uttered some of those same words—or at least shared those sentiments—at news time but managed, through good luck or good judgment, to avoid hot microphones.

However, the incident, which went viral this week, underscores a much greater problem in TV journalism in small markets: Most of the people you see in your newscasts are just marginally professional. They’re fresh out of college, and they’ve come to your town to get a start on their TV news career—and to get out as soon as possible.

I was the news director of a station in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for seven years. Of the 210 TV markets nationally, we were number 180. Starting salary for reporters was just under $20,000, so these recent graduates—many of whom were saddled with college loan debt—augmented their income by donating plasma at the local blood bank, cleaning homes on weekends, and tending bar.

Within a couple of months, they’d start assembling what’s called an “escape tape,” a compilation of their best stories and anchoring segments that might get them a job in a larger market. Of the 25 young journalists I hired, exactly two chose to stay in the Upper Peninsula, and they eventually got out of the business altogether.

You probably haven’t met many of these young reporters, anchors, meteorologists, or sportscasters because they never truly become a part of your community. They may enjoy the outdoor recreation, patronize your bars and restaurants, and make some local friends, but for the most part, they focus on their workplace and socialize with one another.

From a journalistic standpoint, they struggle to understand the issues of their adopted communities, the cultural sensitivities, the pronunciations of the towns and newsmakers, and the geography of the region. We once dispatched a young reporter to Perkins, a town about 30 miles from the station, for a story; she called an hour later to inform us that her interview subject still hadn’t shown up. Turns out our reporter had gone to Perkins, the restaurant, about five miles from the station.

Another reporter, shortly after her arrival in the Upper Peninsula, told us that she and her parents were concerned about all the signs advertising “pasties.” They were familiar only with the term referring to a stripper’s attire, not with the meal-in-one—essentially a turnover filled with meat, potatoes, and vegetables—favored by miners up here.

These kids had to tackle complex and controversial issues like mining, coastline development, and confusing courtroom procedures, and they had to digest the subject matter in an hour or two before they got it on the air. I can’t tell you how many times they came back to me after a courtroom proceeding, sometimes in tears, claiming they didn’t know what had happened. They didn’t know the difference between an arraignment and a pre-trial hearing. They didn’t know what “concurrent” meant. They couldn’t hear the defense attorney because he was mumbling; the prosecutor blew them off.

My advice to them was always to play dumb. Ask the simplest of questions if there’s even the slightest doubt about the facts. Don’t let one attorney or another spin you, and don’t leave the courthouse until you’re 100-percent sure you’ve got all the facts. They eventually learned, but more than a few times, we got the charges, the sentence, and even the verdict wrong.

I told the young people I hired that they had to become instant experts on every story they covered. A tough mission, but every time they failed in that task, they and the station lost a little credibility. Investigative journalism? Forget about it. Too few resources.

Some of my young employees managed, despite all the drawbacks, to fashion good journalism. A couple of days after Hurricane Katrina hit, I gave a bright-eyed 22-year-old a camera and $100 cash (we had no budget for travel) and got him into a truck taking relief supplies down to the Gulf Coast; I told him, come back with a series. He came back five days later with a strong series and $12 in change. Six months later, this enterprising young journalist was offered a job in Charlotte, a top-30 market.

Generally speaking, however, these journalists in their first jobs weren’t concerned with exposing corruption or explicating difficult issues for their viewers. Instead, their focus was on looking and sounding poised in their presentations, on writing clearly, and on shooting and editing their stories competently.

Those were the elements that made for a good escape tape.

I understood their plight. I started my career in Bend, Oregon (two years), then moved to Las Vegas (two years), then to Phoenix (two years), then to Miami (seven years) and finally to CNN in Atlanta (14 years). Every town was a steppingstone to the next. Money and ambition propelled me forward.

That’s not to say I didn’t have my own little humiliations along the way. In Bend, I once read the word “communiqué” from the teleprompter, and I, the son of an English and French teacher, pronounced it “COM-YOU-NEEK.” In Phoenix, during a live shot, I once froze for at least five long, agonizing seconds, saying nothing and doing nothing. My mind had gone blank. I still have nightmares about it.

The world of TV news, of course, has changed radically since my days in front of a camera. The up-and-coming journalist can no longer specialize. He now has to be a reporter, photographer, editor, and a provider of web stories and Facebook postings. Immediately, with no delay. That’s lots to learn and lots to do, with intense pressure to get it first and get it right.

The most talented, ambitious, and experienced journalists will be rewarded, but that means that the Yumas, the Eurekas, and the Peorias will be served by journalists who are less experienced, less knowledgeable, less talented, and less committed to their temporary communities.

It’s sad, because these communities need good journalism. They need corruption and waste exposed. They need an informed citizenry. Some committed journalists aren’t driven to make it big and instead choose to live in small towns, but there aren’t enough of them. Money is a powerful motivator, even for those of us who see ourselves as idealistic.

But here’s the bottom line. The young newscaster muttering his curse words on camera in Minot-Bismarck, North Dakota (Market 158) was not yet a journalist. He was a beginner, someone who wanted to be on TV. He was a scared young kid far from home making peasant’s wages, poised at the very first rung of a professional ladder. Off of which, in this case, he happened to fall.

It’s also a good bet that his replacement, the next young newscaster to move to North Dakota, dreaming of becoming the next Brian Williams or Anderson Cooper, will be as raw and ill-equipped for the job as the unfortunate A.J. Clemente. And if the newcomer has the goods, he’ll be leaving Minot-Bismarck within a year or two.

Brian Cabell, a 35-year veteran of TV news who spent 14 years at CNN, is the author of two novels on small town TV, Flo the Flasher and Money in the Ground. He lives in Marquette, Michigan.
Primary Editor: Sarah Rothbard. Secondary Editor: T.A. Frank.
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