Lowell Bergman Interview: Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The 'Long March through the Institution' of Television Journalism: Conversation with Lowell Bergman, Reporter/Producer and Professor at the UCB Graduate School of Journalism; 1/31/01 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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The Grammar of Television News

Lowell, explain to me what you mean by "the form." You're going to tape an interview that is going to be shown on television as is? Is that what you mean by the form or ... ?

I mean that if you're working for 60 Minutes and you can't get a correspondent, an on-camera personality, in the other chair with the person being interviewed -- and it could be the greatest interview potential in the world -- you can't do it.

I see.

So the form or the program, the storytelling form of the program, defines what interview you can do on camera. I might be able to do a hundred other interviews leading up to the on-camera interview, without the on-camera person, or I might be able to do some of the minor interviews that just help inform the show, and videotape those (or film them, in the old days), and insert that somewhere in the story.

But, an example, in the Hezbollah story, we spent some time in Balbek in northern Lebanon, which is considered the world headquarters of both terrorism and counterfeiting, and a big drug nexus. We almost got killed, just because of things you couldn't plan for -- two camera crews, myself, and my old friend Jim Hogan -- running around. Now, Mike Wallace never made it there. He was in Beirut. The funny story to me, to give you [an example of the power of] the form, is the executive producer said to me when I came back, "What shall we call this story?" Which is about to go on the air. I said, "How about 'Hezbollah'?" "No, no, no." "How about 'Terrorist'?" "No, no, no." He said, "How long were you there?" And I said, "Oh, I was there, like, fourteen days." And I knew what was coming and I said, "And I went to Balbek, and I almost got killed. And we got chased around. We have all this footage." The footage is not on the show. The reason it wasn't on the show is Mike wasn't there, and etc. And he says, "No, no, no, you don't understand. Nobody cares about you. How long was Mike there?" "Three days." Title: "Three Days in Beirut." So the form, or the structural form, defines the content.

So, as a producer of these segments on 60 Minutes, what you have control of was limited, because you're saying that the executive producer was really your boss.

Oh yeah, sure.

So then, what is your role? To get as much of the truth as is showable, presentable, or airable, is that the answer?

As presentable, as showable, as ... there are certain definition of what that is. After a while they came to trust me, because I've internalized the form. I knew that it has to be done this way. Actually, I learned that at ABC. It's the same form at ABC; it's slightly looser. But it's a form that's been created over the last, it will be now almost a half century. Don Hewitt, the executive producer at 60 Minutes, was one of the creators of that form, or he adopted pieces of it, as you saw it, along the way. It's the form that we in the United States have come to understand when we watch television and get information from television. And when it's not in that form, we either get confused or bored. And so it's the form that you have to work inside of. It involves everything like the correspondent being on camera, and the characterization of the correspondent: They never lose an argument. They never mispronounce a word. They appear to be the reporter. You never see any of the other people around. Occasionally, you do, and that's a big revelation when they show that, because we sat down with so and so, and you could see some of the lights or something. The audience knows that there are other people involved, just like when you go the movies. But that's what it is, it's a movie. It's a movie within a certain form. And that limits what you learn about. Hewitt's been up front about it, he won't put anybody on camera who says "axed."

Axed means ...

Meaning any black person who speaks inner-city lingo, because they're hard to understand. And 60 Minutes is based as a show form on the audio, actually, interestingly enough; you can follow the whole thing by listening to it. You don't necessarily have to look at the pictures. It's a small-screen format, in that sense, going back to the sixties. And rarely with any subtitles. Never any kyrons, you know, everyone's always ID'd verbally. So, it's a form. And this form is never explained to the audience. You don't learn it in school. They won't tell you about it. I've tried to get them to do it.

And you call this the "grammar of television," right?

Right.

So, why won't they do it? Because it then suggests this isn't really the whole truth? What are they saying?

This is one of the most sophisticated forms of propaganda that's ever been developed. It uses all the film techniques that were first introduced by Leni Reifenstal in the thirties for the Nazis, combined with the best of Hollywood manufacturing of a star. And combines that with what appears to be nonfiction information.

And again, it's what you expect. If you go to Britain, although they are changing their news format, but in most other countries [this form isn't prevalent]. For instance, 60 Minutes has very little overseas sales. Documentaries for PBS that are produced, let's say, with Bill Moyers in it, for overseas sales, they have to recut it and take Bill Moyers out because the other societies don't know who these storytellers are. Not that I'd put Bill on the same scale with some of the network television people. So it's a form that we have internalized that you have to work inside of, if that's the place you want to work.

So what is the consequences of this? Firstly ... I'm fairly informed; this is somewhat surprising. I haven't taken a journalism course. I haven't ...

It's not even taught in most journalism schools.

But, ah ...

Or questioned.

So, this sounds pretty ... it takes one aback, because it suggests that the truth is really... the orange is being squeezed through a strainer so fine that the nutrients are lost.

Well, you know, they would say, "This is a storytelling technique, and it works." And it does; it's very effective.

But it works; why? Because things change, because you get big audiences, or what?

It makes it easier for you to understand a story. For example, in the style of 60 Minutes, there's rarely any history in a story. You will rarely see old footage or a section that explains the story you are about to see. So history, in a sense, stands still; time stands still. That may not be true at NBC. Dateline, sometimes, for instance, in a magazine format, will show you some older footage, and so will ABC. Different operations have different forms. But this becomes a way of identifying both the information and the programming, and tuning in again. It's comfortable. You watch at 7 o'clock on Sundays, and you get your three pieces of "real information."

And why don't journalism schools teach this? Because it's shop business?

Well, they'll teach you. They may teach you how to be an on-camera person in your documentary film or television program, and they may teach you some aspects of it. But it's never discussed as "what does this really mean," in terms of the content or real life, or what we really know is true. And it's never revealed by the makers of it. They won't tell you why, but my brief tenure at ABC ... let's see, I was there five and a half years, I played executive -- I did move to New York for a while; the only time I ever did that -- and I proposed a number of times doing a piece on the grammar of television.. And their eyes glaze over and they roll their eyes. "Oh, everyone knows." But not everyone knows. Or, they think they know. They think it's a Diane Sawyer story, or they think it's ... that's how they talk about it. So, as a producer, if you're doing real reporting for one of these shows, one of the first things you have to realize is that it's going to be called somebody else's story. Friends of mine in print, the first number of years I was in television, used to ask me, "How can you stand that? Not having a byline?" Because, you know, at The New York Times, they'll kill each other for a byline.

Right, right. So, how do you deal with these frustrations? I mean, it must be frustrating.

I got some of them out in the movie.

I see, I see. I'm curious, because as I walk through this story, your story -- Marcuse in the sixties, passion -- then, as now, we're talking about a very rationalized system in which your product is rationalized by the people who want only certain information out. How do you deal with the contradictions?

They wouldn't say that. They want their information out so that people will watch, they'll say.

Right. Okay. But is it frustrating for somebody like you?

Sure.

Or do you adjust over time to the system?

Well, you adjust. You learn the system. You turn it back. In Marcuse's words, I decided that the way to go is the "long march through the institution" as opposed to dropping out. On occasion, it did allow me to reach a large audience, the largest audience you can reach in the United States, with stories and information that wouldn't have come out otherwise, or I thought wouldn't come out otherwise, or it had some effect because of the size of the audience. Now, that's limited in a sense, and I'll give you an example -- a very simple example.

I knew going in -- after having been at ABC and seeing what I'd seen at 60 Minutes, it didn't take me long -- you're not going to be able to do a story, for instance, about the owner of an NFL team, a football team, a multi-millionaire or billionaire, that's enterprise reporting or that covers new things or "wrongdoing." Right? This is not going to happen on network television, whatever the form is. Whatever the form is. A multimillionaire, someone on the Forbes list, who appears on 60 Minutes is not going to get roughed up. It doesn't matter what the form is, that's just not going to happen. And there aren't really any exceptions. Every time [my students] have heard me say this, they come up with some example like Nike or something. But the exception proves the rule. They are very, very few and far between, when any of these programs take on individuals or institutions their own size, particularly in a private sector.

In light of what you just described, this grammar of television, Marie Brenner in her Vanity Fair story that led to the movie The Insider refers to the long dance to win Wigand's trust. What is involved in that process? I mean, obviously, you don't discuss what we just discussed; that is, "Oh, by the way, remember you're going to be doing this through the form," right?

No, no. From his point of view, being an average person, you know, middle-class person, 60 Minutes, oh, that's prestige, that's power. So it's useful, in terms of getting him to possibly cooperate. You know, you're not from something he hadn't heard of, or Dateline, or some show that wouldn't necessarily elicit the same level of prestige or clout. So, therefore, you use that to help your discussion.

And, frankly, 60 Minutes not only has almost unlimited resources, but within the CBS News organization, in particular, there was a tradition of doing things, standards and practices and so on, which both the institution, at least verbally, and in many ways in reality, maintained, in which you could go to people inside the institution -- and I'm thinking, in particular, about lawyers who worked with us all the time there, but also a number of people -- to elicit that tradition. And you followed those rules, if you knew what they were. They were supposed to stand up, as an institution, and back what you were doing. So I had internalized this as a process.

So, from the very beginning, with Wigand, for instance -- it's not shown so much in the movie -- I had informed all the powers that be of exactly what I was doing. Why? Because you've never seen a fiduciary officer of a Fortune 500 company appear on camera and tell what he knows, particularly if it's of interest to the public health and not particularly helpful to his former employer. This hasn't happened. So it was unique enough in that sense.

I'm curious. I can't help asking you what the impact of these different formats are. Let me have this introduction to the question. Your story with regard to tobacco was told in a major movie. You were played by Al Pacino. You have just done a four-hour documentary on the drug wars in which you were a part of a team, but the main reporter. And there's a popular movie out now called Traffic about the drug problem. I wonder if you could assess for us the impact of different media for getting a story out. Do you have a sense of that?

In part. I don't have an organized theory that it all fits in. I can only talk about motivation and what I observed personally. In the case of The Insider, the movie about the tobacco story, that came about in part because the nature of what I was doing, in an effort to get the story out; but also, to protect Wigand, my source, my relationship with CBS changed. I went from becoming someone who, basically, followed the rules -- I didn't talk to people on the outside about what was going on, etc., etc., -- because in my opinion, the company and my colleagues abandoned the last line of standards that I thought they would keep. It also began to get close to the edge of violating a promise I made to myself when I got into network news back in '78, which was that I was going to get out of this business with my name intact. Somehow or other, whether they assigned me or whatever, I would either get a story killed ... I was not going to be associated with something, personally, that I did not agree with. I couldn't control the institution, but I could use whatever effort I could to control what I got involved in with it. So, if I had gone along with them on a personal level, I would have been over the line.

The reality was that things worked out, through circumstances or whatever, that the story ran. But in the aftermath of the story, the spin, which my colleagues are just masters at, was that, "Oh, this is an anomaly. This has never happened before. We got it on the air in the end. And so, it was a tough thing, but now everything's okay and it won't happen again."

We should explain that corporate pressure was placed on the news division to kill the story. And in the background is a major financial transaction involving the owners of CBS.

It was more than just killing the story. I was ordered not to have any more contact with this guy, not to help him -- to cut him and his family loose. So, it was more than just, you know, "Okay, the company says I can't run it. Sorry; see us some other day." This guy's hanging out there. They say, "Well, what if he gets sued because of what he did that we asked him to do? Leave him alone. Don't touch him." That was the line I was unwilling to go along with.

The upshot is that after it was all over and they were spinning it, I was not willing to let it rest, in a sense, that, "Oh, this will go away, and then it will never happen again." Bullshit! First of all, it had happened before. Because it had not happened involving somebody who's relatively helpless. And secondly, I could go up and write a book about it, or I could go off at some point and write a journalism school article, you know, at some Columbia Journalism Review. But the general audience wouldn't get the idea.

The whole reason for someone like me to be involved in something like 60 Minutes, with all the frustrations and problems, is what they offer you: this giant audience. You can get a little bit of information to that audience, information you think is important. That's really the bottom line -- professional attraction. They pay well, but the money, I'm telling you, does not necessarily makes up for the heart attacks that people have who work there.

The fact was that I felt that there had to be some way to lay out exactly what really went on here in some way. And I think the movie captures a large part of that. I, being inside the story, into nonfiction, would have had a lot more detail about a lot of other things, but I think people got the point.

And when push comes to shove, in the story, you become a whistle-blower, in the way that Wigand was a whistle-blower. And both of you were bothered about the full implications of what you were being asked to do.

Well, no question there. But the difference with me, I suppose, from Wigand is that I had been in the business a long time. I knew who I was dealing with. I had been around other situations. I had seen what they do to people. And I had a large network of, if you will -- sources and friends -- and I decided to put that to work to make this come out. And, hopefully, I would survive and he would survive. Because the problem with most whistle-blower scenarios is that the people get so deeply involved, like Wigand, that they get beyond the point where they can control events, and that's when they become vulnerable.

Next page: Conclusion

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