The Digital Journalist
Pet Peeve
December 2003

by Ron Steinman

In recent weeks when I am not in my office, I have been home packing up my house getting ready to move. There is almost no activity more frustrating, more boring and more deadly than packing a home where you lived for thirty-five years. As a break from the reality of going through the anthropological dig in the Long Island suburb where I live I sometimes sit down, cup of coffee in hand and watch more television news than I normally do. It is a reality of its own.

Aside from the usual awful presentation, the over-reliance on words that clutter the screen instead of pictures that tell the story, and the frequent over-the-top hype by anchors and interviewees shouting over each otherıs din, there is something new. In the last six months, those who run the news networks no longer feel comfortable having their anchors and correspondents in a fixed setting, meaning seated behind a desk delivering the news.

Now they want their on-camera people to move. Thus is born the wandering anchor, a real life action figure walking and talking simultaneously, often too active for the story they are telling, and so well-dressed to make you die for the suit or dress he or she is wearing.

In truth, I have never been much for anchors or reporters who walk on television, either live or in a prepared piece on videotape. When walking started and became popular years ago, I never knew then and still do not know, what to look at. Should I watch the reporter on the move or should I say, on the prowl? Should I watch the neighborhood or the scene the person is moving through? If I watch the correspondent, I cannot see what surrounds him, as he moves. When I watch the surrounding sights, I never see the reporter or worse, hear what he has to say. Often in a walking shot, the camera is too busy moving with the subject, to the right or left of it, in front or behind it. With that, we add another dimension of unnecessary confusion to an already messy small screen.

The walking shot, though, of the subject alone or with the interviewer and interviewee together, has limited value because producers use it when there is no other footage to cover the narration. The shot hides a multitude of sins and covers awkward emptiness on the screen. News executives will tell you that movement is necessary to hold the younger audience it wants that is already influenced my MTV, VH1, music videos, sports coverage, and overly clever, fast moving commercials selling soft drinks, beer and sneakers.

It is now an ancient technique, over used, abused and it serves no purpose. Full disclosure demands that you understand correspondents and subjects walked many miles for me on film and videotape. I asked them to do it, and used almost every step they took. This is only a small problem, one of cosmetics and not one of substance. It is annoying, but it is nothing to keep us up at night. There is something more annoying, a new trend there for a greater purpose than lip-gloss, hair spray and face powder.

Once upon a time anchors on television delivered the dayıs news seated behind a desk. Early in the TV business, these men (female anchors did not then exist) read from typed sheets of paper. Later as the Teleprompter grew in importance, the typed scripts were close by if the system failed. Anchors shuffled the script, straightened the script, sometimes even referred to it, but they only read from it an emergency. Many times I recall sitting in a control room telling the anchor what page he should be on if the equipment went down.

The operative word here is sitting. They, those men we trusted for their calm demeanor, these avuncular men, sat. That position, their sitting, tended to relax the audience. Why deliver the news, often bad and filled with death and destruction, in a manner that made the viewer rise from his seat in shock and awe? Keep calm. Do not excite the audience more than necessary. Network news show successfully used that method for years.

We believed we should help alleviate any tension or fear that might come from hearing horror stories on the news.

Incidentally, we called the front of the desk a chastity shield, there to keep the audience from seeing the legs of a woman reporter or guest, and thus being diverted from hearing the often-grisly news of the day. In some cases, the newsreader wore a well-cut jacket, a respectful pastel shirt tucked into Khaki trousers or worn blue jeans. A tightly knotted somber tie covered his chest starting at the throat and draped gently over his stomach.

It was not necessary to wear custom cut ensembles that men and women anchors wear today on every network, free or cable. They wear the finest cut clothing. They stand. They do not sit. They know how to thrust a shoulder toward the camera and they do it just aggressively enough to show the viewer this is serious stuff. It is almost as if this new breed of anchor is vying for the best-dressed list.

In the TV news business, we call a standup a standup because in the field where they take place, there is no desk. There is no chair, or there should not be. The correspondent stands because it is natural when reporting away from home. Sometimes the situation demands that you kneel, get down on two knees, even lie flat deliver your on-camera moment. The reasons are simple: a riot, a gun battle, shells overhead, a life-threatening situation. This when a desk, even if available, would make no sense to the audience.

News today is bad enough without the anchor, once the sign of stability in a roiling sea, making it worse by raising our blood pressure because of the presumed tension from standing. I know. Game show hosts stand. They usually sprout gibberish. Sports anchors sometimes stand but they are all about yelling and creating tension, anyway. What they say, any of them, how they say it and where on the set they say it from, matters very little. Usually, life and death play no part in what they do and how they do it.

Why does anyone stand and deliver the news? Is it not bad enough to hear about a world that sometimes appears to be crumbling from someone seated? Forget, too, how uncomfortable it is to stand stiffly, all muscles firmly in place like tensile steel about to snap, while trying to look relaxed and confident. Some anchors stand facing directly into the camera. Others stand at an angle, one shoulder thrust forward, leaning on one leg, often ignoring the pain shooting through his body because of his natural posture.

Is a standing anchor the same as standing water, there to become food for mosquitoes, to grow moss, and become stale? Mosquitoes are annoying but we can get rid of them with sprays and sometimes a good slap. I wonder if the anchor will they come through my screen and appear in my living room every hair in place, their diction almost perfect, to tell me the sky is really falling. I want to duck and remove myself from their aggression. When someone stands, it means he is serious. Standers threaten. The very nature of standing creates tension beyond the story. Then, why stand when it is more comfortable to sit? Usually because the producer or news management says, stand and they shall know you for the clothes you wear. I cannot imagine a fat anchor.

All I ask is that whatever you do, news executives please have your anchors sit and calmly deliver the news. We need that to happen in this time of great anxiety. Until then, I fear, anchors will stand and deliver, annoying me no end. I for one will make use of the option to turn off the picture and listen only to the sound. Even in this age of the visual, good sound still has a place. When the anchor is not in sight, I will take my chances and watch a correspondent in the field deliver a story. At least he might have a reason to be excited.

© Ron Steinman

Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War