Why Are TV Journalists So Stupid?

My personal favorite is Katie Couric’s high-fashion photo spread in Harper’s Bazaar, hitting newsstands just as as CBS News announced a wave of layoffs

Last Updated: November 9, 2010 @ 6:30 PM

Lots of questions are being asked in light of the Keith Olbermann drama. Among them, whether news organizations should break their longtime, universal taboo and permit journalists to make political contributions. Or whether those in newsrooms who publicly advocate one political POV deserve a new job category and set of rules.

I’ve got a question that no one’s raised: Why are TV journalists so stupid?

This is not to imply that their print and digital siblings are dramatically smarter; they’re just generally lower-profile. But when a TV anchor, correspondent, analyst, commentator or host does something dumb, media critics and bloggers happily find themselves handed several days’ good copy.

In the last week, Olbermann handed out lots of copy. But set aside the philosophical debate over whether he should have the right to make such donations. The hard truth is that he wrote checks in violation of longstanding NBC policy – a policy as basic and common in the business as the ones requiring you wear pants to work and not fondle co-workers.

You don’t like a policy? Contest it internally and get it reversed. Until then, agree or not, you’re stuck working under it.

In a pretty testy statement released Monday, Olbermann claimed he was unaware of a policy. It’s hard to believe that such a veteran broadcaster, political animal and media observer would be ignorant of it – or, at very least, not curious enough to ask before pulling out the checkbook. News organizations regularly reiterate this rule, in memo and meeting; when I worked with Olbermann elsewhere, it was drilled into us at mandatory annual standards policy sessions.

And it’s a regular part of media covering media during election seasons. In fact, one of the most thorough, most quoted pieces ever on the subject was produced by MSNBC four years after Olbermann launched “Countdown:” a June 2007 investigation identifying 143 journalists who’d made contributions and their employers’ policies.

I remember that piece well because I spent several hours that day with someone named in it, talking him off the ledge. Yes, he’d written the check. Yes, he thought it might’ve violated the policy of a newsroom where he’d worked for a decade. Now he had dozens of voicemails and emails seeking comment. Beating him up further would’ve been cruel.

But it’s left to us to wonder why he, Olbermann and others – including MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, whose April 2010 $5,000 political contribution also just came to light – do it. Pure vanity? Self-destructiveness? A sense they’re above the rules and/or reproach? An innate need to be lightning rods? Incompetent advisors? Or did they figure they just wouldn’t be caught?

These are the same reasons why TV journalists do dim-witted non-political things.

Examples are endless. Rick Sanchez’s recent rant. David Shuster’s audition for a competitor’s new show. Bill O’Reilly’s alleged phone sex tapes with a co-worker. Local news is rife with personalities busted for accepting gifts or doing endorsements. Glenn Beck’s ties to a gold-selling scheme under investigation might be the next faux pas.

My personal favorite is Katie Couric’s high-fashion photo spread in the March 2010 Harper’s Bazaar. It was poor timing, hitting newsstands as CBS News announced a wave of layoffs. But with it, Couric – shot in sexy evening attire and glam grooming, giving her best supermodel pout while slouched behind a totally bare desk – aggressively unraveled so much hard work accomplished by publicists to build her primetime anchor cred.

These examples raise a follow-up question: Where’s their PR counsel?

Such situations tend to happen for three reasons. First, lack of attention. Staff publicists are often overextended or focused on the big picture, so small stuff can trip them up. And fluffier demands such as fashion shoots and personal appearances can get handed off to lower-level staff lacking the antennae to pick up on potential problems.

On the other hand, some talent won’t work with PR. They have their own agenda or, jealous about someone else’s higher profile, jump at an opportunity to break out. Some never think to ask another opinion and, instead, use the PR department only to help clean up the resulting mess. And to others, the publicist is simply another corporate weasel to be avoided.

Finally, there’s the dilemma of personal publicists. A number of on-air talent retain outside representation. While they can be helpful during contract disputes, their normal focus tends to be more personality-based exposure and usually have little understanding of newsrooms’ policies and marketing plans. Which means they’re more apt to book a fashion shoot in “W” rather than a speaking appearance at the World Affairs Council.

 So if you’re an on-air journalist reading this and it’s sounding uncomfortably familiar, what do you do? I can offer lots of complex strategies. But the best advice is simple. Find someone with killer common sense who has your best interests at heart and has no problem telling you “No.” And trust him or her forever.

Recently I’ve started quietly serving as ad hoc personal publicist for a well-known journalist and former colleague. This high-maintenance, PR-hating, ball-busting talent was project #1 when I took over her company’s operations years back. That she still reaches out without hesitation says a lot. That you probably won’t think of her in relation to a current media dust-up says even more.

Olbermann’s back to work. TV news organizations, including but not limited to MSNBC, are probably revisiting and refining their political contribution policies. But dumb moves by on-air talent will continue. Sitting in the bleachers watching talent periodically blow themselves up is one of the realities – and perverse pleasures – of managing PR in the news business. But realize that it’s more effective for us to step in with counsel before they explode, rather than afterwards with a broom.