Network nightly newscasts lack the following they had decades ago before the advent of the Internet and cable TV. But they are still the flagship news broadcasts of the Big Three networks.
Mervin Block is recognized as one of television’s great newswriters. His resume could be a piece of the Paley Center. Block was a staff writer for the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite and the ABC Evening News with Frank Reynolds. He also was a freelance writer at NBC News during the Tom Brokaw era.
So when Block decides to write a book critical of writing and copyediting on those broadcasts, still watched by millions each night, the industry takes notice.
Block published his sixth book on the topic, Weighing Anchors, with the subtitle, When Anchors Don’t Know Write from Wrong. He says the research was “on and off for 10 years.” His reason for keeping tabs is simple.
“I was hearing so many scripts that were flawed, or worse,” Block tells FishbowlNY.
He began by posting critiques on his Website. Every network and current or recent anchor feels the brunt of Block.
“I was bothered most by factual errors and by fiddling with facts, which I don’t kiss off as mere errors,” Block contends. “I didn’t keep a scoreboard, so I don’t know who made the most [or the biggest] mistakes. I focus on sins, not sinners.”
Still, one of the sinners Block singles out is NBC’s Brian Williams, who editorialized–a cardinal sin among anchors.
On the March 12, 2009 broadcast, Williams says, “The grapefruit-sized piece of an old rocket motor floated safely by, thankfully.”
“Fortunately, Williams doesn’t express his thanks after every bit of good news, every rescue, every safe landing,” Block writes.
Block also took offense with Williams’ over-played use of the word “tonight,” many times because as he documents in the book, events occurred hours before air.
He finds one of Williams’ crutch phrases “plain English” as a nuisance. “In plain English, Dick Clark‘s American Bandstand was great.” (February 1, 2012).
Block writes, “In plain English, I’ve been hoping to hear more of the newscast in plain English.”
Williams and CBS’ Scott Pelley have extra pressure to get it right with the title of managing editor, meaning, “[they] are responsible for every word spoken on their newscasts, even the words of their correspondents,” Block writes.
“Drama at the manslaughter trial against Michael Jackson‘s doctor,” Pelley said on the October 31, 2011 broadcast of the CBS Evening News.
Block countered in his book:
“Trials aren’t held against anyone. It was the trial of.
Another sampling of Pelley’s work through the eyes and ears of Block.
“This story is amazing. A court case in Southern Indiana has led to an astounding discovery.”
“Journalism 101: Don’t characterize news as good or bad, amazing or astounding, shocking or disturbing; just tell the story,” Block says in the book.
The accomplished Block, who also teaches writing in newsrooms across the country, had this critical note for ABC’s Diane Sawyer, who opened her June 29 broadcast with: “Good evening. There is a kind of collision course in the Gulf of Mexico tonight. Tropical Storm Alex, almost hurricane strength, is barreling toward south Texas.”
“A kind of collision course? What kind of collision course is that? What kind of writing is that? A storm can’t collide with a coast: only moving objects collide.”
After investing so much time and work in his publication, Block says there are no plans for a sequel.
“From time to time, I write an article about the [network news] problems for my Website, and the articles are available free to anyone who signs up,” Block adds. “One book about all those problems is enough, at least for me, for now.”
The book, published by Marion Street Press, is available next month.
“I’m grateful to network anchors for giving me so much to write about,” Block jokes.