Networks misuse their breaking news alerts


This is not a breaking news alert. And I am not nitpicking.

Even in the increasingly speedy digital world, in which it seems that events and reports of those events occur simultaneously, some events in the flood of information are genuinely urgent. They deserve to be singled out as important and deserving of special attention.

But, more and more, networks issue breaking news alerts to promote some exclusive story they have broken rather than an occurrence of broad social significance.

The email above that I just received is not breaking news. It is a promotion for the news broadcast on which the new details about the Secret Service prostitution will be broadcast.

I’m sure that CBS is thrilled that their special senior correspondent John Miller has come up with more sleazy details. I’m even honest enough — not proud, but honest — to admit more than a little curiosity about what those details might be.

But while curiosity is natural, it is not a substitute for news judgement. Like most human beings, I’m curious about a lot of sleazy things. But that doesn’t make them “breaking news.” (Actually, I’m not sure I’d want them to be “news” anywhere but in the confines of my fully human imagination.)

CBS is the network of Bob Schieffer, one if the most trusted and wise voices in broadcast journalism, perhaps THE most trusted. Alerts like this cheapen the CBS news brand that pros like Bob have nurtured. They are not worthy of a serious news organization.

A Secret Service agent confessing revelations about a prostitution scandal is not breaking news. It may be newsworthy, given the implications of a breach in the system that supposedly protects our President.

But it is not breaking news.

Remembering Helen Wagner on November 22, 1963

Today I read a headline stating that Helen Wagner had died. She was a long-time cast member of “As The World Turns.”

When I saw the headline, my immediate reaction was to ask myself: Is it possible no one remembers that she was the cast member speaking on live television at the moment when Walter Cronkite interrupted the broadcast to announce JFK’s assassination?

I was wrong. People remembered.

This is Helen on November 22, 1963 close to the moment when Cronkite broke in with the announcement.

A very,very bad day. One of the worst.

Bear With Me: Remembering the Lazarsfeld Stanton Program Analyzer


Sometime in the late 1950s, my elementary school class was loaded onto a bus for the 27 mile trip down the San Bernardino Freeway from Rowland Avenue Elementary School in West Covina, California to CBS Television City in Hollywood.




The media were already in my blood and I just may have been the most excited kid in the class. We were going to be in the audience of Art Linkletter’s House Party to watch several of my classmates appear on a legendary segment of the show  called “Kids Say the Darndest Things.”



To this day, it bothers me that I wasn’t chosen to be on the kids segment. I never learned why. I actually remember a counselor at UCLA’s psychological services center in 1969 looking at me like I was nuts when I described it as one of my “fundamental hurts.”


But the real shocker was when we pulled up in front of Television City and my entire class walked onto Linkletter’s soundstage, with the exception of Rachel, Barbara, and me.  A nice man in a bow tie who looked vaguely like Wally Cox diverted us into a small screening room  studio with wires everywhere and asked us to remain seated and quiet.


I was devastated. No Art Linkletter. No “Kids Say the Darndest Things.” No soundstage.


Then Wally returned and told us that we were going to be part of an important experiment. They wanted to see how a machine that had already been around for a while, a machine that tested whether people did or did not like television shows, would work with kids. And so they gave us each two small devices, one of which we were to hold in each hand.


“Press one button when you like the show, Wally told us, and press the other when you don’t.”  Then the lights dimmed and an episode of the not yet broadcast sit-com “Dennis the Menace” came on the screen. For 25 minutes, I watched this ridiculous show and never lifted my finger from the “don’t like” button.



I really thought it was dumb. I was mad at missing all the fun. Story over.


Well, not quite.


Almost exactly twenty years later I was sitting in a graduate seminar on methods of media research at Columbia with a brilliant young professor, Dr. Josephine Holz. And that was the day that I learned that the machine had not been just any contraption, but something called the Lazarsfeld-Stanton Program Analyzer, a pioneering device designed by two towering figures in the history of broadcasting, Drs. Frank Stanton and Paul Lazarsfeld.  It may have taken 20 years, but finally it was the other kids who had been the losers and it was me who had been actually hooked up to the machine.


Oh, and I still think Dennis the Menace was a dumb show.


Now if you want to talk about The Jetsons, that was a work of genius.



P.S. This is an old yet fascinating scholarly article about the machine.


Levy, Mark R. The Lazarsfeld-Stanton Program Analyzer: An Historical Note
The Journal of Communication, 1982 VL. 32, No. 4. PG: 30-38.