“If it bleeds, it leads” — a common saying in the television news
business — is also the name of a book by former newsman and now
university professor Matthew R. Kerbel.
Subtitled “An anatomy of television news,” Kerbel’s book claims
television talk show hosts and television anchors have a lot in common
— “probably a lot more than the anchors would like to admit,” he tells
WND reporter and KSFO talk host Geoff Metcalf.
In this exclusive WorldNetDaily interview, Kerbel explains what the
modern television news business is really all about.
Question: Please explain the premise of your book, “If it
bleeds, it leads.”
Answer: The title was taken from an expression that is often
applied to local news. If something is graphic, if it is violent, if it
catches your eye, it has to lead the local news. Because that is what
local news is all about.
I apply that more broadly to local and national news and try to take
my readers through two and a half hours of real news stories. It’s a
composite newscast from real stories that actually ran in markets across
the country and nationally, to try to show the fundamental rule of
television news — that television is a pretend medium. People like
Jerry Springer have a lot more in common with people like Dan Rather
than a lot of us realize.
Q: In your book you have a little test and it includes some
A: I have three very brief biographies, and I invite everyone
to match the biography to the TV host. The choices are Peter Jennings,
Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw.
Here’s an example of one of the bios. This television personality
was raised in Canada, did not complete college, and was recognized for a
two-part special report on AIDS in America.
Q: First thought would be Peter Jennings. Everybody knows he
is Canadian, didn’t go to college. …
A: Actually it is Jenny Jones. She also is Canadian and
didn’t complete college. The others are the same way. I have an
individual with a law degree from Northwestern University who was a
staffer for Bobby Kennedy — sounds like it could be Tom Brokaw. …
Q: Naaw … Jerry Springer.
Q: You point out in your book that, a very long time ago
television news was about “who, what, where and when,” but that now
television is much more of an entertainment medium than a news venue.
A: There is news out there, but it is sometimes hard to find,
because of all the entertainment that surrounds it. Television is about
pretending. When I say that, I don’t mean that news people are making
it up. What I mean is, a lot of things are just wrapped in language of
entertainment or the visuals of entertainment. So sometimes, when you
look really closely at them, it’s hard to find the news value in what’s
Q: It’s perception versus reality, and the BIG reality in
television is ratings.
Q: If they were covering city council meetings and the
legislative process stuff it would put people to sleep.
A: And here we are talking about this in February — one of
the most dangerous months of the year. Why? Because this is a ratings
month, a sweeps month.
Q: The way your book is outlined, it is basically a composite
script you took from a number of news shows. One of the points you make
is that you could have picked any day.
A: True. I chose one week to look at local news in four
markets across the country. I chose one week to look at network news
reports. And then I took one week to look at afternoon talk shows like
Jerry Springer. I could have chosen any other week and written the same
book, but with different examples.
Q: What was the common thread that you saw?
A: How little was there.
Q: You mean all sizzle and no steak?
A: Exactly. Sometimes sizzle and little bit of steak. I have
an example of a story that ran in Phoenix about a riot at a public
school. If you look at the story with the sound off, you see great
footage of the kids running through the school, cops in riot outfits
running after the kids. It really looks like a riot. But there was one
There was no riot at that school. If you turn the volume up and
listen to the reporter’s words, the reporter says as much. In fact, the
reporter starts out by saying, “This probably looks a lot worse than it
was.” Do you know what that means in television talk, when a reporter
says “It probably looks a lot worse than it was”?
A: It means it’s February. What happened at that school was
there was a small scuffle. No one was injured, no one was harmed, one
person was detained but not arrested. That was it. That non-story led
the news. I’m sure we all are aware of stories like that, but often we
don’t think about the entertainment value in them.
Q: One thing that drives me crazy is when a television news
anchor cuts away to a “live report” from some reporter sitting behind
them in the newsroom. What is that all about?
A: Live is one of those things that catch people’s interest.
The whole idea of the format originally was called “Live at Five”
format. I call it “Live at Five/Dead by Six.”
Q: Tell us about your recent encounter with a major market
A: He was an anchor in a major city with very good ratings.
And he was telling me, “You know the people in my city know me, they
feel like I’m a part of their family.”
And that’s really the best way to make the point I make in my book.
Because they don’t really know him, and he’s not really a part of their
family. In fact it’s pretend. He’s pretending to be a part of their
Q: When did things change in the TV news business? Was it a
function of ratings being more important than content? It seems like TV
news specifically is far more concerned with form than substance?
A: There was a period of time in the ’60s and ’70s when news
departments at the network were losing money. But that was perfectly all
right to the network executives, because news was a loss leader. It
brought the network something that translated to dollars somewhere
else. It brought prestige, it brought notice.
Q: Phony credibility?
A: Exactly. If you can advertise you have a Walter Cronkite
or you have a Huntley/Brinkley, that really brought a great deal of
credibility to the network. But then a couple of things happened. The
networks, starting in the ’80s, were bought out, one by one, by large
corporations. If you were working for NBC, and now became a division of
General Electric, then it was expected you would make a profit, just
like their refrigerator division is expected to make a profit. So, the
networks were quite frankly run differently.
Q: But there had to be more.
A: You know what one of the biggest factors was? The remote
control. Previously, CBS could figure people are going to tune into
Walter Cronkite every night, get hooked on Walter Cronkite and sit there
and watch the CBS evening entertainment schedule.
Q: They weren’t going to drag their butts off the couch to
get up and change the channel.
A: Isn’t it remarkable? When you have that remote in your
hand, it’s so easy to just push the button. But if you have to get off
the couch, walk to the TV and change the channel, you are much less
likely to do it. So now, not only do the corporate owners not want the
networks to lose money on the news divisions, they also don’t have the
confidence that if you tune into a Jennings or Brokaw, that’s going to
keep you hooked for the whole evening.
Q: I always felt one of the most insidious things was when
USA Today was introduced, and they patterned their format and product on
television, and on the viewing habits of television.
A: Absolutely. In fact, one of the really interesting things
about USA Today is that the vending machines even look like
televisions. USA Today was designed to look, feel and read like a TV
Q: You write in your book, “Every day the particulars of
television news — the news stories — are different, but the tone and
feel of the newscast remains the same.”
A: That’s right, and it is intentional. One of the things
about news as a pretend medium is that it is entertainment and they need
to hook the audience. They want to be sure the audience is comfortable
and familiar with the personalities that they see, and with the way the
news is delivered.
If you have seen a story about a fire or a murder — if you’ve seen
that story once you’ve seen it a hundred times if you watch the news. Of
course the particulars change. If it happens to be someone you know or
are close to, then that really is newsworthy to you. But as far as the
mass audience is concerned, it is interchangeable with all the other
Q: What has been the response from your former colleagues and
those who work in the news industry to your book?
A: I have had a surprisingly good response from people who
used to work in television. I have had some people who are currently
working in television who have misinterpreted what I am doing as a
I am doing exactly what newspeople do but for a different purpose. I
am attempting to familiarize people with the way television news works
so they will be able to sort out the froth from the substance.
Q: You claim there is no difference between the Jerry
Springers and Tom Brokaws.
A: Tell me if this is a story from Jerry Springer or from the
evening news: Bill is cheating on Hillary with Monica, only they are
not sleeping together. Monica confides in her best friend Linda, who
secretly records their phone conversations and hands them over to
Candance who doesn’t think much of Bill and tries to get him fired.
Bill admits to having been unfaithful hundreds of times with other women
including Gennifer and maybe Paula who claims to have psychic powers.
You see my point?
A: In syndication or evening news?
Q: Evening news.
A: It could be either, though. The closer you look at a lot
of these news stories the less there is.
Q: What about manufactured, speculative stories?
A: Any story that tells you about what potentially could
happen. This is a typical construction of a news story and it is
particularly the case during rating periods.
Q: Such as?
A: Is the chicken you are eating causing you harm? It could
Q: What about the explosion of evening magazine news shows?
A: They have been very successful, and they are relatively
inexpensive. If you look at how much it costs to produce an hour of
Dateline and compare it to an hour of E.R., there is no question about
it. And they get viewers.
Q: Do you have any hope or fantasy that news coverage might
change on television?
A: I don’t. I sort of liken news coverage to negative ads in
political campaigns. Nobody likes them, everyone complains about them,
but they work — so they don’t go away. I think it is the same sort of
phenomenon. People may complain about the news, but we still watch it.
Geoff Metcalf is a staff
reporter and columnist for WorldNetDaily and is a radio talk-show host
for KSFO in San Francisco.