Don't watch, don't listen

Whether it's the "Opie & Anthony" sex-in-church caper or a baseball-strike reporting blooper on national TV, when mistakes are made in broadcasting, nobody gets blamed.

Published September 5, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Trust me on this: Nobody who gets fired in broadcasting gets the remainder of his salary.

Not me. Not those guys who suddenly disappear from your local TV newscast. Not the shock jocks "Opie & Anthony."

You've heard their story by now. These were the foofs on WNEW-FM in New York who encouraged a couple to get way too affectionate in the middle of St. Patrick's Cathedral. They spawned understandable outrage, muted cries about freedom of speech, and endless bad jokes about how they were usurping the privileges of priests.

But most of all, they tripped off a series of news reports about how they'd been "fired." Only down toward the end of these stories -- if even there -- was a brief mention about how their employers, Infinity Broadcasting, would try to reach a financial settlement regarding the remaining year of their contract, worth somewhere around $10 million.

Some firing, huh?

You can work backward on this. All television and radio contracts provide very clear, very explicit terms by which the employer has the right to terminate the deal, immediately, if the employees violate the agreement, or violate some code of behavior. Often these terms are so specific that they're nicknamed "Sacred Cow Clauses." I signed a contract once that prohibited me from making any derogatory reference to a former employer. If I did, I could be fired, on the spot, and not get another dime of my salary. Hasn't happened yet. I did get taken off the air last year, by Fox, but they had to pay me the last eight months of what I must tell you in all honesty was a ridiculously high salary. Unfortunately, I had to earn it by explaining what seemed to me like a pretty obvious distinction: Canceled? Yes. Fired? No -- here are the pay stubs to prove it.

I know I'm going slowly on this, but if A) "Opie & Anthony" had their show yanked out from under them for the St. Patrick's escapade, and B) their employers then acknowledged they were negotiating how much they still had to pay these two juvenile delinquents, what do we think point C) is?

They weren't fired, they were merely canceled. There was nothing in their contract that said they couldn't reward listeners for having sex in a cathedral while they broadcast a play-by-play description of it.

In other words, their employers knew exactly what they wanted from these guys. They got it, and only after it arrived with a bonus hailstorm of criticism, did they stop the show -- but not the paychecks. The show was canceled because Infinity Broadcasting needed to protect its corporate butt; if local religious leaders and broadcasting critics had all been on vacation that week, the two idiots would still be making pooh-pooh jokes on the air as we speak.

Of course the company knew something like the cathedral incident was a possibility. These two men were available to them only because they'd been offed by a Boston station for having falsely reported, on April Fool's Day in 1998, that the city's mayor, Thomas Menino, had been killed in an automobile accident.

In this deregulated world of broadcasting, there are enough atrocities committed in radio and television to fill not only a weekly column, but also to build an excellent case for requiring licenses -- or at least sanity tests and drug screens -- for broadcasting executives. Where is the reprimand against Infinity Broadcasting? Or its mogul, Mel Karmazin? What's his punishment? He hires "Opie & Anthony," pays them to play with explosives, and when they blow things up, all he has to do is pay off the rest of their contract?

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One cannot overestimate the convenience for broadcasters and executives of this process of letting responsibility fall between the cracks. The prima donnas of management whose lust for publicity makes us mere on-air folks look Amish don't get blamed. The on-air folks don't get fired. Some middle manager occasionally gets slapped around -- but rarely seriously, and rarely publicly.

Consider one of the national sports broadcasts of Friday Aug. 30. With the on-paper baseball strike deadline having passed hours earlier, with the practical drop-dead hour approaching, a correspondent went on his network and announced that he had learned that members of three teams had told union chief Don Fehr that they would not walk out. Triumphant in his scoop, he proceeded to push the envelope by getting live on-air reaction from the founding director of the union, Marvin Miller. Miller not only categorically denied the story, but upbraided the correspondent for refusing to name the three teams, and, more important, also pointed out that even if it had been true, it raised the question of how baseball was going to play out its schedule with only three teams.

It is not too much of a leap to infer that the "three teams won't strike" story was a bowdlerization of my own report in this space that, much earlier, three teams had voted against setting a deadline. The extrapolation might have been the correspondent's own; more likely it was provided to him by a wishful owner or team executive. Presented speculatively, it would've been a timely question: Might the extension of the negotiations well into the labor equivalent of extra innings have been a sign of player reluctance? Could the story be a leak from hard-line owners firing one last shot across the union bow in hopes of forcing an acceptance of whatever was on the table?

But there was no question. It was a "fact." Players from three teams had vowed not to walk out. No matter how statistically insignificant (final score: Strikers 27, Nonstrikers 3), nor, as Miller pointed out, how practically irrelevant, it might have been.

The network trumpeted its report one more time.

Then it never mentioned it again.

No retraction, no correction, no acknowledgment of doubt, no repetition of Miller's impeccable answer. No scolding of the correspondent, no spinning by his colleagues to place it in some kind of context. Nothing.

I was reminded of something that happened 20 years ago during another sports labor mess. I had been covering the NFL negotiations for CNN from the end of March 1982, through the strike in late September, and into the tortured negotiations that were, at this point, nearly a fruitless month long. The owners' guys hadn't exactly warmed to me, but they gave me all their phone numbers. The union's guys had already gone out and gotten drunk with me three or four times.

The phone rang in my Washington hotel room: "There's a settlement!" a producer yelled into my groggy head. "Get to the meetings!"

I had barely strategized how to get myself unscooped when I arrived at the union offices to find its executive director, Ed Garvey, breaking away from a small group of reporters. He was not smiling. The terms he used were blunt and scatological. A CNN sportscaster named Bob Kurtz had gone on the network with the settlement story, based on a phone call he'd gotten from a Minnesota Vikings player named Ahmad Rashad. Rashad had been notified by his Vikings bosses to ready himself for practices the following day because the strike was ending.

"Doesn't that nitwit Kurtz know about Rashad?" Garvey was shouting. "He's the only guy, literally the only guy, in the entire league who isn't a member of the union. He calls somebody once a week to tell them the strike's over. Jeez. What kind of reporter are you?"

We hustled up a series of denials. We never flat out retracted the story.

Nothing happened to Kurtz.

Rashad, of course, became the most notoriously nonjournalistic television sidelines "reporter" before Jill Arrington started posing partially clothed in men's magazines.

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Responsibility to its consumers and a dedication to accuracy exist at only two measurements in broadcasting: all or nothing. Which underscores a final point about the tube, and a warning that if you have kids, or grandchildren, under the age of 5, you may want to go unplug your cable right now and not reattach it until Sept. 12th.

A psychologist hired by NBC startled its news executives last month by telling them that young children watching reports of the anniversary of the terrorist attacks will not be able to comprehend that the calamities they see are on videotape. Their brains just are not yet sufficiently developed to discern between "live" and "taped." They are likely to think it is happening all over again.

This invitation to new trauma and sadness often extends in lesser degrees, the psychologist pointed out, to children as old as 12 or 13. These older kids may be able to intellectualize the difference, but emotionally they may be just as vulnerable.

Truthfully, I was amazed and proud of the generalized restraint in my industry about showing the video of the attacks, certainly after the first few days last September. The problem that now arises is that the full range of information organizations -- from PBS to "Entertainment Tonight" -- are now adjusting their self-imposed embargoes and the results are unpredictable. They are as likely to be fueled by the desire to accurately retell the story of the horror, as by any understanding that a large part of their audience may not have either the ability to avoid watching the screen, nor the capacity to understand what's on it. Some at the low end will simply think you can't not show "great video."

Consider "Opie & Anthony," and the sportscasters and their strike stories, and remember, whether it has planned to do it, or has merely slipped up in doing it, broadcasting can damage you directly and has no foolproof capacity to protect you from itself.

By Keith Olbermann

Salon columnist Keith Olbermann hosts the ABC Radio Network's "Speaking of Sports ... Speaking of Everything."

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