Saturday, December 03, 2005

NewsNight: The Other Casualty

In all the (justified) lamentations for the loss of Aaron Brown from CNN, the end of NewsNight cost us another, far-more-underappreciated, journalist's work.

One of the many smart things Aaron Brown did was to give Correspondent Beth Nissen a de facto home at NewsNight. Following NewsNight's demise and Brown's departure, I'm pretty sure Nissen is still at CNN, but I don't know to what extent other CNN programs are taking advantage of her unique skills.

I should at this point confess that I worked with Nissen (as she preferred to be called) on several occasions when I was a producer on ABC's overnight program, World News Now, back in the late '90s. At the time, Nissen was one of ABC's pre-eminent storytellers, and would occasionally grace our graveyard shift with her presence (and omnipresent tea set) when we needed a substitute anchor. I was simultaneously intimidated, charmed, smitten and intimidated. As well as intimidated.

At the time, I was lucky enough to do subversive TV virtually every day -- working with terrific, game anchors such as Anderson Cooper and Juju Chang, but also Kevin Newman, Mark Mullen, Thalia Assuras and many, many others. Most of them were willing to indulge me -- and a thrilling handful were just as professionally suicidal as I was (if anyone has transcripts of the stuff Anderson and I used to get away with on the overnight, we'd both be ruined forever). Most of them were interested in making our viewers think differently about the subjects we were discussing (or at least in challenging the prevailing conventions about those subjects) and about our medium itself. Often, we were just bored and wanted to do things differently to keep ourselves entertained. (Okay, I should probably emphasize that I'm speaking for myself here). Anyway, Nissen definitely fell into the category of terrific, game anchors. But while most of us (or, I should reiterate, "I") usually operated in the realm of gallows humor, or sardonic remove, Nissen was different. Nissen didn't just care about the stories she was discussing, she was, I thought, utterly vulnerable to each and every one of them. In journalism, we speak sometimes of the concentric circles. You know -- anything that happens on your block is news; the further away it is, the bigger it has to be to qualify as news. Nissen had no circles. She felt it all. While most of us struggle to connect a day's headlines (i.e., tax cuts) to the people they affect down the road (i.e., people), Nissen couldn't separate the two. The latter was implicit in the former and she bore the weight of it as if it were about her. Scratch that: It clearly weighed heavier on her if someone else was affected.

You may never have heard of her. And you rarely saw her face. That's because she was never assigned to cover Beth Nissen. As far as she was concerned (again, this is my observation, not a claim to know her mind), there was no reason to show her face, when she could show an image that would advance the story, or make it more palpable to our viewers, or complement the covert poetry of her words.

If her writing sounded jarring to you it was due to the relative rarity of her style of writing: Good. She didn't write like a television correspondent. She wrote like a writer. She took time to tell her stories because stories take time to tell well. And because she didn't buy the mantra of bad producers and programmers who will swear up and down that viewers have no attention span and thus no story should exceed a minute-fifteen. (This claim being advanced about a generation that embraces hour-long reality shows in which nothing happens).

I don't know whether commercial, televised journalism has a place for Nissen these days. I'm not sure whether commercial, televised journalism has a place for journalism these days. Still, I hope CNN takes advantage of the fact that it has a skilled, empathetic, responsible, whip-smart, bona fide journalist in its midst. Almost more than that, I hope CNN decides to develop programming that provides an appropriate fit for a skilled, empathetic, responsible, whip-smart, bona fide journalist.

It's a cliche that we get the government we deserve. But I think we also get the journalism we deserve. I hope we still deserve Nissen.


Gina in Philly said...

So true! I always looked forward to a Nissen story. She could make the most boring subject, to me, sound like pure poetry.

Anonymous said...

Years ago as an El Salvadore mission team leader, I was one of Beths stories. Now almost 30 years later, Beth still sticks in my mind as a larger than life character that stood out amongst all the other media. Beth will probably remember the quote from my son, ( is my daddy going to get dead). In the context of a very unique job, I met a very different kind of lady.

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