Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Birth of the Code

A series of events occurred in the early 90s which changed the face of news forever. CNN was then the only cable news outlet in existence. Their unique model was the 24 hour news cycle but in delivering it they had adapted the same process which came with the invention of broadcast television news.

This process consisted of a very dry and formal reading of the news by somber, mostly male anchors. Occasionally they would go to a live report which was also stiff and professional. The only hint of personality we ever saw from news anchors, local and national was in their paper shuffling techniques leading into commercials. Those that looked at their blank pages during the process, maybe faking a jot down with a prop pen were the one’s playing the showbiz game. If their teleprompter told them to tell viewers that water wasn’t wet, they would do so. The ones with a little integrity would look past the camera to the crew as if to say, “Why are you making me shuffle these blank pages?” If prompted to announce water wasn’t wet, these anchors would do so as well.

Those television news magazines like 60 Minutes and 20/20 were only slightly better. Hugh Downs would smile but he would never move. Ed Bradly would move but with all that THC in his fat cells he never could have won a race against a one-legged centenarian. The most animated anchor of the day was Barbara Walters when she moved her lips. Unfortunately, no one could understand a single word she said—if indeed she was actually speaking. I felt like giving her a cookie if she could just say “washing machine” correctly. It worked with my two year-old son; why didn’t Walters’ producers try it on her?

All of that changed beginning in 1992 with the Bobbitt case. As you recall, a scorned wife performed an unauthorized amputation on her husband whose only anesthesia was the very economical sleep process. While her surgery was cost effective, Mrs. Bobbitt was not authorized to practice medicine nor did she have the proper biohazard disposal containers handy. So she drove off and littered a vacant lot with the offending body part.

I thought the stone-faced anchors did an excellent job of reporting the incident, but it was tiresome listening to the medically correct name of the missing part over and over again; especially with kids in the house. Unfortunately, the 40 year tradition of dull news delivery died when a reporter located the woman who found the missing part and interviewed her.

Had it been a simple news event the story might have run its course and news anchors may have been able to recover. But the Feminists intervened and made Mrs. Bobbitt a modern day Joan of Arc. That kept the fires burning and the news anchors laughing long enough for William Kennedy Smith to do some alleged damage to a young lady.
Senator Kennedy’s nephew was accused of rape. The feminists were still on fire over Mrs. Bobbitt who somehow became a victim of her own crime and more fuel was added on behalf of Kennedy’s alleged rape victim. Both stories were serious crimes. But for the anchors that had to report them, they posed two different dilemmas.

For Bobbitt, it was the story itself and how to report the facts professionally without breaking that standard stone face. Many succumbed, abandoning training and tradition from which they never recovered. In Kennedy’s story the problem was how to protect the alleged victim’s privacy while covering the court case.

Technology at the time was sophisticated enough to create a blue dot. But it was only as good as its handler. At times the cameraman and the blue dot pilot weren’t on the same page and that blue dot would bounce around so much you felt like singing along even though the words to the tune weren’t on screen.

Then another problem emerged. You cannot put a blue dot over a bad word. You could bleep them out if you had a delayed broadcast. Even so, those words strung together to make some pretty racy pictures. Even a blue bar couldn’t fix that. The anchors of course, heard what we heard and still attempted to analyze it for us, taking them into uncharted territory; some of which was funnier than the Bobbitt story.

The shredding of traditional news delivery was already complete even before these two stories had dried up. However, they were necessary stepping stones to the introduction of “the Code” which would insert itself forever into the news via a story hard on their heels.

The final blow to serious news came with the OJ trial. We can forget everything about the trial as far as news coverage history is concerned except for one incident. That’s when F. Lee Baily asked witness, Detective Mark Furman if he had ever used a particular word. In doing so, Bailey effectively killed the word forever, at least on television news. Interestingly enough, Bailey would force the invention of a synonym for that word and open the gates for many other forbidden words to enter the American lexicon.

Bailey used the actual word many times at trial and we all heard what he said. But in doing their analysis of the trail, no anchor could utter the word Bailey found so effortless. It is not known which broadcaster first introduced the now common broadcast pig Latin and few of us can remember the first time we heard it but the term, “N word” stuck. The Code was born and the news world has never been the same.

For those of you who ever watched Ted Koppel, you would have to agree that his first impression was contradictory. The first thing you noticed was his hair. It’s a little odd. Then you hear him deliver the news. It’s even odder because he sounds intelligent and professional. Why then, you wonder, doesn’t Koppel understand the physics of the common bathroom mirror? You know, you can see what you look like in one of those. Why couldn’t Koppel grasp that simple concept? The hair and the delivery just don’t go together. It’s sort of like planning your grandmother’s funeral with a funeral director dressed in a clown outfit. The appearance doesn’t fit the profession.

I suppose you can get used to Koppel, I did. That is until the Code was introduced and Koppel subscribed. Now we have a situation where you accepted the funeral director’s attire and are willing to let him have grandma. But he wants to discuss the arrangements in pig Latin. Are you going to let this guy dress your grandma now?
Well, that’s the way I felt about Koppel when he adopted the Code. I just couldn’t take him seriously anymore. This upset me to no end because I had spent months dealing with and resolving his hair issue. I’d already had a belly full of word nonsense when I was forced to talk baby talk just to get a hamburger. Do you know that you are on camera when you are asking for a McCheesy-wheezey, biggie-wiggie, curly, super-sized, Whopper Junior? And what is a Whopper Junior anyway? Isn’t it a small Whopper? What linguistic sense does that make? What is the “N word”? Why can’t we actually use the original? Well it’s just not palatable. It’s the same concept in our brain that prevents us from buying a “little hamburger” when for the same product at the same price we could have a Whopper Junior; and we’ll buy it even if we have to talk baby talk to get it. It’s not an option either. If you really want that little hamburger they will make you say its true, “BS word” name.

We accept that we will never be able to get plain language out of a lawyer. But who would ever have thought we would have to take a Dr. Seuss dictionary with us to get a cotton-picking hamburger? For the past 15 years we’ve had to get the R rated pig Latin dictionary out just to hear the news. We have A words, B words, the C word, D words, E words and the ever popular F word. There are many more, of course and they are all designed to deflect offense to the designated oppressed group or to giggly introduce one of those old mouth-soaping words into a news broadcast. In doing so, they have taken the mystery and much of our respect out of the old style news anchor.

Television news has radically changed. It is particularly sensitive about offending all the classic minority groups. This assumes that all members of these groups are offended and implies that they need rescue from oppression. By default, it is the white, male Christian who oppresses and there need be no R rated pig Latin substitutes for degrading names directed at him. But he doesn’t really care.
It’s beyond the scope here to detail that many members of these minority groups resent the condescension more than the insults. I, as a member of the default oppressor group do too. In the newsroom however, as in most other American institutions it is the fear of legal repercussions, brought about by a minority in these minority groups through relentless political pressure that brings on the condescension. If minorities feel inferior it is only because their self-appointed leaders require it.

It is not surprising then that our educational standards must plummet in order for the rational points above to be inaccessible. The main goal, ignorance, also brings with it crude and vulgar behavior. Now this crude and vulgar behavior can be reported because we have a whole slew of new synonyms to insult and degrade viewers.
It’s still uncertain if television news is reacting to that emerging low rent audience or if it is part of it. It is refreshing to those of us who remember those professional liars of days past to now see some human emotion in our news anchors. But with the exception of Fox News Channel and its business off-shoot, it is hard to find a newscast that isn’t heavily staffed with well-educated stupid people. Fox though, has its share.

Before I became a writer, I had to speak at a convention of over 400 people. Prior to my speech, I was taken aside by one of the organizers who saw my nervousness. He said to me, “Remember, you are the expert on this topic but at least half your audience is smarter than you are.” That advice ruined my script but prevented me from talking down to that crowd. I gave that speech with no notes and except for the first few minutes, no stage fright. From the comments afterward, my speech was well received.

That man who advised me should have been a consultant to the news industry. All, including Fox news talk down to their viewers.

A little entertainment on a newscast is not a bad idea. Even God needs choirs to get some of his flock to church. However, a nod or two to the old breed might be helpful. There was a reason they never let Soupy Sales do an evening news broadcast.

An intelligent newscast may be a thing of the past and serious delivery is in peril if it must be sprinkled with R rated pig Latin. If professional news anchors ever want to be taken seriously again, one of two things must happen. Either producers must find copy editors with a creative command of the English language or Americans will have to stop committing crimes with dirty words in them. The future doesn’t look promising.

Dick Lancaster, December, 2010


  1. Good blog Dick....

    Looking back, some of the old entertainers had great writers, they could describe almost anything in the codes fo the day that everone understood.... and get it past the censors.

  2. The U.S. viewing audience gets what it wants. Ratings rule and drive content. I don't watch tv news at all. With the internet, I have many places to get informed.

  3. I could have the cable shut off and never miss it.. except the phone and computer are tied in..

    I can access more information faster, and from more different viewpoints on the Internet than is remotely possible on Television


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