Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!

Bluff The Listener

Our panelists tell three stories about attempts to fix your local TV news.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

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PETER SAGAL, HOST:

Thank you so much, everybody. It's time for the WAIT WAIT...DON'T TELL ME Bluff The Listener game. Call 1-888-Wait-Wait to play our game on the air. Hi, you're on WAIT WAIT...DON'T TELL ME.

ANDY FORAN: Hello, this is Andy Foran. I grew up in Birmingham, Michigan, but I'm now living in Fairbanks, Alaska.

SAGAL: Wow.

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SAGAL: You moved to Fairbanks. You couldn't stand the weather here in Michigan; you moved to Fairbanks.

FORAN: Yeah, it wasn't quite dark or cold enough.

SAGAL: I understand. Well, welcome to the show, Andy. You're going to play the game in which you must try to tell truth from fiction. Carl, what is Andy's topic?

CARL KASELL, HOST:

"After The Break, I'll Sing You The News."

SAGAL: These are tough times for local TV news teams. Reporters standing in front of burning buildings just don't cut it. There are so many kittens to watch on YouTube.

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SAGAL: Well, this week our panelists are going to improve the local news. They're going to read for you three stories of a serious effort somewhere to fix the news broadcasts. Guess the true story; you will win Carl's voice on your home answering machine or voicemail. Ready to go?

FORAN: Absolutely.

SAGAL: All right, first let's hear from Tom Bodett.

TOM BODETT: WOOL-TV in Kalamazoo was in trouble, and news director Kathy Miskert knew it. Whether it was the dancing Hooters weather girl, the manly-man stalker van...

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BODETT: ...or WOOL's Pull The Wool Over Your Eyes ski mask promotion is anyone's guess. But it was enough for her to fire the entire news team and staff, and start over. And by over, she means 1960 and the heyday of television news.

I sensed people were hungry for a time when you could trust the news and the people who delivered it, said Miskert, who hired Walter Cronkite and Chet Huntley look-alikes.

She changed the broadcast to black and white, had the anchors read copy from papers in their desks, touch their ears every so often and say: This just in.

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BODETT: Even smoke if they wanted.

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BODETT: We hired the meteorology professor from Michigan State to do the weather, Miskert boasted, because she knows her stuff - and looks kind of like Edward R. Murrow.

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BODETT: Results are mixed. Viewership is up in the demographic of people who voted for Eisenhower, but still flat among those who think that's an interstate freeway.

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SAGAL: All right, going back to the 60s.

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SAGAL: The local news in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Your next story of a change in the news comes from Faith Salie.

FAITH SALIE: Quick, think of the easiest job in the world - President Obama's anger-management trainer.

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SALIE: OK, sure. But how about weather forecaster? Because no one expects you to be right, just tan. Until now. A new bill passed by the government of South Africa punishes forecasters whose weather reports turn out to be wrong, with fines of up to almost $630,000 or five years' jail time.

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SALIE: South African politicians say this bill will preclude undue spending on emergency evacuations, and protect the public against unnecessary panic and hauling in of patio furniture.

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SALIE: Now, in the forecast, for savvy and law-abiding meteorologists are weather reports that go something like, good day, Cape Town. It could rain tomorrow - maybe, maybe not. I'm not really willing to go out on a limb here. I've got a family to feed.

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SAGAL: All right, in South Africa, prison time for inaccurate weather forecasts. Keep them honest. Your last story of a revolution in local news comes from Mo Rocca.

MO ROCCA: The news is so negative these days - that's the kind of complaint Andrew Tuckfeld, news director at WHTN in Huntington, West Virginia, was tired of hearing. Look, some news stories end badly, no way around it, he said last June. Well, that was then. This past month, WHTN News added the first-ever choose-your-own-ending feature.

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ROCCA: Last Tuesday, for example, the 11 o'clock news began with a high-speed chase down I-40. Before the end of the story, the anchor asked the audience to call in and vote for how they'd like the story to resolve.

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ROCCA: A, the driver is safely apprehended; B, the driver escapes on foot to Kentucky; C, the driver is buried underneath a 14-car pileup. And sure enough, just before the newscast's end, the audience saw the most popular choice acted out. It was D, the driver surrenders to sexy state trooper Cindy Snow, and the two began passionately making out, right in the middle of I-40.

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ROCCA: Quote: It's a great, audience-empowering way to end a newscast, says Tuckfeld. Besides, does anyone really need to know how a car chase actually ends?

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SAGAL: All right, here are your choices. From Tom Bodett, a station in Kalamazoo, Michigan, going back to the model and look of the great 1960s newscasts; from Faith Salie, a new policy in South Africa where if you don't predict the weather correctly, you will go to jail; or from Mo Rocca, in West Virginia, choose-your-own ending newscasts. Which of these is the real story of an improvement in broadcast news?

FORAN: Well, I'm a 27-year-old guy with a PT Cruiser, so I want to hope that there are enough people like me who want to go back to the way they pretend the '60s were.

SAGAL: So you have nostalgia, then, for something you have no memory of?

FORAN: Oh, yeah, absolutely.

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FORAN: I want to see the '60s.

SAGAL: OK, so you're going to choose, then, Tom's story...

FORAN: Absolutely.

SAGAL: ...of the fake, '60s newscasts, and the black-and-white video, and the cigarettes and the rustling paper?

FORAN: That's it.

SAGAL: All right. Well, we spoke to an expert on this topic to talk about the real story.

JOHN PLATT: In the past, people have reported that there was going to be a tornado or something like that, and those things didn't happen. So they're kind of afraid that someone is going to unnecessarily create panic.

SAGAL: That was John Platt. He's a report for Mother Nature Network and Scientific American, talking about the new policy in South Africa to punish meteorologists for bad forecasts.

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SAGAL: So obviously, as good an idea as Tom had - and I agree with you, it would be cool - it's not true. Faith had the real story. You earned a point for Tom, with his excellent idea, but you did not win our game. Thank you so much, though, for playing.

FORAN: Thank you so much.

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