Former KTVU anchor Leslie Griffith says if television news is in trouble, so are we.
Oakland’s Leslie Griffith was a staple of KTVU’s Channel 2 news for two decades, delivering the news of the day, first as a reporter and then from the anchor chair next to Dennis Richmond. On the surface she was the consummate blond beauty of broadcast news; underneath, she was an old-school journalist who knew how to find a coroner’s report, question a corporate press release and live with drug dealers in San Francisco’s projects for weeks at a time to understand turf wars.
Her lilting alto voice on the nationally acclaimed 10 o’clock news signaled the end of a long day for people throughout the Bay Area.
Then one day in 2006—poof—she was gone.
For anyone who cared, there was an amicable press release announcing that the Bay Area station and the journalist had parted on good terms. It seemed Griffith had retired at the ripe age of 48, moving on to “pursue other interests” or “spend more time with her family.” That may be the storyline, but that’s not exactly the story.
Griffith, a veteran journalist and media insider, is now on the outside, delivering a scathing review of television news. She writes for popular online sites such as The Huffington Post and Truthout and newspapers like the San Francisco Chronicle and Bay Guardian, analyzing a broadcast media that’s largely owned by General Electric, Disney, Viacom and Rupert Murdoch. She is also hard at work on a book—tentatively called Shut Up and Read—that is both a Chomsky-esque indictment of corporate media control and a from-the-trenches look at exactly how broadcast news has been compromised.
“When is the last time you saw any corporations exposed by the media for wrongdoing? When was the last time you saw that? I can’t even think of one,” says Griffith.
Television journalists, she says, have gone from respected voices—the town criers charged with informing the public—to corporate and government cheerleaders in a relatively short period of time. Many television news experts agree with Griffith, citing a steady slide in TV news quality over the years coupled with less independent station ownership, less skillful reporting and the rise of the Internet. But others, in particular KTVU news director Ed Chapuis, defends his station’s coverage of political and economic news, saying the top-rated station is still delivering quality reporting.
With more and more people seeking news and information from online sources, broadcast news is sometimes cast as a dinosaur. But media experts emphasize that even though more people are turning to the Internet, most people still get their news from television and so a discussion about the quality of national or local broadcast journalism is relevant. “It still matters,” says Bay Area-based media critic Norman Solomon. “It matters a lot.”
Griffith thinks it matters, too.
“When people say the local news all looks the same now, there’s a logical reason,” she says. “Oftentimes, the reporters are sitting at their desks taking the same feed, therefore writing the same story. They’re not reporters, they’re stenographers. The difference is the pretty person standing in front of the chroma key—which is often a picture of a place they’ve never been. ‘I like the way so and so’s dress looks, let’s watch this one.’ We have become conditioned—even in the most progressive area in the country, the Bay Area—to think that way. It came over us slowly. Very slowly. Trusted people kept doing it. So they thought it was OK. It must be OK. The world must be OK.”
Griffith, who is impassioned and warm with a biting Texas wit, likens the public and broadcast news media to the proverbial frog and the pot. If the water is hot in the pot when the frog jumps in, he’ll jump out. If the heat rises slowly, the frog will simply stay put and eventually be cooked.
Leslie Griffith is sitting on a pillow on the floor of her home office in the Oakland hills, bare feet propped against the desk, dictating sections of her book-in-progress to Karen, her intern. Karen is typing at warp speed as Griffith relates a tale of killings in San Francisco’s projects, choosing carefully the words to describe how she watched a young man’s blood flow into the gutters. “No, not gutters,” she says, “culverts.” Griffith’s voice has that same signature cadence, but other things about her are different. She’s more casual and her hair is—are you ready?—short, sassy and brown.
Amid focused moments in an office full of Emmy and Edward R. Murrow awards, Griffith is affectionate with her puppy Scout who is eager to share his love. The proud Griffith (who has two grown daughters) demonstrates Scout’s big roll-over trick and rewards him with a “good Scouty” and a treat. On this day, Griffith’s home in the hills is shrouded in fog, but on most days, she’s got a clear view of San Francisco, the city she covered for 22 years.
In her blogging and op-ed pieces, Griffith is not criticizing KTVU specifically but rather the state of the news media in general. She seems sincere in her affection and respect for many of the station’s reporters as well as longtime KTVU news director Fred Zehnder, who left in 2000, and was largely responsible for pushing the station to be better than the rest. Zehnder was known for expecting his reporters to engage with their community, know the players, listen and ask why.
Griffith landed one of her first journalism jobs in the early 1980s in Grand Junction, Colo., at age 23. She was married with one young child and planning to be an English teacher at a local college but the semester hadn’t started yet and she needed work to help support her family. After spotting a help-wanted sign, Griffith walked into the local radio station where the manager, named Myrtle, offered her a job as a radio reporter if she could also clean the bathrooms and mop the floor. “She said, ‘What the hell are you doing here? You have a face for television,’ relates Griffith. “I took a beating because she thought I was too pretty. I learned about how to fail in journalism there. What it did for me was made me stronger and made me learn.”
Though in a small town, Griffith was near national action. President Jimmy Carter had crafted the Synfuels initiative in response to the Arab oil embargo and a roiling energy crisis. Much like today, notes Griffith, billions of dollars were given in subsidies from the federal government to oil companies to come up with an alternative, domestic fuel. Synfuels involved the mining of oil shale in states such as Utah and Colorado; it led to a boom in Grand Junction. But after Carter promised an $88 billion federal effort, Ronald Reagan changed the policy, all the oil companies walked away and the boom became a bust.
Griffith still regrets that she wasn’t more critical of the plan, instead of falling in line like the other local reporters in town. “I lifted my pompoms like everyone else because I was one of those just reading a press release,” she says.
As many of the residents of Grand Junction lost their homes and left, Griffith knew she had to move out and, hopefully, move up. She saw an ad for a TV-reporter position in Salinas, Calif. Instead of sending the standard résumé and a stock headshot, Griffith mailed an application describing herself as a “terrible” journalist who needed a mentor. She also mailed a glossy photo of herself getting ready—blond spikes pulled through a frosting cap, eyebrows in mid-wax and makeup half done. “Instead of showing the after shot, I showed the before shot,” says Griffith of the application she sent to the Salinas news director Larry Mercer. “He called me five minutes after he got the letter. He said, ‘You want to learn? How fast can you get here?’”
But it didn’t take long for KTVU’s Zehnder to notice Griffith and steal her away to San Francisco to be the youngest reporter on his staff. Griffith says she was in heaven in San Francisco, citing Herb Caen, two thriving newspapers and people in the streets protesting Iran-Contra. “I thought I found paradise because people were aware,” she says. “The fact that they’re so asleep now has a lot to do with the lack of explanation, the lack of explaining why.”
Griffith says Zehnder encouraged independent, investigative local and international reporting. In one instance, recalls Griffith, she had evidence that a Berkeley woman was responsible for killing her best friend and mother, but was not in police custody. The deaths had been ruled accidental. Griffith had looked into the killings, finding the coroner’s report that said one victim had several gashes in her head.
“Any thinking person would say, ‘How do you get up in the bathtub and then fall down—get up, fall down, get up, fall down?” says Griffith. “It starts with a question. Somebody didn’t follow the dots here. Connecting the dots always appealed to me.” Before running the story, Zehnder asked Griffith if her sources were strong. She said yes. KTVU aired the piece and the woman, ultimately, ended up in jail for life.
Griffith says this kind of story might not air today—first because many TV news reporters nowadays don’t know how to get a coroner’s report (or make a Freedom of Information Act request, for that matter), because news directors might not have the guts to air stories that could inspire litigation or offend advertisers and because those news directors don’t have enough confidence in their reporters unless there is a criminal charge already filed.
“I would come home and thank God I worked for an organization that would allow me to report things,” says Griffith.
It was the late 1980s and Griffith found herself covering stories for KTVU around the world. She went to Russia and later, Romania, and saw firsthand the dangers of media control and the pitfalls for a democracy. She says these experiences helped her to understand the kinds of perilous top-down controls that she sees affecting television newsrooms today.
Journalism experts say the media began to change after the Telecommunications Act of 1996 when the industry was largely deregulated. A cap was lifted (from 12) on the number of local broadcast stations a company could own and the Act spurred huge media consolidation nationwide. According to a 2005 report from the think tank Common Cause, 75 percent of all prime-time viewing is now controlled by five companies. Thus the stations are now owned by corporations that have an interest in competing with other television for ratings, selling advertisements and doing it on a budget (actual journalism can be expensive).
“It’s conspicuous when local TV news anywhere in the United States does much that journalists could be really proud of,” says Norman Solomon, Bay Area media expert and author of War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death and Made Love, Got War: Close Encounters with America’s Warfare State. “It does happen. Lightning strikes even at the baseline, low-quality TV news operations. But that baseline is pretty grim.”
Solomon, who often gives talks about the state of the news, says sometimes people argue that corporations buying up media could mean more resources for those failing stations. But, Solomon says, that never happens. Instead, there’s a “death spiral” where fewer and fewer resources are devoted to the product and more are devoted to the profits of shareholders.
Critics like Solomon say media consolidation can simply lead to fewer voices and perspectives—whether it’s in newspapers or TV. It also reduces competition and that can result in lower quality. If a station or a newspaper has no competition and is the only game in town, what external forces are pushing it to perform better than the rest?
KTVU, a Fox news affiliate that operates independently, was once considered the best station locally and perhaps even nationally. The station is owned by Cox News, a company that also owns dozens of radio stations and newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. (Cox Radio is one of the companies that stopped playing Dixie Chicks songs after lead singer Natalie Maines slighted President George Bush five years ago.)
A report from Columbia University’s Project for Excellence in Journalism in 2000 held KTVU up as a national model. The Project praised KTVU’s low percentage of crime stories, high percentage of business and economics and longer story segments (two to three minutes). “One senses that a viewer seeing the next morning’s paper would think to himself, ‘knew that, knew that, knew that,’ and so on,” wrote Marty Haag, author of the report.
KTVU’s news director at the time, Andrew Finlayson, was proud that the station was without a helicopter, a gimmick that would simply fuel more image-driven reports instead of deeper news analysis.
But three years after that report, the station received a mediocre report from Grade the News, a think tank led by journalist John McManus that gave KTVU a C+, a higher grade than the other local stations but lower than Bay Area newspapers. Due to a lack of funding, Grade the News has been unable to do a follow-up report on local coverage.
KTVU News Director Ed Chapuis says his station is as good as it ever was and the ratings bear that out. “If you watched KTVU this week, you saw in-depth stories on the economic crisis by veteran reporters such as Rita Williams, Bob MacKenzie, Tom Vacar and Robert Handa—every day we’re throwing five or six reporters at this story. From the fight in Congress, to your 401(k), to small businesses hammered by the credit crunch—we’re covering all the angles,” says Chapuis. He says the same goes for in-depth coverage of the presidential election with political editor Randy Shandobil delivering analysis every night.
Bill Drummond, a professor of journalism at U.C. Berkeley, was married to KTVU reporter Faith Fancher who died in 2005 from breast cancer. His son is currently working at the station as a cameraman. Although Drummond admits that since his wife died he doesn’t watch the Channel 2 News as frequently, he does know that resources are tight at the station. “To save money they’ve merged a lot of jobs out of existence,” says Drummond. “Everyone does everything. It’s not as bad as it is at KRON, but they are headed in that direction.”
Although some say a rise in crime coverage—an easier story for a novice journalist to cover than corruption at city hall—signals a decline at the station, Drummond says it may just be the breadth of the current crime wave that’s driving the nightly lineup. As to Griffith’s charges that there’s a significant shift in corporate influence in broadcast, Drummond says that influence has always been present and that the ironclad separation between advertising and editorial departments that newspapers tend to keep has rarely existed in broadcast. “This has been going on from day one in television,” says Drummond.
National media analyst Deborah Potter with NewsLab, an online resource and training center for television and radio journalists, says overall coverage and the influence of advertising in news gathering has gotten worse because of the financial crisis.
“I do think the economy being in the situation it’s in has really affected broadcast, maybe worse than anyone anticipated,” says Potter, from her office in Maryland. “I don’t think it’s going to get any better soon.”
She says broadcast executives are talking about getting more “creative” in how they can raise ad dollars through newscasts. She cites a local station in Las Vegas, a Fox news affiliate, that took to product placement in the newscasts this summer to make some extra advertising dollars. The Las Vegas Sun reported that the station placed cups of McDonald’s iced coffee (models that weren’t actually drinkable) in front of KVVU anchors during broadcasts. Drummond says this kind of product placement isn’t exactly new. In the late 1940s through mid-1950s, John Cameron Swayze hosted a 15-minute news program sponsored by Camel cigarettes. A lit cigarette smoldered in front of him during newscasts even though he didn’t smoke, says Drummond.
Cristina Azocar, director of the Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism at San Francisco State, says the Internet has taken away viewers from broadcast news and the response from stations has been to compete by offering more so-called info-tainment. She says more and more stations are considering market strategies over journalistic strategies to attract viewers.
“Why do we have a fourth estate? So we can spread democracy,” says Azocar, who also teaches journalism at S.F. State. “Broadcast news is doing very little to fulfill that mission.”
Azocar says people are abandoning both newspapers and TV news for Internet sites that can offer analysis, such as the Daily Kos and Politico. But the problem is that “citizen journalists” aren’t necessarily trained journalists.
“It’s a good thing that people are wanting to get the stories out there, but they [citizen journalists or bloggers] are not necessarily taught ethics or the principles of news gathering or the need for diversity of sources or voices,” says Azocar.
Griffith says the quality of the news started to go downhill fast after 9-11 and especially since the onset of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. She says journalists everywhere felt a pressure to be patriotic and to demonstrate that patriotism on their sleeves or more accurately on their lapels—with American flags.
Griffith says she had one young broadcast reporter email her recently to say her news director had ordered her not to point her camera toward the coffins coming home at the nearby military base.
“The ‘why questions’ certainly weren’t asked in the beginning [of the war] and are not being asked now. They need to be asked over and over again. It’s a Disneyland war,” says Griffith, noting that ABC is owned by Disney.
Griffith says she was amazed recently when NBC’s Brian Williams read an essay by a New York Times reporter that talked about why vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin should be asked questions about her past. She points out that Williams was too afraid to make the basic observation himself—the simple observation that Palin could be a heartbeat away from the presidency and of course voters need to know about her past record—and instead, he read what someone else had written. “There you have an example of TV that has a partisan agenda because G.E. owns NBC and also makes military equipment and a guy in a top position who is too afraid to form his own opinion journalistically of what is happening. I hope I’m wrong about that,” says Griffith.
When Griffith started in TV journalism, she says, reporters would have taken a White House press release and picked it apart; if it said all was quiet in Baghdad, reporters would have looked into whether there was in fact, a car bombing or a sniper attack. More often these days, reporters read the releases as fact. She says younger journalists are more naive about the motivations of corporations and the government.
“Instead of following through on that story, it is pushed aside,” says Griffith. “There’s no interest in contradicting the White House. Why? Because certain conduits of information read those press releases as fact.”
Part of the challenge for broadcast news is the intense competition for ratings and with stations owned by entertainment companies such as Disney and Viacom, there’s a stepped-up emphasis on the entertainment component, like the good looks of its anchors, in a newscast.
Lisa Gaspari was Griffith’s friend and hair stylist when the station’s news director asked her to come in to consult about the anchor’s hair. The station wouldn’t pay to have Griffith’s hair done daily, but still fretted that the style looked different each night. Gaspari says she sat with the news director in a dingy room with bright lights and no three-way mirrors as Griffith was bent over a notebook, preparing for the newscast. “The whole time she was preparing for her story and she didn’t want to be bothered with any of it,” remembers Gaspari.
Gaspari recalls another time when the station brought in a makeup artist who put copious amounts of makeup on Griffith who didn’t appear to be paying any attention until she got up after the effort and wiped it all off. “Let her be herself—that is what people love about her,” says Gaspari. “It’s just so silly.”
Griffith doesn’t talk specifically about the many factors that led to her exit from the station, but she says her work on one story, that of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey elephants, does illuminate why she had to leave and pinpoints the problems TV news reporters everywhere are facing.
For the past six years and through three gigantic boxes of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) documents—papers that are classified but then released when journalists or even ordinary citizens request them—Griffith has investigated the health of Ringling Brothers elephants, both to assess the treatment of these animals and more importantly, the threat of spreading a communicable disease across the country or the world.
Her first story about the cruel treatment of the elephants—“Horrors Under the Big Top”—aired on KTVU in 2006 and won Griffith a Telly Award and a national Genesis award. But when the anchor went back to the news director to talk about more investigative pieces regarding the Asian elephants, he dismissed it out of hand, says Griffith. After that first story, she says, Ringling Brothers lawyers had paid KTVU a visit.
Chapuis, who directed news at the time, says the station stands by Griffith’s stories and, in fact, did more news pieces about the health of the elephants after her departure. “Ringling Brothers Circus carries no influence over KTVU’s past, present or future news stories. We respectfully disagree with Leslie’s recollection of events,” says Chapuis.
Since leaving KTVU, Griffith herself has trolled through the Ringling Brothers documents and found that almost every elephant in the company had tested positive for mycobacterium tuberculosis, the same kind humans contract, says Griffith. To confirm her findings, Griffith showed the reports to Dr. Don Francis, the epidemiologist who started talking about the HIV virus before anyone else in the early 1980s. Francis looked into the situation and confirmed that the documents show a risk.
“I have raised it with the CDC [Centers for Disease Control] and they understand the issue,” says Francis. “My indication is that they see this as a potential problem, and Leslie is responsible for some of that.” Francis says we take precautions with humans who have TB in our prisons and he thinks we should be doing the same for our animals who come in contact with the public. Under an enclosed tent, elephants can disperse moisture from their trunks that may be breathed by humans. Also, says Francis, the elephants are in close contact with their handlers who can then spread the disease.
Griffith says she was told not to do more elephant stories at KTVU and says, chuckling, that she was marginalized as an “animals rights activist” even though she’s interested in broader health concerns. As soon as she left KTVU, Griffith says she was free to further investigate the issue and has done so with renewed energy.
She says it’s an example of “capitalism gone crazy” that Ringling Brothers is allowed to carry infected elephants across the country. “Who is going to stop it?” she asks.
Griffith points out that soon after she left KTVU, Ringling Brothers began to advertise the circus on the San Francisco station—with gusto.
While it’s not uncommon for media critics to pick apart broadcast coverage and point out the holes and flaws, it is uncommon for an insider to do so. That’s why Griffith’s forthcoming book is likely to make more than a few people nervous.
“This is the underside of the facade of TV news and I think she [Griffith] has a lot of insights,” says Solomon. “We need to hear those insights. Usually well-paid TV people are bought off in perpetuity. One of the things that’s bought is silence. I don’t know if she’s gotten that note that says, ‘You’ll never eat lunch in this town again.’”
Griffith says yes, she’s gotten the message, loud and clear.
“I’m shut out. I’m a pariah to these corporations,” says Griffith. “Why am I a pariah? I kept asking why. We’ve got to explain why. We can’t do it in 30 seconds. If we keep adding fluff, if we keep lowering the blouses and poofing the hair, cutting word counts and using helicopters—if that’s our priority, we’re going to fall. Not just the station is going to fall, a democracy is in trouble because of it.”
So far, Griffith’s book is 400 pages long and in the hands of her editor. It’s likely to come out early next year. Griffith hopes the book will inspire some outrage that could lead to pressure on the FCC to move back to a time of more regulation and public control.
Basically, Griffith hopes her book will turn up the heat and make some people—especially the viewers who just accept what’s served up—jump out of the pot.
Andrea Lampros is the editor of The East Bay Monthly and a freelance writer.