Linda McMahon and the Anatomy of a Network TV News Dud

Early Saturday morning in California I was awakened by a phone call from an ABC News producer. Which is fine — what I worry about is when they stop calling.

The producer told me they were putting together a Linda McMahon story on the fly. The rush, he said, was caused by the withdrawal earlier in the week of the incumbent senator, Chris Dodd.

(Those of you who saw the report on Saturday’s World News know that the effect of Dodd’s decision not to run again had nothing to do with the piece. I just checked LexisNexis Academic, but ABC News transcripts are not included on that service, so I can’t confirm my memory that Dodd was not even mentioned.)

The producer noted that this would not be an investigative story (and he was certainly proven right about that!). But he added that he wanted, to the extent possible, to get a hard element into  it, and toward that end I briefed him on the “cocktail of death.”

Then, like everyone else, I watched World News — and I was appalled. I read the producer’s online text and I was further appalled; it showed that they did confront McMahon in some fashion with the serious topic on which I had tried to educate him. However, they did it so haphazardly that I got the impression they were mostly trying to claim credit for committing journalism online after having done no such thing over the air.

This is typical of network news, of course. I’m not familiar with correspondent Kate Snow’s body of work, but if this story is indicative, she’s just a morning show host who fronts a World News segment here and there for purposes of cross-promotion. Snow’s immature Twitter feed about McMahon’s arm-wrestling challenge to her further exposed Snow as a “mark,” to use the term of James Caldwell of Pro Wrestling Torch, who picked up on my criticism.

Look, not every story about Barack Obama or Albert Einstein, let alone Linda McMahon, aims for a Pulitzer or a Peabody. I’m not here to be the scold of the journalism community; I’m here to advocate for more profound coverage of a U.S. Senate race. When Daniela Altimari (the same Hartford Courant reporter who just blogged about my controversy with ABC News) wrote a Sunday profile of McMahon a few weeks ago, she also talked to me about my perspective, and she also made it clear that her finished piece would not be oriented exactly as I might have wished. That’s the process. In the event, I thought Altimari did a pretty good job with her McMahon story, and I said so on this blog. I hope Altimari — and for that matter Snow, and anyone else on this beat — chooses to come back to me for more. For there is, obviously, a lot more, and it’s a long campaign.

Unfortunately, Snow and ABC did not do a good job last Saturday. They put out a puff piece, and they filled their precious time with every lame lady-wrestling-promoter-in-politics cliche they could dredge up.

For the sake of our democracy, let’s all hope they do better next time. But in their rush to have it both ways — raising the wrestling occupational health and safety issue without really raising it, and then disingenuously claiming that “brevity” prevented them from including it in the online transcript — they don’t fill me with confidence that their agenda involves doing better next time.

Irv Muchnick


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