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Notes from Underground

One of the tried-and-true stunts in broadcast news is to send an anchorman out on an undercover mission where he …

One of the tried-and-true stunts in broadcast news is to send an anchorman out on an undercover mission where he pretends to be a bag person, a OUEENAN garbage collector, or a migrant worker just to find out how the other half lives. At the end of the week, the reporter always comes back with a fresh perspective on the difficult lives of ordinary people. He is humbled, chastened, yet somehow spiritually elevated by the experience. He tells his audience he has learned valuable, unforgettable lessons. Then he phones for his limo and heads back to his personal trainer and his $4,000-a-month apartment.

The latest journalist to engage in this hackneyed practice is Harry Smith, co-anchorman of “CBS This Morning.” On four consecutive days in May, Smith appeared on camera as a dairy farmer, a “mother” of seven kids, a crab fisherman, and a preacher. Predictably, he reported that farming was hard, being a mom was hard, crabbing was hard, and preaching was hard.

I like Harry Smith. He’s a good, unpretentious newsman, and in the role of a crab fisherman for a day, he’s much more plausible than Barbara Walters, Sam Donaldson, or George Will. Still, this “Dairy Farmer for a Day” routine that the networks are always forcing down our throats during Sweeps Month rubs me the wrong way. It’s condescending: We journalists will take a few days off from our glamorous lives and get down in the mud with the hoi polloi, just to see how those people manage to get through their pathetic lives. Smith tacitly admitted this when he told The New York Post that his initial reaction to the series proposal was cool, because it reminded him of the Sweeps Week stunts he had to do when he was a local TV newsman.

What really gets my goat is the predictability of these stunts. Farmers, fishermen, garbage collectors, and the homeless turn up on the screen almost immediately. Frankly, I’m tired of it. I already know how hard it is to be a farmer or a bag person; I’ve been watching television programs in which newsmen masquerade as said personas since I was six years old. It’s time for a change. Since it’s too much to hope that TV producers simply could stop doing this stuff, they could at least choose different careers for the journalists, such as:

€.Closed-end fund newsletter publisher. A TV anchorwoman spends 24 hours trying to publish a newsletter in which she has to decide whether her readers should buy a European mid-cap stock fund whose shares are trading at an 11 percent discount to their net asset value or an emerging nations fund whose shares are trading at an even steeper 23 percent discount. At the end of the day, the fatigued newswoman declares: “You think being a dairy farmer is tough? Try being a closed-end fund newsletter publisher for a day. Between the NAV, the beta, the return on equity, and the 30-day moving average, your eyes will be popping out by the end of the day.”

€.Assistant Secretary of State. A newsman heads to Washington to lie to the press about why the U.S. decided not to impose sanctions against a Middle East dictatorship that the entire planet would like to see bombed back into the Stone Age. At day’s end, the newsman tells his audience: “These duplicitous, mid-level, upper-echelon State Department flunkies work a thousand times harder than any crab fisherman I’ve ever met.”

€.Vice president in charge of developing new multimedia products. A newsman has to decide whether his company should invest 60 percent of its R&D budget in an online interactive-games technology that player handles the next face-off in the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals, or use the money to develop a CD-ROM data base that will keep track of every ex-president’s daughter who has appeared in a nude pictorial essay in Playboy. At the end of the day, the beleaguered newsman moans: “You don’t know rate from the CD-ROM storage capacity for a day.”

Of course, if the networks were really serious about these ratings-building stunts, they’d let a TV journalist masquerade as a bag person for a week and let a homeless person don a red dress and pose as an anchorwoman for five days. Then we’d all be treated to the sight of a 22-year-old crack mother interviewing Newt Gingrich about the prospects for welfare reform in the coming legislative session.

Now, that would be worth seeing.

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron’s and The Wall Street Journal.

About Joe Queenan

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and The Wall Street Journal.