No. 9,
Fall/Winter 2002
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Chris Cramer Of CNNI Asks NewsXchange's Conference Participants "Did Our World Really Change After Sep. 11?

Alternately provocative and entertaining, Cramer asked the question "Did our world really change after September 11?" The following is a transcript of his address.

  "All of us need to change the way we thinků If we don't we are going to die—and none of our audiences are going to be at the graveside to mourn us."



Good morning and thank you Mr. Chairman for that extremely generous introduction.

I'd like to talk today about the state of news broadcasting. The state of our profession. And the challenge for me is to get through this without talking about news as content

Or product.
Or return on investment.
Or profit margins.
Or even value for money.
Not because none of that is important
(I personally believe that a profitable news business is a healthy news business)

But because all of us here have different imperatives which drive our news operations

And also because an over obsession on news as a business might obscure some of issues we need to talk about over the next day or so, might constrain our thinking.

There is a prevailing school of thought that suggests that the world changed for ever after the hideous terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on September 11th last year, that the world of news broadcasting somehow underwent a seismic shift - never to be the same again. I'd like to talk about that this morning.

And we need to ask ourselves some other tough questions here this week.

To quote the CBS anchor Dan Rather, did "patriotism run amok" in the United States media in the weeks and months after September 11th?

Have parts of the media forgotten their role in society-not just in the states but elsewhere in the world as well? In the countries you all come from.

Have we all become so driven by ratings-by demographics-by news programs that are daily triumphs of form over content, by what pops the viewers corks-what moves the needle-that we have lost something really precious along the way?

Not our minds-even worse: our civic duty, our public service responsibilities, our remit as educators.

Have we lost our esteem somewhere in this process? Worse still, have we lost our souls?

And here are some other questions we need to analyze, debate, argue-even scream about-this week.

As we proceed towards what appears to be an inevitable military action in Iraq, what are we-and what are you in your programs-doing about adequately representing all viewpoints on our airways?

And I don't just mean some of the powerful lobbies that are around at the moment.

I mean are you seeking out diverse viewpoints? Unpopular viewpoints?

Because that's certainly our role.

Meantime have we fallen victim to the government spin-even propaganda-from all sides?

Do we passively broadcast the routine briefings and statements from Iraq, Britain, America, the Gulf States-transmit them because they are there, and easy to get?

Cheap, available.

Have we become mere "microphone stands" for the politicians? Forgotten our ability to edit, interpret, question, challenge?

Some other questions for you.

What are you doing-in your newsroom, on a daily basis-to challenge pressure, spin, secrecy - occasionally creeping censorship - around the world?

Do you shrug your shoulders? Tell yourself it's all out of your control?

And devote your shrinking resources to those easy-to-get stories. Those lifestyle trends. That served-up-on-a-plate press conference. That handy press release.

Today's lottery winner. This week's exciting new movie release. A profile of the latest sad candidate in your countries version of the Survivor or Big Brother TV show.

All this is stuff-meaningless garbage-you didn't join this profession to cover.

But hey, it's easier, isn't it? Much less likely to get a complaint. No pressure, no stress.

On another note: maybe colleagues here from Italy would like to talk about the latest controversy over the removal of Enzo Biagi from the airwaves-apparently after pressure that he was using his primetime news show as a vehicle against the government.

And there will be other examples we can talk about.

Maybe about the employees at Canal Plus in France who took over the studios to protest over one of their bosses being sacked. Broke into programs to give them a free platform.

Was that an appropriate use of their position?

Let's get to the uncomfortable pressure that hits us in this profession. If we can't talk about it here then we can't talk about it anywhere.

And I'd like us to get really down and dirty when it comes to budgetary pressures you may be facing.

(This part of the conference may, of course, be of no interest to colleagues from the BBC-now far and away the world's richest broadcaster-they're thinking of buying out AOL, Disney, and Vivendi, you know!! Hey-good luck to them. We are all very envious.)

Though spare a thought for colleagues from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation whose annual license fee is one ninth of the BBC's for a population only one third the size and 32 times bigger geographically.

(I will be testing you on that statistic later so make a note of it!!!!!!!)

How are we going to continue to cover the world under our ongoing budgetary strain?

Have we arrived at that ridiculous position—that crossroads—where technology has made the world smaller but we simply can't afford to cover it?

What can we do to help each other?

Because sure as hell none of us can do it by ourselves any longer.

We need to share information here this week about how we can leverage what we have to do to ensure that we continue to cover the world comprehensively.

Because the stakes have never been higher.

Relying on agencies-however good-to do our newsgathering for us is not what our audiences expect of us.

Its not, I submit, why we entered this profession in the first place. It's an abdication of our journalistic responsibilities. And it doesn't have to be that way.

Multiskilling, smaller bureaus, lightweight editing and cameras, videophones, and satellite telephones. We have a new array of firepower at our disposal.

Covering the world doesn't - and shouldn't - just be for the big boys and girls to handle.

Consider the recent exclusive by CNN's Nic Robertson when he acquired Bin Ladin's personal video collection.

A highly multi skilled TV correspondent who started life as a satellite engineer.

If Nic couldn't shoot, edit, engineer, and report he couldn't possibly have picked up and smuggled that remarkable piece of TV journalism out of Afghanistan. And he is just one example of the new breed of broadcaster.

All of us need to change the way we think. Change the way we practice our craft. And we need to keep changing all the time.

If we don't we are going to die-and none of our audiences are going to be at the graveside to mourn us.

I asked at the start if our world had really changed forever on September 11th last year.

If the worst terrorist outrage ever committed against the world's most powerful nation-a dagger in the heart of all that it stood for-would somehow bring about a paradigm shift in our journalistic mission.

If it brought new meaning to our lives-a new dignity, seriousness, even a renewed mission to the craft we have chosen.

Or whether within a few months we would drift back into our trivial, wicked old ways of domestic focus.

I think the jury is probably still out on this one. Dan Rather says the US broadcast media is better now than it was on September 10th but not as good as it was on September 12th and he is right.

Though I have seen real signs this past year that news broadcasters-CNN among them - have refocused on our passion to cover the world.

That reaching past the obvious to find the significant-and then trying to make the significant interesting and understandable-has really been driving us this past year.

You can make up your own minds up about what's happened in your organization. We should share this with each other.

I've observed something else this year-in print and at conferences like this.

That some of us believe we have a god-given right to criticize-even ridicule-the work that colleagues back in the states have been doing since September 11th. Take a pop at those media colleagues who chose to wrap themselves in the flag as they worked.

That was their right-they're entitled to their views whatever others may think. Maybe it was misplaced patriotism.

Maybe they forgot their journalistic calling.

Either way it was their choice.

Sometimes, you know, I think we all have very short memories.

About our own personal and professional conflicts when our respective nations are under threat. In Spain, in Britain, in Ireland, Turkey, Italy.

I for one remember the passionate and angry debate in Britain during the worst of the troubles in Northern Ireland.

Or during the Falklands conflict.

Whether-to quote an unfortunate BBC manager-a British widow was more important than one from Argentina. And how we deliberated on that one.

How during the Gulf War of 1991 many of us tried to strike the balance between our duty to inform and our desire to save the lives of those in the armed forces who were fighting in the field on our behalf.

And take it from me-

You have to live in America to understand this dilemma. The feelings by many that they are under attack-they are in the middle of a war.

No journalists that I know have the answers all the time.

It's a work in progress for all of us.

I don't believe there are any absolute views.
And I think it's dangerous we think there are.

Also this past year most of us have also been tested by what's happening in Israel.

Battered and bruised on a daily basis by the sophisticated lobby groups which support each side in that bloody and complicated conflict.

How do you define a terrorist or terrorism? And does that definition-once you've struggled with it-apply elsewhere in the world.

There is no textbook to help us here. No broadcast news mantra which we all subscribe to.

This is an evolving debate with evolving issues and judgments.

We should all be happy to hear from anyone here this week who has all the answers.

Equally we should hear from those who have the answers to how we protect our staff who are putting themselves in harm's way on our behalf.

All of you know what an appalling year it has been for the front line news gatherers. More colleagues killed-murdered-while doing their job than ever before. More killed in Afghanistan in a single week-eight-than members of the US armed forces have died in action there.

And if all that wasn't sickening enough we then had the horror of the Wall Street Journal's Danny Pearl, kidnapped in Pakistan.

Kidnapped, tortured, mutilated and murdered-and all on camera.

And then again-a week or so ago-the death of Roddy Scott from Frontline in Chechnya. Those people responsible for those newspaper reports suggesting that he was foolhardy to be there should be ashamed of themselves. Their views undermine his courage.

Like it or not we are now legitimate targets around the world. Very few look upon us any more as some sacred profession not to be harmed.

Most of the time we represent the enemy-agents of western governments. Spies for a type of society that many loathe and despise. Government lackeys.

Or we are just easy targets for robbery and kidnap and murder.

So those among us who are managers and bosses have a new responsibility. To ensure that we don't send our staff into hostile areas without proper guidance, training, and protection against what they might encounter.

Indulge me here. Raise your arms if your organization has any specific safety guidelines or formal training for your staff before they go into a war zone.

Please-hands up if you do.

And who among us here has specific counseling and debriefing for their staff when they get back from assignment?

Hands up again.

It ain't impressive is it?

For the past few years some organizations like the BBC and CNN, Reuters, ITN, AP, Australian Broadcasting-and some others-have been trying to ensure that this news industry takes its responsibilities to its staff seriously.

It's been a very long haul-and we have a very long way to go.

I hope we find time to talk about that this week.

Given that the next session is a hypothetical about the war on terror it couldn't be a more pertinent subject for us all.

By the way, for me it's quite simple.

All broadcast news managers have a moral, an ethical, and probably a legal responsibility to ensure that we do not-we never-send our staff or the freelances working for us into a hostile area without proper training and proper equipment.

And I don't want to hear excuses that organizations can't afford the cost of all this.

If they can't, get out of the business and hand it over to those with more responsibility. Those who care about the folk who work for us.

I've mentioned some of the key issues I think we need to talk about here. And you will have others.

This is a profession that has an incredible ability to examine its own navels-and then continue to do what we always did.

To change nothing.

To sit and whine and grumble that it's all out of our control.

So here's a challenge.

I'm looking forward to something quite different here in Ljubljana. At the end of one of the most testing years I think the profession has ever endured.

We need an honest and passionate debate among some of the finest broadcast journalists there are in the world.

That's you.

I for one would like us to leave here feeling reinvigorated and with a renewed commitment to the precious craft that we have chosen.

There's absolutely nothing special about us as individuals-but there is something really special about what we do.

And our audiences-wherever we find them-expect very special things from us. Now more than ever.

We can all make a difference.

Thank you.

TBS

 

Copyright 2002 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo
E-mail: TBS@aucegypt.edu