“EXCLUSIVE”: #2 Only to “Breaking News” In Overuse & Hyperbole

I’ve been a broadcast journalist since the time of the dinosaurs, which means I can actually remember seeing and hearing Walter Cronkite deliver the news. In my very first job in radio as a newscaster, a veteran News Director taught me several things right from the outset that I honestly believe are never even broached by the current spate of broadcast educators.

Check your facts no less than 3 times before going on air with a story. You must have at least 3 solid and verifiable sources before going with any story. And use of the word “Exclusive” must be judicious and understanding of what the term really means. It means you have an interview with someone of note, an interview that has high news value and is one that no one else could get. An “exclusive” was the product of hard work, valuable intelligence, and insuring that you had something no one else could get their hands, cameras or microphones on for some time. It was, in a word, “special”.

Those days are long gone.

Along with my personal pet peeve, “BREAKING NEWS”, broadcast exclusives are highly overrated and the product of nothing more than marketing and public relations. It’s become little more than a promotional line to slap onto an interview or story that is in many cases handed to a broadcast outlet. The President scheduling an interview with a local station is certainly something notable, but it’s not exclusive in the sense of an original news story. An exclusive does fit in the case of the recent FOX Sports interview with Richie Incognito of the Miami Dolphins. Jay Glazer had the sources, scheduled the interview, Incognito gave it to just him, and has not spoken a word about it since. That is a true “exclusive”.

A good part of what I teach in “Media Intelligence” is how the viewer can hear and interpret the nightly news, what is heard and seen on various Internet new channels, and what is more hyperbole than actual news. Sad to say that here in the world of the 21st Century news overload, all too often “EXCLUSIVES” are nothing more than a ratings ploy. Which buries the real exclusives in a pile of overkill.

From the perspective of branding and image, it’s akin to the boy who cried “WOLF!” Do it too often, it loses it’s power and is ignored. If you deem it necessary to trumpet every single little thing you do, seeking to create a false air of importance around it, sooner or later people will view you as someone who seeks not to deliver facts, but only to pump up your ego. They will cease to listen, and after a time when you actually DO have something important to impart, no one will be listening.


Your ‘exclusive’ interview isn’t

The journalistic lexicon abounds with terms designed to keep reporters’ and editors’ egos as plump, firm and purple as a ripe eggplant. If a dowdy news account needs dressing up, they rush to wardrobe to wrap it in the “special report” designation. Or if a journalist seeks to embellish his reputation, he refers to himself as a “prize-winning reporter” in his biographical note, suppressing the observation that the reporter without a prize is likely the one who has neglected to enter the contests.

The urge to adorn the mundane with the magnificent becomes most intense when a news organization bills an interview with a subject as an “exclusive.” This is not to say that exclusive interviews do not exist. When a controversial or newsworthy somebody such as Lance Armstrong shuns the press or otherwise refuses to answer questions, a Q&A like the one Oprah Winfrey conducted with him deserves the appellation. Likewise, when a writer like Walter Isaacson develops deep and constant access with a press-hater like Steve Jobs, resulting in 40 interviews over two years, there’s something exclusive about those talks even if Jobs had answered reporters’ questions during that interval. Because Miami Dolphins lineman Richie Incognito has yet to talk at any length to anybody but Fox Sports, you would not begrudge that organization the crowing rights that go along with having gotten an exclusive.

Yet most pieces billed as an exclusive interview are usually no more exclusive than a seat in a public commode. The Financial Times, which knows better, frequently indulges the inner urge to hype its work by describing conversations with such people as Bill Gates, the Dalai Lama, and Ratan Tata as “exclusive interviews” when honesty-in-packaging would dictate that they limit their boast to “we were the only publication in the room when this voluble world figure sounded off.” Or take Newsweek’s recent piece about investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald, a man who never shuts up, which was unashamedly billed as an “exclusive interview.” Or CNN correspondent Sanjay Gupta’s recent chat with Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, which the network deemed “exclusive,” or Barbara Walters sitting down “exclusively” with Fox News correspondent Howard Kurtz to talk about her departure from “The View.” Nearly every recent interview with Richard Branson (Inc., Jetset, Human Resources Director, Reuters, Thought Economics, 103.7 FM’s Morning Ride, et al.) regards routine access to the billionaire as “exclusive.” (Perhaps he stipulates it contractually?)

The more powerful the subject, the greater the tendency of the press to bill the interview an exclusive, which means that a session with the president of the United States — no matter how brief or devoid of substance — almost always gets the billing as long as none of the reporter’s competitors are in the room at the same moment.

President Barack Obama gives interviews the press regards as “exclusive” with the regularity that the average citizen does his laundry. Last week he gave an “exclusive” interview to NBC’s Chuck Todd. The week before, the “exclusive” went to cable news startup Fusion. In mid-October, New York’s WABC got the “exclusive.” Earlier that month, it was the Associated Press and CNBC that were treated to “exclusives” just days apart. In September, he gave “exclusives” to Telemundo and ABC News, in August to PBS NewsHour and CNN’s New Day, and in July he gave an “exclusive” interview to Amazon’s Kindle Singles.

It would be easier to compile a list of outlets that haven’t gotten “exclusives” with the president over the past 18 months than those that did: Obama spoke with Charlie Rose, Today, JerusalemOnline, Meet the Press, Bloomberg News, Miami’s CBS4, American Urban Radio Networks, NBC’s Rock Center, Tallahassee’s WCTV, Kirksville, Mo.’s, KTVO, Toledo News Now, and Washington’s WJLA. The president even had time to answer Audubon’s questions in an “exclusive interview,” although the magazine sheepishly admits the encounter amounted to written answers to 10 submitted questions. There is rarely any exclusive content in any of these interviews; the only distinguishing thing about them is that they aren’t presidential press conferences.