My story begins in 1972. I was doing TV news at a station in Lansing, Michigan. Any time I start feeling full of myself I dig up a photo of me on camera back then. Some of you may remember Gene Shalit NBC’s “Today Show” regular book and film critic. Yeah..I looked like a younger version of Gene but without the mustache. In any event, that’s when I got my first taste of what “balanced” meant to some rich old guy who owned the only TV station in town.
The station was owned by a old guy named Harold “Hal” Gross.( I looked for an image link to him but the ‘Net seems to have left him back in the ’70s.)
‘Ole Hal was a good buddy to the local congressman from the 6th District of Michigan Charles Chamberlain (R).
Chamberlain was glued to that seat in congress which was great for him and not bad for Gross who enjoyed name-dropping wherever and whenever he could. We never could find anything going on between them that was precisely illegal, but there was always a smell around them.
Of course, whenever Charlie wanted to get on TV we’d get the order from Gross to go stick a mic and camera in the congressman’s face so he could say whatever he wanted to say. I can’t remember Mr. Chamberlain ever having anything interesting to say, let alone newsworthy. And when I tried to raise that with Gross he brushed me aside and told me to get a haircut. (I didn’t)
But good things don’t last forever and Democrat Bob Carr, a young anti-war lawyer, decided to take a shot at beating Chamberlain. The timing was right; Chamberlain was getting old, starting to lose interest in the job, travel, etc.. And there was a ready made “army” of young Michigan State college kids on the nearby campus who were looking for something to do that might end the Vietnam War.
So Carr and his merry band of activists pulled together a no-frills campaign and went about the business of telling voters why they should vote for Carr instead of Chamberlain.
But there was one little problem.
Hal wasn’t about to let some young “demo-crap” rain all over his cozy arrangement with Chamberlain. So Hal dreamed up something he called “balanced” news coverage, sent all of us a memo and his policy was to go into effect immediately.
Of course, nobody in the news department had a clue about what the old man meant by “balanced.” As a matter of basic journalism we always looked for the two, three, or more sides to a story. A new road might make driving to the mall easier for some, but it’s going to plow right through another family’s home.
So we just trashed the memo and went on the daily business of trying to fill up 15-minutes of actual news.
Then two things happened with no apparent connection. Gross started to lock up the week’s allocation of film for the newsroom in his office safe. That drove the cameramen crazy. You see, back then, before videotape, everything we did was on film. Today, a crew can burn through hours of videotape to get one great two-minute story. What Gross did was make the cameramen shoot on a ratio of one-to-one. In other words, every single frame of film was going to be used so they’d better make it look good.
My cameraman, Dennis, went completely off his rocker about that one and became focused on how to extract revenge. But I’ll come back to that in a moment.
We took turns covering the local political races, especially the “hot” contest between Carr and Chamberlain. That’s when things got weird. Dennis and I would head out to cover a Carr news conference, get his spiel and then call over to the Chamberlain campaign for a response.
But they didn’t want to respond. They didn’t want to say anything.
(Carr lost that race by the thinnest of margins, but came back two years later and beat the long term incumbent.)
We couldn’t figure out what rocket scientist of a political consultant gave them that advice. I mean, to just sit back and take one on the chin was not a great way to keep a congressional seat.
So we cut the story ending with “we asked the Chamberlain campaign about the Carr charges, but they told us “no comment.”
Gross always had his little turd spies roaming around the place. One of them must have rushed over to the big guy’s office to report on the Carr story because the news director’s phone rang immediately.
We were told to kill the story.
Why? What was wrong? Was I not wearing my puke yellow blazer with the big “WJIM” patch on the pocket? (I hated that blazer.)
Nope. It was much more simple. We had violated the Gross “balanced news” policy.
So if the good congressman didn’t want to say anything the story couldn’t be “balanced” and was trashed.
We lost track of how many times that happened with the Carr – Chamberlain campaign and others.
One side was able to effectively censor the other by doing nothing. We could be as “fair” as possible, but if a story wasn’t “balanced” it was never seen.
Before long both Dennis and I hit our boiling point. Gross was controlling how much film we could use to cover stories and his “balanced news” b.s. was just plain wrong, if not illegal.
There’s more to the story. We formed a union, got fired, were reinstated with back pay so long as we never set foot in the station again, and went on our way.
But we left Mr. Gross a little present. Shortly after we received our settlements there was a figurative “explosion.” Here’s how it was described in Wikipedia:
“The local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union challenged the station’s license in 1973 on allegations Gross prevented a number of prominent political figures from appearing on WJIM-TV. A Federal Communications Commission (FCC) judge ordered the license revoked in 1981. WJIM kept its license when the initial revocation was reversed by FCC in 1982. The ACLU would eventually agree to a cash settlement in 1984.”
Shortly afterwards Gross just got out of the business.
But his “balanced” policy has survived and flourished most noticeably at FOX news. But the other networks and a whole lot of newspapers have bought into it. And they’ve been suckered into a reverse form of that game. If a politician makes a big enough noise they “have to” cover it. The cable news outfits even “have to” carry the noise live.
In the meantime, folks who have something other than noise are left in the wake unless they want to respond to what the noisemaker had to say – which just leads to more noise.