Winter 2020

Corraling a Capricious News Cycle

Network news directors not only must stay ahead of fast-breaking developments but frame reporting in ways that underscore the human drama

By Ann Farmer

Director Sarah Carlson Brooke works behind the scenes on Meet the Press. (Photo: William Plowman/NBC)

After Donald Trump won the presidency, Sarah Carlson Brooke, director of NBC's Meet the Press, soon found that his unpredictable Twitter feed routinely blew up the news, precipitating a scramble to address it. So she relegated a source in the control room to monitor the rolling tweets and orchestrated a graphic effect that quickly ressized them for broadcast. Now when Trump says something newsworthy, says Carlson Brooke, "We can take it to air immediately."

News directors have always had to be fast on their feet. But nowadays with news breaking 24/7, the political noise is deafening. And as the president persists in interjecting his opinion into the mix, change is ever more constant, necessitating ever more vigilance on the part of the directors.

"I've noticed that, especially since Trump entered the White House, we are on standby pretty much every day," says Brian Nalesnik, who directs the CBS Evening News and also serves as the network's daytime special report director. "You have to be on your toes. You can't wander too far from the control room," he says, recalling how he was recently directing one special report only to have to switch gears in the middle of it to accommodate a separate special report. "We had two special reports happening," he says.

ABC World News Tonight weekend director Rob Vint similarly notes it's become commonplace for their lead story to get bumped last minute by more pressing news. When that happens so close to air, the odds are it's a political development or some calamity. "More often it seems like it's something bad. It's some kind of shooting," says Vint, recalling that it happened recently after a West Texas shooter hijacked a postal truck and killed seven people.

Even political talk programs formulated to be less hard news-driven get upended. On Sundays, Meet the Press analyzes the major political developments of the week. Yet, says Carlson Brooke, "a lot of stuff seems to happen on a Saturday night," citing nightclub massacres and hurricanes. The real-time rescue of the Thailand boys' soccer team trapped in a cave dominated one Sunday broadcast last year. "I've had to do more breaking news on this show than I think one would have five years ago," says Carlson Brooke. "In this news environment, whether it's political or not, we have to cover the news."

One of this year's major stories, in fact, broke on Sunday, October 27, when President Trump reported the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi during a U.S. special forces raid on his hideout in northern Syria. Trump teased the news the day before, tweeting, "Something very big has just happened!" He would disclose it the following morning at 9 o'clock ET, exactly when Meet the Press goes on-air. "This was the first time that a feed of ours got blown out," says Carlson Brooke, who arrived at the program's D.C. studio extra early that morning to strategize how to handle the White House press conference and still produce Meet the Press and its subsequent feeds.

The production team reshuffled the guest lineup to address the president's news. Carlson Brooke had to order up fresh graphics, name banners and shots for the video wall. Chuck Todd, the host of Meet the Press, meanwhile, had been diverted to the task of anchoring the special report. Carlson Brooke geared up for a smooth transition. "When you're done with Chuck, I need 10 seconds to change the background to my show look," she told the New York control room covering the event.

When Trump's victory lap took longer than expected, edging toward the 10 o'clock hour, they hung with it until the very last opportunity for them to produce a full broadcast. At 9:59:30, when Trump was clearly winding down, they finally made the call to proceed. "It was an adrenaline rush," says Carlson Brooke. "We made it happen. We tossed the baton fairly seamlessly. We had a great broadcast that morning. And no one [was] the wiser."

(Top) CBS Evening News director Brian Nalesnik in the control room. "Especially since Trump entered the White House," he says, "we are on standby pretty much every day." (Bottom) ABC World News Tonight weekend director Rob Vint monitors hurricane coverage. (Photos: (Top) Gail Schulman/CBS; (Bottom) ABC News)

Directing a primetime news program is not for the faint at heart. "You've got 8 million people watching your broadcast," says Nalesnik, who's always prepared for the unexpected. "There is a lot of pressure involved. I view each night like a sporting event. Not only from an editorial standpoint but technically if things go awry—you lose a live shot, or a camera goes down—you have to have a series of backups in place that are not noticeable to the viewer at home."

To prep for Evening News, Nalesnik generally arrives mid-morning—rotating from graphics meetings to editorial and production meetings. During the course of the day, he ensures the control room is fully operational, the set has been relit, and the remotes look good, among other matters. "4:40 is crunch time," he says—that's when they pre-record promos and the opening. When the live broadcast bolts from the starting gate at 6:30 p.m., he exerts a riveting pace of news packages, Q&As and live shots with correspondents.

Other news directors follow a similar regime. But David Distinti, who directs World News Tonight during the weekdays, has a different process. Instead of utilizing a technical director who operates a switcher in response to his calls, Distinti conducts the show more autonomously from a computer that drives the switcher. In addition, the particular rundown software they use allows them to change the lineup swiftly. So if a story gets moved around 10 minutes to air, "everything moves with it," he says, including the graphics and lower-thirds, eliminating a lot of last-minute trafficking with others. "It allows our show to be that much more flexible," adds Distinti.

The job of a news director is not entirely technical. "Sifting through the news has become an essential part of what directors do each day," says Brett Holey, director and senior broadcast producer for NBC Nightly News. "Even though my job is primarily the production and execution of the editorial vision of others," he says, "you need to be very plugged in to what's going on in the world to do that well."

When Holey started directing Nightly News 23 years ago, news was something people chased down in the form of a newspaper or TV set. "Nowadays it comes to the phone in your hand," he says. "You can pretty much just raise your hand and keep up with headlines of what's going on in the world," which he does by referring to some highly curated, trusted sources. After all, Twitter and other social media may be founts of information. But it can be tricky navigating them. "It's a little like sipping from a fire hose," he says. "And it can be hard to verify."

Maintaining a firm grip on the news helps directors select which visuals to use in a broadcast and how to present them. For instance, as the Baghdadi story got updated in the days following, undercover video of the raid was released. The footage was dramatic but also obscure. "It wasn't the best quality," says Nalesnik, who was opposed to running it on the studio wall behind the anchor where it might get lost. Vint over at ABC was similarly concerned with how best to feature the rubble shots of the blown-up compound. "It was a very gray scene of tremendous destruction; nothing was really recognizable," says Vint, explaining that "in a story like this, you have to think of the screens you're working with, where they are, and what plays on a wall screen as opposed to what plays full-screen."

Even though the Baghdadi story was big news, the following night CBS Evening News placed it second. The network had obtained live shots of a fire in California that was spreading rapidly. That story took the lead. "The images were very compelling to say the least," says Nalesnik, explaining that they often lead with whichever top story has the most powerful visuals. For instance, also airing that night in the C-block was the Pittsburgh sinkhole that swallowed up a bus. "It was a great piece of video," he says.

There are other considerations as well. In a hurricane story, "I don't want it to be just a flood," says Vint. "I want to see people who are rescuing or being rescued. It's about people. It's not about water. Hopefully that's why we're telling this story." In an immigration report, he's careful to present a balanced picture of immigrants. Not just people scrambling over the wall, he says, "doing something illegal."

Over the years, Vint has developed a collaborative style and a perspicacious eye. "I have a good sense of how to tell the story but not go over the edge to be disturbing," he says, or inappropriate. He says the late ABC anchor Peter Jennings helped steer him in this direction. Early on, as a production assistant, he cut a voice-over of Jennings and covered it with a shot of the president standing alongside a diplomat or foreign leader. Afterward, Jennings took him aside and told him, "Don't ever pick a shot of the president with someone else in the shot. Because it obliges me to identify them. On top of that, we may be implicating that person in a story that that person has nothing to do with."

Vint adds: "It gave me a wonderful sense of how careful you have to be with the images so that it's totally uncolored," a lesson he imparts to his team. Vint instructs them to examine every facet of an image—facial expressions, body language and anything going on in the background that could be wrongly construed. And he always solicits others' opinions before settling on an image.

People often ask Vint which broadcast has been most disturbing to direct. "The tendency, I suspect, is 9/11," he says. "But what always comes to mind for me is Newtown," the mass shooting of young children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. Vint kept a steady head for five to six hours covering it. The next morning, however, when he saw parents walking kids to school, "I finally broke down. Even now I'm having trouble," his voice getting tight with emotion. "It's interesting how, when we're directing, we're totally attentive to it. We're giving the audience the best visuals we can. But you have to disassociate from it."

Of all the ways that the news industry has ramped up, it's the surge in special events that has most affected Distinti. "There's never a lull in the political action," he says, referring, for instance, to the Robert Mueller congressional hearings that dominated the news in July. November brought the House impeachment hearings. The traditional presentation of these formal hearings is to implement a split-screen featuring the witness in one box and the questioner in the other, "and you leave them up the whole time," says Distinti.

During the impeachment hearings, however, and reflective of today's bitter partisan politics, heated exchanges began cropping up outside the split. "I decided, you know what, I'm going to start cutting around and changing things up," says Distinti. So, for instance, when Rep. Devin Nunes started criticizing the Democrats, Distinti cut to him. "I want to see this guy full." When House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, in turn, rebuked the Republicans, Distinti cut to him and also grabbed the reactions of the Republicans on the panel. "It's telling a story," says Distinti, "and showing the viewer at home what's going on. And these are the characters in the story. This is how it's playing out." At the same time, he adds, "You can't be biased about this, of course. You've got to show this fairly."

Brent Holey, director and senior broadcast producer on NBC Nightly News, says Twitter and other social media can be founts of information, but adds that they can be "like sipping from a fire hose, and it can be tricky to verify." (Photo: William Plowman/NBC News)

News directors are always casting about for fresh ways to visually enliven things. Since taking over the 72-year-old Meet the Press, Carlson Brooke started shooting more in the round. "It's more of a dance," she says. "But it enhances the look of the show because it feels more like a conversation."

Something that's evolved in the coverage of elections "is the interactive board," says Holey, referring to the colorful screens used by television hosts to impart election information. They dial up data with the tap of a finger to give viewers a visual way to suss the numbers and predict how a race will end. Another looming gizmo is virtual and augmented reality, "which is putting 3D interactive graphics into real spaces in real time," says Holey, as opposed to creating an animated illustration beforehand. Virtual reality graphics could prove useful when a TV journalist wants to, say, visually illustrate a military situation and its potential outcomes. "It's putting storytelling tools in the hands of the storytellers."

Although Twitter has become Trump's megaphone, "Tweets inherently aren't good television," says Holey. "It's merciful that they are brief and succinct, so they tend to fit into a readable form. But I think we're all toying with how to represent them." NBC News, for example, considered airing public tweets during Trump's State of the Union speech, then nixed the idea, deciding it could become a distraction.

At some point Trump's presidency will end. Twitter and social media, however, aren't disappearing anytime soon. "What's it going to look like on the other side?" muses Holey. Will the next president revert to the protocol of using a press spokesperson to speak on their behalf? "I don't think we'll ever go back there," he says, "and I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing."

Despite the randomness of the news cycle, TV news directors will continue to make order of it. "It's always fascinating to be at the center of what's going on in the world," says Holey. "Figuring out with a group of smart people what's the most important thing to tell the country and the world that day and how should we do it. That's a pretty cool thing to do."

News Directing
More from this issue
This issue trains the spotlight on directors of non-fiction programming, including documentaries, news, sports and reality programming. In this regard, the subject of our centerpiece DGA Interview is Barbara Kopple. The three-time DGA Award winner and recipient of two Oscars discusses her relentless quest for truth and her uncanny ability to get her subjects to bare their souls. Read about Kopple's career and more in our latest magazine.