Rumors are Used to Destroy Media Careers

Written for The Tennessean by Teddy Bart

In the Feb. 28 edition of The New York Times, reporters Brian Stelter and Bill Carter wrote a piece headlined “Network News at a Crossroads.” Essentially, the business piece explored the ramifications of the diminishing revenues of CBS and ABC news.

But an explosive device is buried within the article. Quoting unnamed sources, the item suggests that CNN’s Anderson Cooper is being courted to replace Katie Couric as anchor on the CBS Evening News. Spotting it, I smiled and thought, I’ve seen this game before.

Planting rumors is the norm

Planting a rumor in the body of a story is a favorite ploy of those seeking to play with the head of a high-priced talent not producing results. The NFL does it all the time. The endgame is to get the artist, athlete or other non-business-minded person to get so freaked out that they will become “mad as hell and not take it anymore.” The point is to get the target to quit rather than being fired. In quitting, the ownership is off the financial hook.

I watched Katie Couric on the CBS Evening News the evening the story broke. There was an unmistakable look behind the eyes a wounded, spiritless, worried look camouflaged as a smile, a look that can be detected only by those who have undergone the public personality version of waterboarding.

I wish I could have spoken to Katie before she took the anchor job with CBS News. Remember how warmly genuine she was on the Today Show, able to interview hard and soft newsmakers with equal aplomb and effect?

Some years ago, I was the host of a program on Channel 4 called the Noon Show. A local program, hardly possessing the visibility or clout of the Today show, it had many of Today’s elements, such as transiting from a hard-news interview to yukking it up with a chef fixing some concoction on the kitchen set. Like NBC’s Today, interviews on Channel 4’s Noon Show often made news.

After more than 10 years of hosting these and other shows for WSM radio and Channel 4 (they were owned by the same company back then) I received an offer from Channel 2 to anchor their newscasts. I agonized over the decision to stay in my comfort zone or leave for the land of hard news, much as Katie must have pondered her decision.

Anchors’ wings get clipped

When I decided to leave the nest and venture into anchor-land at Channel 2 (it was WNGE back then) the story was splashed across the front page of The Tennessean and the Nashville Banner. While most people claimed the much-publicized higher salary drove my decision to leave, the truth is that I decided to leave my cocoon for an opportunity to stretch my wings, try something new and, I thought, become more relevant. I’ve read that Katie’s motivation was similar.

However, I learned, rather painfully, that rather than stretching my wings, I had them clipped. Rather than becoming more relevant, I became obsessed with ratings, or the lack thereof.

News anchoring and interviewing are vastly different enterprises. Interviewers ask why; anchors tell what. Different motivations, dynamics and skills. I missed and yearned for the why.

Rumors of my demise as an anchor began circulating two years after I was hired. And then the mind games began. Potential replacements were paraded through the newsroom so I could see them. Rumors like the Anderson Cooper item were planted with media columnists.

Shortly after leaving Channel 2, I returned to talk show hosting. Teddy Bart’s Round Table was spawned. The show aired for over 20 years 20 of the happiest of my life. I got to ask why again and again each morning.

As I watch Katie Couric these days, I see a bird whose wings have been clipped, a talent whose anchor demeanor dilutes the relevancy that the effervescent host of the Today show exuded. I see the victim of executive head games and a communicator who ought to be asking why.
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About the Author

Teddy Bart has been a fixture on TV and in the press in Nashville for more than 20 years.