Spring 2012 Contact Us
 

A career in the news: A conversation between Mary Angela Bock, Ph.D. (Gr ’09) and Vic Ratner (ASC ’63)


    

                                                  Mary Angela Bock, Ph.D. (Gr ’09), left; Vic Ratner (ASC ’63)

Vic Ratner (ASC ’63) has covered the news in more than 50 countries and 49 of the 50 states, and the travels and crises of seven American presidents.

He is a Senior Correspondent for ABC News, primarily assigned to cover Congressional activities on Capitol Hill. Mr. Ratner has also reported on a variety of major news stories for “World News This Morning,” “Good Morning America,” and the ABC Radio Networks.

Mr. Ratner has been a lead correspondent for ABC News Radio’s coverage of the presidential campaigns from 1974-2012. He was live on the scene, during the frosty morning in Springfield, Ill., when then-Senator Barack Obama declared his candidacy for president and then covered both Barack Obama and John McCain through the primaries, conventions, and campaigns that followed. He has also covered fighting in the Middle East, the Sago mine disaster in West Virginia, and hurricanes in the south and along the Gulf Coast.

A veteran of covering the U.S. space exploration program, Mr. Ratner was the only radio network correspondent on the air live when the space shuttle Challenger blew up. He remained on the air that day for over five hours, providing on-the-scene information and background on the tragedy for ABC News audiences. From the first shuttle mission in 1981 to the final flight in 2011, Mr. Ratner’s presence and live coverage provided background, color and first-hand knowledge of the shuttle program, inside and out.

A resident of Chevy Chase, Md., Mr. Ratner once served as a correspondent, news director, and anchor for radio and television stations in several major cities, including WPVI (6ABC) in Philadelphia.

Coincidently, Annenberg alumna Mary Angela Bock, Ph.D. (Gr ’09) also worked for WPVI and, like Mr. Ratner, she received her graduate degree from Annenberg. This fall she will be an assistant professor at the University of Texas-Austin.

Dr. Bock, who wrote about the process of video journalism for her dissertation, sat down via telephone with Mr. Ratner for a discussion about Annenberg, the state of the news business, and why he likes the news business so much after all these years. They began with a discussion of Annenberg’s first dean, Gilbert Seldes.

Mary Angela Bock:

Tell me about Dean Seldes.

                         

Vic Ratner:

Dean Gilbert Seldes [was] a remarkable man of letters. One of the things he taught [us] was our role as gatekeepers of the news. That we had a role as communicators to help present to the public what mattered and help present those things in a way that would be understandable, in context, and to...make sure some kind of system of priorities was in place. The astonishing thing about where we are now in the media business is that where are the gatekeepers. I mean, who are the gatekeepers now? Just last week 50 more people took buyouts from The Washington Post.

Bock:

Ouch.

Ratner:

50 editorial people. Reporters, copywriters, people in every part of the news process. The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, all are slim shadows of their former selves. A lot of the gatekeeping process...now is severely diminished, or maybe gone completely in some cases.

Bock:

Today we have people “Tweeting,” and journalists are sometimes re-tweeting and then saying “Yes, I re-tweeted it, but it turns out to be inaccurate.” So what is the public to do?

                

Ratner:

In this brave new world of media, everybody has an opportunity to put their views forward, or at least take what they view to be the news and put it on the Internet. It’s tremendously egalitarian. One of my teachers at Annenberg reminded me that, in the early days of the Republic, our founding fathers [and] all kinds of people had newspapers and used them for political purposes and for vengeful purposes and for personal aggrandizement and things like that. So maybe some of that [attitude/approach] exists today. That said, it is harder to figure out which of the many news sources we have are trustworthy. Not just for readers but for reporters...[finding a] kernel of truth in what may be 50 Tweets or 50 blog posts can sometimes be difficult.

Bock:

Yet the money to support [general] reporters is disappearing [and there is a] fragmentation of the product. Today there are so many different news organizations. One of the things that I do is study [media] scrums (an impromptu gathering of news reporters) and I notice the huge number of photographers at a particular scene.

Ratner:

(Laughs).

Bock:

It’s crazy! I mean tent cities go up for stories. Yet there is no money for real journalism.

                             

Ratner:

I covered Congress [for] a large part of my time. When reporters who cover Capitol Hill would gather on a story there used to be … eight, maybe ten reporters at a press conference at most. Now on a Congressional scrum on a big story there may be 40 and a third of them or more are carrying video cameras. And who are they? They are new publications, political, trade newsletters, defense newsletters, etc. The Chinese are starting in the United States their version of CNN. There are other people from other news organizations that are harder to identify whether it is Andrew Breithbart or somebody with an organization or with a personal and very particular point of view. So the scrum around the newsmaker on Capitol Hill is just immense.

Bock:

Is the public better served? I think one of the ironies of news is that more is not necessarily better.

Ratner:

(Laughs) That’s a good question. It may be better if you have a particular or select interest. You may get less news from Channel 6 in Philadelphia on what’s going on up on Capitol Hill, but if you have a specific interest on tariffs on toys from the far east there is now a tariff newsletter that covers this in exquisite detail, providing almost hour by hour information on that subject.

Bock:

I think specialist media might be helpful. But 40 or 50 cameras at the same news conference? After a while what’s the point?

Ratner:

The end result is you get a multiplicity of different views and a multiplicity of different approaches to a story.

Bock:

You talk about people in the scrum carrying their own cameras who used to not. When I started we have gone from a crew based system of TV to everyone being able to create a television image. What do you think of the more important tech changes you have witnesses over time?

                             

Ratner:

So let’s look at the plus on this. All over the world, cell phones, iPhones, and video cameras have opened up a tremendous new source of information. Now we have video from people under fire in Syria...pictures from Tahrir Square...hurricane hunters chasing tornados in Kansas. Stunning pictures and video bringing us all kinds of new information...information we never had before. It’s a tremendous breath of fresh air, this opening of windows on what before existed behind closed doors. [Certainly] some of it is hard to qualify; do we know for certain if [images] coming from homes in Syria are for real? Did they really show what we think they show? There have been a lot of faked, photo shopped videos that went viral. So the process of validating this information can be difficult. But what it brings us is something we never had before.

Bock:

[A] somewhat democratized nature of the media. TV used to be expensive. It used to be heavy. Do we have better pictures; do we have more to say?

Ratner:

Do we know more? In some cases do we get very dramatic pictures and we don’t know the validity of those pictures. Then it [becomes] even more important to go back and ascertain where it came from, who put it there and why, is it telling us what we think it does.

Bock:

Do you miss the days [of film]? I got in [to the TV news business] just as film ended. But we still had to edit our stories. And we weren’t live all the time. We came back at 3 in the afternoon, had coffee, thought about the story for a minute or two, worked on writing something and using language well and then edited it. That little gap between coming back with tape then getting it on the air gave us some time to think and contextualize the story. Today we are live every single second. What impact is that having on you personally and the product overall?

Ratner:

The process of live all the time makes the reporting process so much more difficult. You don’t have a minute to duck around the corner and say “did you see what I just saw?” or “what’s your name,” and “how’d you get here?” You don’t have time to do reporting. Then the job of the reporter is more difficult. Being in network radio I do a lot of live stuff from the field. And it is a constant battle to find the time to appropriately report the story in between the live appearances. It is a matter of time, of distance sometimes.

Bock:

As a radio reporter, language is what you work with in addition to your tapes. Are we losing the appreciation for language in this age of “hyper headline-ism”?

Ratner:

I used to have a boss who would send me out to a street corner. Any street corner. And say come back and give me a minute worth of description into your recorder as to what you see on the corner. It was a very useful exercise. Because it taught me to look, listen, concentrate on what’s out there, and try to craft the language to describe that. [That was vital when] I was the only commercial broadcaster on the air when Challenger blew up. In the disaster, I didn’t get to leave the mic for hours and hours. I couldn’t walk 50 yards away to consult with experts that I knew were around.

Bock:

You were tethered.

Ratner:

Just tied to the mic. Because so many people in the broadcast news field are on live, tied to the mic, this kind of thing happens every day to inconsequential news stories and for major disasters.

Bock:

Tell me about the Challenger day. You were on the air for hours. When something like that happens, yes the adrenaline picks up, but at what point do you know you were dealing with history?

Ratner:

I walked out of my motel at 4:15 in the morning that day in a small town right near the space center. And there was frost on the windshield of my rental car. I called my editor in New York and said “they’re not going to launch, there is frost.” [But] they launched. It was the cold temp that was later showed to be the key factor in the disaster. So I went on the air with what I shouldn’t have, which was myself as the expert.

                             

When the disaster happened, there is a [pause]. I was speechless. I saw something in front of my eyes totally unexpected. My editor said “what happened?” I finally got my brain under control and described what happened. Then you rely on your training and knowledge of the space program and you keep on going. I’ve talked to reporters doing stories under fire and they say this kind of strange calm kicks in.

Bock:

It’s that “slow motion” feel. That feeling of time sort of stops and you go into that mode of this is big, and you sense things differently. But does the emotion hit you later? At what point were you able to feel the tragedy of that disaster?

Ratner:

I was in a trailer all by myself. When [the explosion] happened I looked to my left out the window, where there were VIP bleachers filled with kids. They were Christa McAuliffe’s school kids who came down to watch the launch. And after first jumping up and down and clapping, because they thought the explosion was fireworks, I saw their faces crumble. Teachers rushed in and take the kids away in a bus. And there is no question of the tragedy and emotion just washes over you. Later, at 10 o’clock that night, when I had a chance to be off the air, alone, it hit me. I just...everything stopped and I just sat there for a while.

Bock:

So that’s the famous story. What about the ones the public doesn’t know or remember? Is there a person you interviewed or a story you covered or a series [that you remember]?

Ratner:

You know, the best part of my job is talking to people, meeting new people and telling their stories. It just turns me on.

Bock:

Yeah, I get that. (Laughs)

Ratner:

I know you do. (Laughs) I was in Iowa, for the political caucuses this winter. And I’m in a small town … what was it called? Can’t remember. But I am meeting people at a political event. When the political event is over I met a doctor, a cancer doctor. To make a long story short he once lived 10 minutes from where I live in Maryland now. After 15 years at the National Institutes of Health he gave up working at NIH and went back to Iowa to open a cancer center in a smaller city in central Iowa. It was part of the country his wife was from. He missed the personal contact with people. That was important to him as a doctor. And he felt he could take the advanced skills that he’d learned at NIH and knowledge about fighting cancer and put it to work saving lives in semi-rural Iowa. He was just a remarkable fellow. Some place I have his name and phone number. And one of these days I’m going to do a story about him. But I think anyone in this business is in it because they just love meeting people and learning their stories.

Bock:

Witnessing the human condition.

Ratner:

Yes! Every time I go out...and it is so fascinating.

Bock:

It’s a privilege.

Ratner:

Yes, it is, and the people who have been kind enough to invite me into their homes who have been kind enough to share their personal stories, I’m very grateful to them. The ones who said “get lost” I understand that, too, because in my business we find ourselves knocking on a lot of doors of people who aren’t interested in talking to us. But there are so many people… out of nowhere...who show kindness and generosity.

Bock:

And we get to connect with them and connect with our audience. Being the middle person is special. The day to day can be drudgery, but the other stuff is what gets you up in the morning.

Ratner:

Absolutely. By the way, it’s 49 out of 50 states. I’ve never been to South Dakota.

Bock:

(Laughs). You need to go.

Ratner:

I do. Maybe there’s a story at Mount Rushmore...



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