Merv Block's mission is better news writing

May 11, 2015 01:30

By Christopher Jones-Cruise, RTDNA Contributor

Mervin Block is angry, or at least upset.

After many years of writing columns critical of broadcast news writing, the former network news writer is now semi-retired, but still speaking out (and often freaking out) about newscasts -- both network and local. “Many a script should be scrapped,” he groans.

Merv continues to criticize, and occasionally write about, faulty broadcast news scripts. He complains mightily about “poor writing, inaccuracies, deceptions, distortions, delinquencies and falsities; one of the falsest of all is often ‘breaking news;’ runners-up are ‘happening now’ and ‘keeping them honest.’”

For many years, Merv was a broadcast news writing coach. He held workshops in TV and radio newsrooms in 45 states, three Canadian provinces and even in Singapore. Merv has written news at three television networks: as a staff writer for the “CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite” and the “ABC Evening News with Frank Reynolds” and as a freelancer at NBC News. In addition to writing for Cronkite and Reynolds, Merv has written news for Ed Bradley, Tom Brokaw, Douglas Edwards, Charles Kuralt, Roger Mudd, Edwin Newman, Charles Osgood, Dan Rather, Harry Reasoner, Marlene Sanders, Diane Sawyer, Bob Schieffer, Robert Trout and Mike Wallace.

Before Merv became a news writer for CBS News, he was a newspaper reporter and editor in Chicago and executive news producer for WBBM-TV in Chicago. He also wrote and broadcast editorials for WNBC-TV in New York. As a newspaper reporter, Merv covered courts, crime, City Hall, crime in City Hall and more. He had breakfast with Sen. Joe McCarthy in the home of Paul Harvey, along with Harvey’s wife (“Angel”) and their son, “Small Paul.” He had a private lunch with Alexandra Tolstoy, a daughter of the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. And he had dinner with Jimmy Stewart. (Merv told me, “Those three meals were not on the same day.”) He also interviewed, among others, Harry Truman, Gen. Eisenhower, Fleet Admiral Bill Halsey, Eleanor Roosevelt, Elliott Roosevelt (with whom Merv had breakfast), T.S. Eliot (with whom Merv had tea), W. H. Auden, Carl Sandburg, Marilyn Monroe (a photo of Merv and Marilyn together appears in Donald Spoto’s biography of her), Elizabeth Taylor, Judy Garland, Elvis Presley, Bob Hope, LeRoy Neiman, Maria Callas, Richard Tucker, Ben Hecht, Margaret Mead, Alfred Hitchcock, Zsa Zsa Gabor, David Niven, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, (Merv told me, “I’d rather think of him as King Edward VIII, but he sat on the throne only six months.”) and Elizabeth Bentley, the Soviet spy. He also spent time in Chicago with Gloria Swanson.

He won first prize three times for TV spot-news scripts in the annual competition of the Writers Guild of America.

Merv wrote a monthly column about broadcast news writing -- called “WordWatching” -- for the RTNDA (now RTDNA) magazine “Communicator” for 13 years -- from 1984 to 1997. After 1997, he wrote a column for the magazine a few times a year. His occasional columns are now posted on www.MervinBlock.com

Merv taught broadcast news writing part-time at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism for 30 years. Previously, he taught journalism (print, then broadcast) at the University of Illinois, Urbana. He holds an M.S.J. from the Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University, and a certificate from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. At Medill, he received the Harrington Memorial Award as “the outstanding student (in the news-editorial sequence) in the graduate class.”
 
He was honored by the Chicago Press Veterans Association in 2004 as Press Veteran of the Year. Merv has been publicly praised by two widely known authors, Kitty Kelley and Douglas Brinkley: In an “Author’s Note” in her #1 New York Times bestseller “His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra,” Ms. Kelley said: “My special thanks to Mervin Block, who is the best friend and mentor a writer can have. From the beginning, he helped to shape this book, which he later edited, trying to impose grammar, punctuation, and correct spelling. In the four years I worked on the book, he battled bureaucracy in several cities to scour court records and retrieve secret documents. He pored over microfilm, persuaded reluctant people to talk, and opened slammed doors. All with unflagging persistence and rollicking good humor. By example, he taught me to shun mediocrity, to strive for excellence.” And Douglas Brinkley, in the acknowledgments section of his 2012 biography of Walter Cronkite, wrote: “A number of Cronkite’s old friends proofread this book, helping me avoid embarrassing errors. Mervin Block, the great TV scriptwriter, meticulously copyedited chapters with fraternal good cheer. He is a mentoring mensch possessed of a razor-sharp wit and a pitch-perfect Maxwell Perkins pencil.” (Perkins edited F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe.)

Merv has written five books:

Writing Broadcast News Shorter, Sharper, Stronger: A Professional Handbook”, 3rd ed. (2011)
Broadcast Newswriting: The RTDNA Reference Guide” (co-published by the Radio Television Digital News Association), 2nd ed., paperback (2012)
Rewriting Network News: WordWatching Tips from 345 TV and Radio Scripts” (2010)
Writing News for TV and Radio” (with Joe Durso, Jr.), paperback (2010)

Those books were all published by CQ Press. His latest book, “Weighing Anchors: When Network Newscasters Don’t Know Write from Wrong” was published in 2012 by Marion Street Press.

I spoke with Merv by telephone recently. I was in Washington, D.C., he at his apartment on the Upper West Side of New York City, where he has lived for many years. I had not known of his “Weighing Anchors” book until late last year; otherwise, I would have reviewed the book, interviewed him and written an article when the book was published.

Since I’ve been writing occasional columns about bad news writing for the RTDNA newsletter over the past year, soon after I stumbled across the book I asked the association’s newsletter editor whether he would publish an interview with Merv about the book, and he readily agreed. I then emailed Merv to ask for an interview, to which he readily agreed. He sent a copy of the book to me. I read it with great interest, laughing and cringing in equal amounts.

In my email to Merv requesting an interview, I promised to take just 20 minutes of his time (we ended up talking for about an hour). In his response agreeing to the interview, he wrote: “I have only one objection: your saying the interview would be brief. I’d hope that it’d go on for at least four hours.” I knew things would go well when I read that and when he wrote in a follow-up email: “Your stuff in the RTDNA newsletter is good. We’re on the same wavelength.”
 
I found Merv to be humorous, open, engaging, puckish, sly, gently sarcastic and thoughtful. He is still passionate about good grammar and good broadcast news writing decades after he began his journalism career. His age? “I lost count,” he told me.

I enjoyed the conversation, in particular his reaction to the concept of what some broadcast journalists have taken to calling “Mervin Block style.” He thinks the existence of such a style is a hoot. (Merv told me in an email exchange that the concept of a “Mervin Block style” is “nonsense. I don’t have a style. All I do is take facts and turn them into a short story. As Einstein said -- not to me -- ‘If you are out to describe the truth, leave elegance to the tailor.’”)

Merv hasn’t been writing much, which, I’m sure, is a relief to many of his targets, although he doesn’t like that word -- he told me by email that “target” makes it sound as if he is “aiming for certain folks. No, I aim at sick scripts -- and try to put them out of our misery. My motto is the same as that of Ed Bliss: ‘Be hard on copy, not on people.’”

As Merv explained in the interview, he wrote his columns based on transcripts of the network newscasts, transcripts he accessed through the Factiva and Lexis-Nexis databases. He lost access to those databases but later arranged to use them at the library of Columbia’s journalism school, where he taught. He told me by email, “As soon as I get sufficiently ambitious and energetic, I may well go up to Columbia and resume columning.” (I know “columning” is not a word, but you think I’m going to correct Merv Block? [Merv says, “I hope so.”]) That’s good news for news consumers but not so good for less-than-careful broadcast news writers. As he told another interviewer, he set out, in “Weighing Anchors,” only to point out flawed network news writing. “I don’t say anything nasty” about the anchors, he said, “but I do quote them verbatim, which is bad enough.”

What follows is a transcript of about eleven minutes of our hour-long conversation:
 
 
So much of your book speaks to the issue of ginning up the news, which is pretty close to unforgivable.
 
It’s really shameful what goes on! Everything is “breaking news!”     
 
You told one interviewer that, in your book, “I don’t say anything nasty about the news anchors but I do quote them verbatim, which is bad enough.”
 
That sounds like something I would say.
 
Is broadcast news writing getting worse?
 
I would say broadcast news writing in general has been declining because the quality of the teaching of English has declined, and that has happened because of the decline in the quality of English teachers. A lot of people become teachers but they don’t become sufficiently knowledgeable about the language. There’ve been observations like this over the past ten or twenty years. And so students don’t learn as much about English as they should, and some of those students go into broadcasting. At some stations, it’s more important to be a good-looking blonde than a good news writer.
 
You told one interviewer that broadcast news -- you weren’t setting the bar very high -- in your opinion “only needs a passing grade,” but, in many respects, because of “factual and grammatical mistakes, it doesn’t even pass, let alone get a B or an A.”
 
Oh, I said that?
 
You did.
 
Oh my gosh, that Merv Block, oh my gosh -- there he goes telling the truth again!
 
When you have educated people misusing “begging the question,” it really, I think…
 
Oh yeah.
 
…speaks to an issue, as you indicated, which is bigger than simply being poor broadcast news writers.
 
I have one of those “begging the question” things in “Weighing Anchors…” 
 
You do.
 
…and I still hear it! I mean, I didn’t expect my mention of it in the book would correct it for all time, but I still hear people using it on the air! Where are the editors? Where are the editors? The network evening newscasts eliminated their copy editors and they now rely on associate producers or whoever happens to be walking past the news desk when a script is turned in. It’s hard to believe!
 
What I have called for in my columns in the RTDNA newsletter is a fairly sparse, straightforward type of writing, but some people complain that I am taking away their ability to be interesting and creative. How should I respond to that?
 
Well, some facts are dramatic in themselves -- they don’t need a booster shot or anything; we don’t need any fiction writers.
 
So you’re saying, just let the facts speak for themselves.
 
Yes.
 
The most disturbing thing about your book was that you use the actual words of network news anchors to show that they are -- and let me use this word advisedly -- lying. In particular you do not like the abuse of the term “tonight” and the term “breaking news.”
 
Well I object to the use of those terms when the anchors use them in an untruthful way! And the fact is anyone who says something that he knows to be false or incorrect is a liar, is a liar! And many instances that I hear on the air or that I’ve written about in the book show that some people are liars.
 
And yet, where’s the accountability, where are the consequences for mischaracterizing and lying?
 
Well, for those who are good enough at it, it might mean promotion! It’s unbelievable that there’s so much -- you know I hate to use this word, but, dishonesty -- there’s so much dishonesty. To think that the anchor of a network evening newscast would say something happened “tonight” -- or in one case that comes to mind now, “late tonight.” Something happened “late tonight” and the guy is reading a script at 6:30pm Eastern Time, and he says “late tonight” -- well that’s beyond being dishonest! I would say it borders on the incompetent to call 6:30 p.m. “late tonight.” And more and more I hear that “breaking news” and I listen intently, then sometimes I come back here to my computer to see what I can Google, to see if I can find out when that story did break, and four, five, six hours ago is not unusual -- it’s usual. It’s really terrible.
 
Merv, you’re not naïve; you’ve been in the game long enough to know that ratings matter. To what degree do you give people some slack? Surely you understand that producers believe using the terms “tonight” and “breaking news” is good for ratings?
 
I don’t give anyone slack when it comes to telling the truth -- I mean especially for a journalist! “Breaking news” isn’t something that happened -- can’t, mustn’t have happened -- eight hours ago or six hours ago or four hours ago. It’s sort of an elastic time, you know, but to call something that happened six hours ago “breaking news…”
 
You’re saying it’s a bright line argument for you, there’s a line, if I can say so, that, when it’s crossed, you’re not practicing journalism.
 
Yes. I used to work on a newspaper -- my roots are in print, and I worked on a metro daily in Chicago. If you would turn in a story with factual errors like that you wouldn’t last long. It’s unbelievable what I hear.
 
Would you agree that so much broadcast news writing has simply become derivative, and that young people who want to become the next network news anchor hear what is being written at the level at which they want to perform and then copy it? And in a sense is that not a pretty good way of being successful -- to copy those who are doing what you want to do?
 
Yeah, that makes sense.
 
And so, if you submit a script with “wreaking havoc” or “begging the question” or “very unique,” it seems like that script is going to make air.
 
When you ask a student, “well whaddaya wanna do in broadcasting?,” well they wanna be producers or anchors, but I don’t think I ever have heard a student say “I wanna be a writer” -- that’s what they don’t wanna do, they don’t wanna write.
 
Merv, if you Google the term “Merv Block style” -- by the way, have you ever done that?
 
I’ve seen it, I’ve seen it and I can’t…Merv Block style, I don’t have a style, I mean…Oh my gosh!
 
What is Merv Block style?
 
Well, it’s a mystery to me! I don’t have a, you know I wouldn’t say I have a style. I try to write it straight, without any baloney, and that’s it -- unadorned, unexaggerated. I don’t know any other “un’s” -- I mean, none come to mind right now.
 
Merv Block style is basically journalism.
 
Yeah, that’s it!!! That’s all it is -- I don’t have a style, it’s just, oh my gosh!
 
It seems to me the fact that there’s a “Merv Block style” speaks to how bad broadcast news writing has become.
 
Yeah, I think that’s -- I wouldn’t want to say that but I think that that’s right. I mean, I can’t believe it when I see “Merv Block style.” I’ve run across resumes where the writer has put “learned Merv Block writing style,” or something like that on it!
 
Here are my thoughts on Merv's latest book:

“Weighing Anchors” is a book every broadcast journalist, news writer (print and broadcast) and journalism student should read, buy for a colleague and refer to regularly. There isn’t one page of the 208 in the book that doesn’t contain something profound or just plain helpful.

The book is a collection of Merv Block’s columns over the past few years, updated, revised and expanded. He takes aim at the big dogs of network news, and hits. He uses their own words to demonstrate that they are lying, and produces damning indictments of their propensity to promote rather than report. He exposes and abhors the chest-thumping and hyping in which so many journalists engage today. He shows where journalists have crossed the line and tries to drag them back where they belong. He is unstinting in his criticisms of broadcast journalists at all levels, but particularly at the networks, which he believes should be a role model. They aren’t, as he demonstrates.
He shows how broadcast news writers “fudge facts,” “tinker with time,” claim stories are exclusive when they’re not, exaggerate medical reports, dress up old news as new and claim routine coverage is somehow extraordinary.

The book is readable, funny and punny, and will be of help throughout a journalist’s career. It has a comprehensive, 7-page index with 600 entries, each of which could be the basis for a class or meeting topic. Most of us will recognize our errors and be determined not to make them again.

Merv can be acerbic, and you don’t want to be one of his targets. But in the end you can see that his goal is not just to criticize but to encourage improvement. In every case, he points out not just where a writer goes wrong, but how that writer can go right. He is, at heart, a teacher who wants his students to produce great work. He is at times snarky, but it is snark with passion and purpose. Merv seeks to show that one can write in a sparse and straightforward manner while at the same time being interesting and creative.

One reviewer notes news writers murder the language every night, and Merv Block performs the autopsy.

Merv writes with the strong and confident point of view of a veteran of news writing at the highest levels. He is tart, funny and valuable. No journalist should be without this book.

Christopher Jones-Cruise is a reporter at the Voice of America's Learning English branch in Washington, DC. His views are his own.