Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 10/17/22
Left, right and Centerpoint. My interview with anchor Doug McKelway ran on the day of Centerpoint‘s premiere on March 28th. Next week the TBN nightly news program marks its half-year anniversary. As that milestone approaches, executive producer Michael Clemente (whose resume includes notable stints Fox News, ABC News, CNN and Newsmax) talks about what sets the little news show that could apart from its more established competition.
JWK: What is it you hope to accomplish with Centerpoint?
Michael Clemente: I think there’s room for something that has a more direct approach to what’s going on right now in the world. Whether it’s Fox, Newsmax, CNN or MSNBC, it’s a crowded space…I think there’s room for something that’s missing. So, what I hope to accomplish is something that not only is as truthful and fact-based as humanly possible – which, I know, everybody has that as a goal – but is not just a shotgun of stories coming at you each day (and has) enough depth and analysis so that what we convey to people is information that can use in their lives, not news just for the sake of watching something other than SportsCenter or, you know, whatever else is on…It’s an old phrase to say “News You Can Use” but I think it still works.
I think, with so much going on, it’s a default position for people to feel informed because they have so many things coming at them – whether it’s on their phone, on their television, in the car, a website they like or whatever. What’s missing is…What does it mean to me? How do I use it in my life? I think for people that are believers in the truth to begin with – but (also are) believers (that) we’re not just all here living under dark clouds – that the information can be ultimately used in many cases to make your life better or to (understand our) enemies (such as) the Russians or the Chinese better…I think a lot of that is missing now.
It may be a little old-fashioned but, while there’s more news and information coming at you, I think there’s actually less reporting going on. It’s more like the pebble that drops in the pond and, you know, the circles fan out pretty quickly but it’s the same kind of echo chamber from AP or Reuters…The reporting is mostly some version of what everyone else is doing. It might have a left-leaning spin or a right-leaning spin. What we’d like to be is the one that has the depth and the analysis, as well.
JWK: Is it fair to say that you want to be perceived as – and to be actually be – unbiased in your reporting while also presenting a Christian perspective on the news that isn’t always heard.
MC: Exactly. Let me give you an example of it…I was with Peter Jennings 25 years ago when Princess Diana died. We went to London and we did World News Tonight. You know, it was a big deal. Within the shadow of her passing and her funeral, Mother Teresa died. I remember the amount of coverage – not just on ABC but global coverage – on Diana. You know, the cover of People Magazine and millions of others. Of course, she deserved it. She was a wonderful person. She did a lot of good. She had a marriage that was, obviously, of interest to people given who she was married to and what happened there. (Recently on) the 25th anniversary of Mother Teresa’s funeral…once again, no one was really noting it or what she did or what she did for the world because they were neck deep in the (funeral of) the Queen. The Queen is wonderful. It’s not to take away from the Queen – a good person ,long life, wonderful pictures, all the rest of it – but I thought we can show the Queen – and we did – but we (also) spent six or seven minutes on noting Mother Teresa and what she did…We had a pastor on. We had Allen Jackson from Tennessee who is a wonderfully fluent guy. He made the point – he said it so well and I’ll bungle it – but he said something about people observing one kingdom and that was the Queen’s kingdom, literally a kingdom here on Earth of the King and Queen and what British royalty used to be…but it doesn’t take away from what Mother Teresa did who was working for another Kingdom. Then he dovetailed into what you already can tell. I’m going to say the obvious, the Kingdom of the Good Lord and what His intentions are for us here on Earth exemplified no better than by what Mother Teresa did all those years.
So, it’s a way find a place for stories that aren’t just on the same rail as where the momentum of the rest of the media world is going. Not to be deliberately different for the sake of (it) but this is for people that maybe watched Nightline in the early years when Ted Koppel was doing it or listen to NPR in the morning where, instead of all the news you get in 70 seconds (on the other channels), they’ll spend five, six, seven, eight minutes on a story so when you’re done with it you can actually remember of piece of it the next day.
JWK: Why has the news media become such a divisive force?
MC: I thinks it’s two parts, John…I think the simpler part of that is it it’s always been true. I think it’s been true for as long as I’ve been doing this, and maybe you too, that newsrooms fill up generally with people that are kind of instinctively do-gooders…that in the old days might have worked for the Peace Corps…The newsrooms fill up with people that are a little more instinctively liberal because they go through that phase of “I’m gonna change the world. I’m gonna have my impact and this is the right thing to do!” People that go into the business world or they have other aspirations…may come out of school slightly more on the conservative side. The media is not the first job that they’re looking for…That’s been there for a long time but that doesn’t mean that the news has to be skewed one way or the other.
I’ve been doing this long enough – from the days when I was with Jennings and we finally beat out NBC and CBS to get into first place. It wasn’t because Peter was a lefty or anything. Actually, in the internal research, he was perceived (by) the audience as more toward the center. (Dan Rather) was left of center and (Tom) Brokaw was a little bit left of center. Peter was perceived – even though they knew he was from another country (Canada) – as being more in the middle. It was about getting the news right and fair. It wasn’t because he was spinning things one way or the other.
I think what’s happened though – this is my second point – (is) that the business of the journalism has been infected over time. In the old days, they could be profit centers. By having those profit centers spread out now, practically anybody can say they’re a journalist. You can put a website up in an hour on GoDaddy and say it’s the News of New York site brought to you by John Kennedy. You can have ads put up there from those places that just put the free ads up and you get paid if anybody clicks on them. So, the business got so spread out over time. A model was what Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes built (at Fox News). They didn’t build it just for the money but that was part of it. They used to say something like “We have liberals on the west coast and on the east coast. We’re gonna build a channel for everybody in between” which is a pretty good phrase.
It reminded me of my daughter when she moved to Baltimore. I was in D.C. I’d go to Baltimore and there was a pizza place on every block and one block from her house was a guy that opened a grilled cheese and tomato soup little shop and I thought “That’s a smart idea! I can get pizza anywhere and I can get coffee anywhere but I can’t get a grilled cheese!” Roger and Rupert opened the grilled cheese shop and it turned out they were reaching – whatever; I don’t know – a third of the country up to half?…(Also) Roger’s system worked of having more talk TV than reported TV. First of all, it’s cheaper to have talk TV than it is to have reporters going to the Ukraine for a month which, just loading the gear on the plane. you’re into tens of thousands of dollars and then (it became clear that) the advertising money was more in the mornings. The advertisers moved. They wanted to be on The Today Show, Good Morning America and The CBS Morning News because that’s where they could reach the people they wanted to reach. The evening news turned into pharmaceutical ads. So, the money was there but the business was flat.
JWK: Some might say that affected the TV news media’s ability to be fair. I’m not being anti-vax here but Pfizer does pour an awful lot of money into TV news programs.
MC: Yeah, they do but I think the bigger issue is if you’re at a point where a larger company bought you – like Disney bought ABC…They want (news) to be a business. They don’t want a red line that they’re just going to support with other dollars (from the corporation).
JWK: By the way, you mention Peter Jennings. One of my favorite network anchors of all time was actually his predecessor Frank Reynolds. That’s how far back I go.
MC: I was his last writer when he died. I was there next to him when Reagan was shot. I was his writer beginning with the New Hampshire primary in 1980. He died in 1983. His son Dean went to CBS…His widow – they had five boys – only died about a year and a half ago. He was a good man. I’m just excited to hear you say that because he was a really good man and a really good reporter.
JWK: I’ll tell you about my experience in TV news just briefly. I was at CNN in the nineties. When I was there I would say it was left-leaning but they honestly tried to be fair. When I went to Fox News in the early 2000s, they were definitely much more conservative – and out there with their opinions – but, by and large, they too tried to be fair. Fox was known for being opinionated while CNN was seen as more of a straight news operation. Fox, of course, is still opinionated – especially at night – but I feel like over the past five to ten years it’s almost flipped. CNN has become almost wall-to-wall opinion and, while there’s still plenty of opinion at Fox, their news side has actually become fairer than CNN. At least they do maintain somewhat of a wall between news and opinion. At CNN that wall has been pretty much obliterated – though the new guy in charge is supposedly trying to fix that. What’s your sense of that?
MC: I couldn’t agree with you more. I think John Berman, for example, who anchors at CNN in the morning – he was one of Peter’s writers, by the way, when I was there. He went to Harvard. He’s extremely liberal. Alisyn Camerota was on Fox & Friends. She couldn’t stand the conservative point of view so she went (to CNN). That was all directed by Jeff Zucker.
These are people that get paid well. They don’t want to lose their jobs. Probably even back to the time you were at CNN, they had double-digit increases in their net revenue every year. When they went into single digit increases, it wasn’t good enough to say we’re only going to grow five percent this year – or seven percent. It had to be double digits. He (Zucker) got rid of a lot of people, went to more outsourced special hours – like those series The Eighties, The Nineties, blah blah blah – and then said (something like) “Let me do the Ailes model but I’ll do the flip side of it. I’ll do the left and he can have the right maybe that’ll work.” It didn’t work. It’s not what people wanted out of (CNN). It’s like when Coke tried New Coke. (CNN) was like the AP news wire. They had reporters everywhere. It was impressive. It still is but the way they’re being used is unfortunate…
…Think about it – you’re in the business and you’ve been in the business – but think of people you know, like I do, who are not in the business. If they just want to know the truth about something – like Covid or anything, any big issue – they have to actually spend a lot of time trying to figure out where the truth is. You got the left and the right. Where can I get the truth on this? I think there is a void. We’re trying to fill the gap and not just do it in a minute, thirty – but do it in five to eight minutes per story…If you and I both, as a game, watched the news on Friday and then we met for lunch on Monday and said “What do you remember from the news on Friday?” if you could remember one thing – and, again, you’re in the business – but, if we were friends and we just met, I’d be impressed if you could remember one thing. I dare say most people can’t remember one thing a day or two or three later. I want to change… Going back to Frank Reynolds and Peter Jennings (days) we tried to just open the eyes of people around the world, or at least in this country, to things they might not know and not just put the dark clouds up but show where there are solutions.
JWK: The Bible is about the search for truth and, ideally, that should also be the goal of any legitimate news organization.
MC: Here’s a little anecdote, and I’ll keep it really tight. When I was with Jennings, he never went to church (though) it wasn’t that he wasn’t a believer…He knew my wife at the time. We were traveling all over the world and things were a little tough on both of our marriages. He offered to become to become the godfather of my youngest child Noelle and he did. He came down to Washington. I grew up Catholic. We were at a Catholic mass. After the 10 o’clock mass they closed the church because, you know, he was pretty well-known. His wife was there and his two kids. They had the choir. It was a beautiful, beautiful ceremony. He was so taken by it and the big old roly-poly priest that he met that (when) we got back to New York, (and) my mother sent him a Bible as a thank you, he was so touched by it (that) within a month he hired Peggy Wehmeyer to do religion stories on World News Tonight. We did it for seven years. He felt we’re missing something. There’s something going on here (with) this whole faith thing. (He’d) make fun of my Catholicism in a pleasant way like “You Catholics are always doing this! I don’t understand it!” So, he got the curtain peeled back. He saw what it was like. We spent several years doing stories on faith and religion on World News Tonight.
JWK: I actually remember that.
MC: There isn’t any book that says “Here’s how you do the evening news” or Here’s how you run a cable channel.”…It’s the blessing of these that jobs we get to find out what’s going on in the world and share it with people who don’t know. You get to make those choice (of what to report) and I think there’s a huge responsibility behind that. We have a chance to do something new and different here. That’s the blessing, I think, of this program without me sounding too preachy about it. It was (TBN President) Matt Crouch‘s idea – and his wife Laurie – to do this. I think it’s just a wonderful new endeavor. It isn’t just another news show in a crowded space but something, very worthy and very important.
JWK: As we head into the midterms, what issues do you the media, in general, are missing?
MC: Great question, John. They do the horse race and they leave out the issues. I know in Pennsylvania that a guy who had a stroke is running against a guy who was a TV celebrity with Oprah – but what they’re about (is) hard to say…You can go race by race. Chris Sununu just won in New Hampshire. He won with 79%! What’s he doing up there? I want to do more “What does this mean to me and my wife?” than SportsCenter. I don’t want to sound too critical of everybody but we get a lot of SportCenter “They’re up! They’re down! Trump! Biden” but what does it mean to you and me?
JWK: I think an issue that really kind of applies to what you’re saying is abortion. I honestly do see both sides of the abortion issue but it seems like the subject is only presented as a political issue. Everybody claims to love science when it comes to other issues. They think they can predict the weather in 20 years and call that “science” but when it comes to abortion that’s the last word they want to hear. They never report what is actually going on in the womb.
MC: You’re 100% right. It is reported like a horse race thing. It’s the one side of (the story): “You’re not letting a woman choose. It’s her body.” It’s not the other facts (such as) there are about 40 people (waiting to adopt) for every one baby that comes up for abortion. Almost anywhere in the country you can bring a baby to term for free. There are so many centers now that have the donation money to be able to help somebody through their pregnancy (and delivery). There are organizations that are having therapeutic sessions for women and the husbands or boyfriends of women who had abortion ten, twenty, thirty, forty years ago that are still suffering from that loss. We’ve put a spotlight on a lot of those but, you know, we’re one little channel at this point. We’re gonna get bigger. We’ve said it on the air: 63-million abortions since Roe. In fact we illustrated in one of our specials – to says that’s equal to the entire population of Great Britain.
JWK: According to a statistic I’ve seen, there have been nearly four times as many black babies aborted in America as white babies – and that’s with blacks representing a comparatively smaller portion of the population. You’d think in a time when racial issues are so much at the forefront of discussion, that would be an issue – but, somehow, it’s not.
MC: Your point is well-taken and correct.
JWK: Centerpoint has been on the air for coming up on six months. How has the audience responded? Are they grateful for having a show that presents perspectives not often found elsewhere in TV news?
MC: That’s most of the email. They don’t send all them through to me be but the people that do get those at the company have said from the beginning there has been a lot of positive mail – like three-quarters of it positive. The ones they send through – and they send through some of the negative too – are mostly positive. It’s mostly, you know, “We haven’t seen anything like this! Keep it up! We watch every night! We love Doug McKelway! That was a great story on…”…Most of the time my experience at ABC and Fox too has been that generally only people who are mad about something write in or call in There may have been something positive (now and then) but you mostly just hear “You guys are terrible!” and “You didn’t get that right!” We don’t get as much of that here..We don’t do a lot of clickbait kind of pop cultury stuff…You can always throw up some pop culture stuff to (boost) your ratings but I think it trivializes what you do if if you do that (and) the ratings have been good.
JWK: The show reminds me a little of Nightline in its early days with Ted Koppel.
JWK: Since those days the news media, it seems to me, has become increasingly divisive with some elements of even what are considered mainstream channels sometimes seeming even to egg on the notion of civil war.
MC: I agree…There’s plenty of audience for everybody with 320-million plus people but if all you project is aberrant behavior (and) intention, first of all, it doesn’t honestly reflect the country – and you just can’t keep topping that every day. I think that’s why on some channels you hear the “Breaking News” thing – Zing! Breaking News! – I mean just a certain heightening of the moment that is false and people know it. Viewers know it (and are like) “Okay, here they go again.”
JWK: I’m not one of these people who thinks Trump is perfect and can do no wrong but it does seem to me that ever sense his upset victory in 2016 a sort of magaphobia has set in among some of the media – which, in their mind, justified rolling out a whole new set of rules got laid where pretty much anything goes if it serves the purpose of getting Trump.
MC: I know…Just to tie one thing together from what you said (earlier), whatever anybody things of Trump – and his hair and his behavior and his tweets and all the rest of it – based on what he did with the Supreme Court and going back to you bringing up the issue of abortion, if 63-million babies were born in the last fifty years, how many might have been aborted in the next fifty or even the next ten? Because of what he was able to get done through his appointments to the Supreme Court, his lasting legacy might well be the lives he saved – children that will be born and adopted and will live here on Earth and have a chance to make their own point in this country. That would ultimately be his legacy but we won’t know until many, many more years pass.
JWK: One thing the whole Trump experience has taught me is to separate style from substance. I really don’t like the way Trump tweets, picks unnecessary fights and is unnecessarily belligerent but I can separate all that out from the bottom line of what he accomplished.
MC: Think back to just in your lifetime and mine, a lot of those leaders – they had personal flaws. You know, maybe Trump is the tweeting and whatever. John Kennedy – the other John Kennedy – had some issues that we found out about later. Bill Clinton had some issues.
JWK: Nobody’s perfect. That’s what it says in The Bible.
MC: Yeah, they’re not perfect people but they’re our leaders. So, I agree with you. You have to separate – or we should separate if we’re smart enough – the person from the (policies). Look at even actors. You know, they go on those late-night shows. A lot of them are pretty insecure. They live and die on the success of a movie – but they’re great on stage. Okay, should we rip them to shreds because they’re insecure and they need therapy. No. We’re all humans.
JWK: That, I think, is what really gets at the heart of a lot of this – the inability to accept imperfection in our national history and among individual people. It’s like you’re either perfect or terrible. There’s no sense of, you know what, this person managed to accomplish some pretty great things despite having some flaws. We seem to have lost that nuance and ability to accept imperfections to a large degree.
MC: Again, this will be really preachy of me but that’s why having a show and program that’s anchored to the bestselling book in the world is a good place to be.
JWK: So,where do you see this show in five to ten years? Do you see the Centerpoint as building a lasting legacy?
MC: You know, I think it will. I really do. I take a lot of heart in people finding their way to the truth. I really do. Sometimes it takes time. I think it worked with Peter Jennings over time. At first people were like “Who is this guy with a foreign accent? He sounds a little weird. He’s not an American.” But he told the truth. It worked with Frank Reynolds before that. He told the truth…I think in five or ten years if we keep doing what we’re doing and maybe grow it into an hour soon – you know in the next year or less – I think there’s a great place for it. I think the ratings will show that.
I think what I’d like to do is set an example…Too much of what happens in media – and his is just, again, my opinion – (is) they look at who’s the leader. If The Today Show is number one, let’s try to mimic The Today Show with slight changes so we can call it our own but it’s sort of follow the leader and not a lot of creativity. This is like let’s just come up with a different rule book. We’re gonna do something that is noticeably different and worthy and important outside of what the mainstream is doing – and that, I think, is gonna get us to a place where we’ll have the right kind of people.
If somebody wants to go watch WFC Wrestling or something, that’s fine. You know, this is not for everybody but I think it’s gonna be for tens of millions of people who just know that there’s a better world available to them and they can learn about it and figure out how to wend their way through it as things get busier and busier. That’s what this is gonna be. It’s part of a whole suite of programs that will interface with what TBN has been for 50 very success years already.
IMHO: Here’s a clip from a recent edition of Centerpoint. You may agree or disagree with the perspective being voiced but the corporate media does no one any favors by silencing opinions that are from from hateful and are most probably held by a significant majority of people (including me, BTW). Despite that, this pastor probably couldn’t get himself booked on The Today Show or any other network show. For that reason, I say long live Centerpoint.
John W. Kennedy is a writer, producer and media development consultant specializing in television and movie projects that uphold positive timeless values, including trust in God.
Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11