Curry is a former senior producer at CNN and KUSI, as well as a former producer at CBS in Atlanta and KTSM, the NBC affiliate in El Paso, Texas. He is also a Navy veteran and lives in North County.
I have spent my entire career in television news as a producer. It was a career that I loved — at first.
I looked up the profession because I thought it was a public service. I wanted to fix society, expose corruption, and be a true benefactor. But as I moved up the ranks, my work became more focused on how we could get more eyeballs on screen for longer periods of time, sometimes at all costs. I’m responsible for more sensational pieces than I care to admit. Scans are a specific calendar period related to assessments. It determines how much advertisers can be charged based on how many people watched during that time. You can only do this so long before you feel dirty.
I wrote songs like “Inside R. Kelly’s Atlanta Sex Dungeon”. I interrupted newscasts for live police chases and shootings. I even encouraged presenters and reporters to “show more personality” – that’s code for “doing something outrageous” – because senior management said we were one-fifth of a point from beating the competition. These are things my bosses have encouraged and praised.
A producer’s job is not only to choose stories, reporters and angles but also to “sex up” the content. The producer must understand how to take a story and turn it into something that “will attract viewers”. There’s a reason a newscast starts with a video of a Capitol Police officer getting run over in a doorway or flames shooting out of the windows of an old woman’s house. That ABC’s “World News Tonight” anchor David Muir says “a dramatic video” and “a major bombshell as we come on air” nearly every night is no accident. It’s no mistake that CNN starts every show with “Breaking News.” These are deliberate marketing techniques devised by a producer with the goal of getting people to watch. As cheap as these gimmicks may seem, they work, which is why producers do it and why senior executives tolerate it.
It sounds sleazy or manipulative, but it’s no more than retailers lure potential customers into a store with a sale that seems too good to be true or a magazine using a sexy cover model to persuade a passer-by to buy. the latest edition. It’s business. So why are so many people appalled at how the media works?
People often say that “journalism is dead” or that “the good old days of honest reporting are over”. The problem is that people remember what it looked like but never really were. Yes, Edward R. Murrow delivered compelling reporting on Europe during World War II using the sounds of war, which were previously only heard by those within it. And the eternally believable Walter Cronkite delivered what appeared to be straight-to-CBS news. But what we don’t realize is that not only were their programs heavily sponsored, but the stories were told through a filter, a filter that we probably didn’t know was there because the options for news was limited.
Now that we have endless choice about where and when we get news, the filter is obvious, and we can choose it, but we’ll keep complaining. The media is always an easy target and a lazy argument. This is why people, especially politicians, always attack the media. They just have to say, “You know how Fox News is” or “MSNBC never tells the whole story.” And a lot of people buy it because they too think it’s true. Remember that the next time you watch the news, you will get what you pay for. The product responds directly to the demands of the public and nothing more.
What is the purpose of the media? In my opinion, it is not to monitor the government or to expose corruption. It’s not about educating people or righting society’s wrongs. It’s to make money and sell ideas and nothing more. Those who work in the profession will deny this because they believe they are changing the world in some way. Even the top executives of major news organizations will say that’s not true. But in the United States, news is a profitable business, with exceptions like PBS and NPR. And even they rely on corporate sponsors and monetary donations. With that in mind, why do some hold the media in such high regard when it is just a business?
Freedom of the press is constitutionally protected, but that does not make it sacrosanct. Our founding fathers used the press to advance an agenda without claiming to be fair or balanced. The Federalist Papers, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, and many other colonial-era publications were designed to influence public opinion. All were provocatively written not just to grab attention but also to sell, figuratively and sometimes literally. This has continued well throughout American history. Alexander Hamilton founded the New York Post with a group of investors, not just to make money, but because they were upset about the election of President Thomas Jefferson. Today we still have newspapers like the Tallahassee Democrat and the Pottsville Republican. The names alone suggest that unbiased reporting should not be expected.
There is no doubt that the media can do a good job, and I have many friends and colleagues still in the industry who are great examples of this. We wouldn’t know about Watergate, the lies behind the Iraq War, or Trump’s White House scandals if it weren’t for great reporting. Moreover, local media can serve an even greater purpose. In case of bad weather they let you and your family know so you can be safe. (I’m aware that phrase sounds like a producer wrote it. As the cliché goes: some habits die hard.)
However, make no mistake, if Washington Post editors and major television network producers hadn’t believed these stories would sell, they never would have seen the light of day.