Excerpt: 'The Newsbreaker,' by Larry Garrison

Ratings don't improve if you're the second to report something significant. You cannot brag in commercials that you were almost first to bring your viewers an important news development. CBS and Rather should have been more careful, but the nature of the business brings with it the inherent risk that something that is not really news, but a myth, will be reported. The cruel part for Rather is that his brilliant career will be overshadowed by this mistake. To add insult to injury, Walter Cronkite was quoted weeks before Rather's departure as saying that "Rather was not my choice for taking over the evening news at CBS." Cronkite viewed Rather as more of a newsman, whose main priority is to get a story on air, than a third-party reporter, who is objective. Cronkite also said later that he couldn't figure out how Rather kept his job as long as he did. CBS lost credibility, but, right or wrong, they also got some publicity, which could conceivably help the ratings in the long run.

Spinning stories is another risky way the networks battle over the ratings. Some think to put a spin on a story is to make it something it is not. It's not that simple. No one knows who was the first to use the term, or when it became part of the media vocabulary, but it has become a very real part of the business. Spin makes a story seem more important than it is, or allows a reporter to speculate to the point where nonfiction comes dangerously close to fiction -- anything to add more life to the news piece that will keep viewers tuned in and wanting more information. I'm sure the term comes from the toy that was popular before video games and remote-control cars took over our children's imagination. A pull of a string and the top took on a life of its own. The energy would send the plaything across a surface, and it would continue to capture the imagination until all of the energy was used up.

Today's media has to use spin to stay competitive in the ratings game, and it has learned how pull the strings. Just like the toy, the harder the spin, the more unpredictable the story becomes. I look for stories that can be spun to stay competitive, but I must also be certain that all the information can be proven true, or at least not proven untrue. To complicate matters further, I also have to decide between what is newsworthy and the public's right to know, and what is better left out. This is where I have to go out on a limb. As important as it is for the networks to report the news, for me it is just as important that the people who come to me with their stories be protected from the media and the spin they put on many of the stories. Some are of the opinion that the public has the right to know everything about anyone who is in the public eye. Others feel that there are boundaries as to what should be broadcast. I operate somewhere between those two positions, and they are always subject to change. It is not the stuff with which popularity contests are won.

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