Saturday, January 15, 2005

What Would You Rather Do Now, Dan?

Well, Mr. R., I guess it must really suck to be you, huh?

That bloggess called your response to the Boccardi-Thornburgh report "lame," and you know she's right. I suppose it can't be helped, though. Reading between the lines, your response has the tone of a middle manager who's been kicked in the stomach but hasn't figured out yet what he's going to do next.

Not that there's a lot of argument about what should happen next. Lots of people around here, and quite a few among your paper media comrades, want your head on a sacrificial platter. Hugh, of course, wants to go further: if there's one thing that could make him happier than seeing your tarred and feathered carcass bounce down the steps of Black Rock, it's seeing your tarred and feathered carcass bounce down the steps of Capitol Hill. Thrown by a bipartisan committee of all the politicians you've covered in the past decade.

There's no reasoning with Hugh when he gets in that kind of mood, you know?

And interestingly enough, Dan, no one has taken your side. Les Moonves may have decided that leaving the anchor spot was enough for now, but yesterday, you found out from The New York Times that he's already thinking about pulling the rug out from under you.

No question, Dan. This is a pretty deep hole for you to get out of.

Now Hugh and his posse think that you should stay in that hole, live forever in the shameful purgatory reserved for partisan hacks, to be kicked in the face by the New Wave of enterprising bloggers passing you by. Me, on the other hand, I'm a sucker for redemption stories. I won't defend the indefensible, but I think there's a way to end your career on, if not exactly a high note, at least a tune everyone can whistle.

What worries me is that you think you already know what'll get you out of there: something along the lines of go to Washington and break a story that'll topple the Big One from the moment of triumph.

Sorry, Dan-Boy, but that's not going to work for you. Even if it's Governor Gregoire.

You see, what Boccardi-Thornburgh did was expose the dark side of advocacy journalism, the kind that made your reputation and got you into the anchor seat to begin with. So what if they didn't find partisan bias? They didn't have to; they found so many flaws in your post-story strategy that it stunned you into incoherence (viz. your lame response). Which means that if you do a story based on the advocacy-journalism model, everyone will be fact-checking you so much that the effort to defend your story will be far more than the effort to air it in the first place.

No, Dan. If you're going to work, you'll have to do a different kind of story. And do it in a different way.

So, with the caveat that free advice is worth what you pay for, here are three suggestions for what you can do, as a CBS News correspondent in his final years:

1. Join the embeds. That's right, go to Iraq and get embedded with a company. It puts you in a news-rich zone, it'll make for good headlines, and the soldiers there aren't quite as ready with the tar and feathers as Hugh is.

The thing is, you don't just report the people getting killed. You report on life in Iraq itself; what soldiers do when there's no shooting, the life of an Iraqi family, how soldiers feel about time away, that sort of thing.

What's that, you say? The reporters already embedded are already doing that, you'd just be following in their footsteps? Okay, try suggestion no. 2:

2. Do a Red States/Blue States tour. No, Dan, your home in Texas doesn't count; too much of a temptation to cocoon. What you do is, get CBS to rent you an RV so you can do a road trip of America, go talk with the people who voted Bush (or better yet, voted Kerry in a red state). Look at how they view things like God, politicians, life in America, the hot-rod rallies, the Home Depot project builders, the fun things they like to do.

Yes, it's been done before; your late colleague Charles Kuralt did it with his "On the Road" series. But you have to admit, there's a need for such a series again. Election 2004 proved that the Red and Blue State populations need to understand each other, to break out of the stereotypes imposed by a confused media and punditocracy. You can help with that.

Also, you enjoy an advantage that Charles Kuralt didn't: the unobtrusiveness of modern technology. Broadcast-quality camcorders are now of a size that even someone like you can handle them, and laptops with Adobe Premiere mean you can edit your footage from the comfort of your RV. What that means, Dan, is that you'd be more approachable to people because you don't have a big honking camera in their periphery. It would also add a "homemade" edge to your footage that's in vogue these days.

That's right, Dan. Shoot and edit your own footage. True, it won't be as nice as a professional camcorder and editor working for you, but it is a way of unofficially acknowledging your current position in the doghouse without keeping you from covering the story.

Now, if you really want to be the edge:

3. Do a blog. Jay Rosen's suggested that you hire a blogger to help you in your work by maintaining a blog in your name. But I think you have to go farther. I think you need to get CBS News to let you do a blog on their website--one that you have to do yourself.

"To understand your enemy, you must become your enemy." Despite Hugh's rhetoric, the blogosphere is not your enemy. But it is a community that you need to understand and reach out to, and you won't be able to do that if someone does it for you.

If you do decide to write a blog, don't talk about the stories of the day. That's what people would expect, but you want to surprise them. Talk about the CBS newsgathering process itself. That's a unique thing you can contribute: show the blogosphere how CBS News arrives at decisions for stories to air. Why this story? Why not that one? What do other reporters say? That sort of thing. You can defang a lot of your critics by educating them about the process.

And explore the blogosphere: use engines like BlogExplosion to look at other blogs. And not just the news and punditry blogs (considering all they've said about you, you wouldn't want to look at them anyway); look at the knitting blogs, the mommy blogs, the school blogs, the urban single wanna-get-a-date blogs. They're the blogs that you can get story ideas from, the human interest stories that aren't the top of the hour, but have a compelling interest to viewers nonetheless. (One fact you have to face, Dan: the CBS News brass won't let you have a "top-of-the-hour" story. Not even if you're managing editor. Not for at least a year.)

By now, Dan, I'm sure you're bright enough to realize the common thread of all these ideas. The soldiers, the Red Staters, the bloggers -- they're all The People, Dan. For years now, you've been telling the stories of those At The Top. Now is your opportunity to tell the stories of those on the lower rungs. And their stories are compelling enough with having to resort to the advocacy model that landed you in trouble in the first place.

No, you may not be able to soar again, Dan. But do things right when you cover The People, and don't be surprised if they decided to let you fly.