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 Marine veteran, and lives in North County.
I spent my entire career in television news as a producer. It was a career that I loved—in the beginning.
I sought out the profession because I thought it was a public service. I wanted to fix society, expose corruption and be a true do-gooder. But as I moved up the ranks, my job became more focused on how we could get more eyeballs on the screen for more extended periods of time, sometimes at any cost. I’m responsible for more sensational “sweeps” pieces than I care to admit. Sweeps is a specific period on the calendar related to ratings. It determines how much advertisers can be charged based on how many people watched during that time. You can only do this for so long before you feel dirty.
I’ve written headlines like “Inside R. Kelly’s Atlanta Sex Dungeon.” I’ve interrupted newscasts for live police chases and shootings. I’ve even encouraged anchors and reporters to “show more personality” — that’s code for “do something outrageous” — because upper management said we were a fifth of a rating point from beating the competition. These are things my bosses encouraged and praised.
A producer’s job isn’t only to choose the stories, reporters and angles but also to “sex up” the content. The producer must figure out how to take a news story and make it into something that will “get viewers.” There’s a reason a newscast begins with video of a Capitol police officer getting crushed in a doorway or shooting flames out of the windows of an old woman’s home. The fact that ABC “World News Tonight” anchor David Muir says “dramatic video” and “a major bombshell as we come on the air” almost every night is not an accident. It’s not a mistake that CNN begins every show with “Breaking News.” These are deliberate marketing techniques designed by a producer with the goal of getting people to watch. As cheap as these gimmicks might seem, they work, which is why producers do it, and why senior managers condone it.
It sounds sleazy or manipulative, but it’s no more so than retailers luring 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 passerby to buy the latest edition. It’s all business. So why do so many people get dismayed by how the media operates?
People often say “journalism is dead” or “the good ol’ days of honest reporting are gone.” The problem is that people remember how it seemed but never really was. Yes, Edward R. Murrow delivered compelling reports from Europe during World War II using the sounds of war, previously only heard by those who were there. And the eternally credible Walter Cronkite delivered what seemed like straight-laced news on CBS. But what we fail to realize is not only their programs were heavily sponsored, but the stories were told through a filter, a filter we probably didn’t realize was there because the options for news were limited.
Now that we have an infinite choice in where and when we get news, the filter is obvious, and we get to choose it, yet we will still complain. The media is always an easy target and a lazy argument. That is why people, particularly politicians, always attack the media. They simply have to say, “You know how Fox News is” or “MSNBC never tells the whole story.” And many people buy that because they, too, feel it’s true. Remember, the next time you watch the news, you’re getting what you paid for. The product directly responds to the audience’s demands and nothing more.
So what is the purpose of the media? In my opinion, it’s not to keep a watchful eye on the government or expose corruption. It’s not to inform the people or right the wrongs of society. It is to make money and sell ideas and nothing more. Those working in the profession will deny this because they believe they are changing the world in some small way. Even the leaders at the top of major news organizations will say it isn’t true. But in the US, the news is a profitable venture, with exceptions like PBS and NPR. And even they rely on corporate sponsors and monetary donations. With this in mind, why do some hold the media in such high esteem when it’s nothing more than a business?
Press freedom is constitutionally protected, but that does not make it sacrosanct. Our founding fathers used the press to push an agenda without claims of being fair or balanced. The Federalist Papers, Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” and many other colonial-era publications were designed to sway public opinion. All were written provocatively not only to garner 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 by the election of President Thomas Jefferson. Today, we still have newspapers such as the Tallahassee Democrat and the Pottsville Republican. The names alone suggest that there should be no expectation of unbiased reporting.
There’s no doubt the media can do good work, and I have many friends and colleagues still in the business who are prime examples of that. We wouldn’t know about Watergate, the lies behind the Iraq War or the scandals of the Trump White House if it wasn’t for excellent reporting. Additionally, local media outlets can serve an even greater purpose. When severe weather strikes, they inform you and your family so you can be safe. (I am aware that sentence sounds like a producer wrote it. As the cliche goes: Some habits die hard.)
However, make no mistake about it, if the editors of The Washington Post and the producers at the major TV networks didn’t believe these stories would sell, they would have never seen the light of day.