Friday, January 27, 2017

Lisa Black--The Changing Nature of News

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I've long been a big fan of Lisa Black's Theresa MacLean books, set in Cleveland. In fact, when I went to Cleveland for Bouchercon, I kept seeing Cleveland through Theresa's eyes. 

Lisa, who is herself a forensic scientist, writes the best forensic investigation novels out there. Now, Lisa had debuted a new series, also set in Cleveland, featuring forensic investigator Maggie Gardiner and detective Jack Renner, and, boy, does it have a twist.

Here Lisa shares with us some of the fascinating things Maggie learns in UNPUNISHED:


            Well, as a grizzled newspaper editor explains to my character, Maggie, in my new book Unpunished:
“News, as an entity, used to be considered so vital to democracy that the FCC required television channels to have a certain amount of public service content…as if they recognized right away what a time-suck television was going to be. That’s why TV news existed in the first place. When I was a kid you had three networks, they all had the news on at seven and you had no choice but to watch it. But ratings weren’t great—let’s face it, no one in this country has ever been as big on staying informed as we would like to think. So in the late sixties broadcasters discovered market-driven journalism. Fluff, in other words…feel-good stories, lost puppies, recipe ideas and of course, the secret lives of celebrities. It raised ratings and still satisfied the FCC code.

“But then came cable, and people started watching reruns of The Mary Tyler Moore show instead of Dan Rather. A little bit of fluff no longer sufficed. Now we have entire channels of news, quote unquote, that isn’t remotely news. Magazines are the same—they’re probably the only industry in America that’s even worse off than newspapers. Ever wonder why you can stop renewing a magazine and they keep sending it to you for another couple years? Because subscriptions don’t pay for it. Advertisers pay for it, and they want to see high circulation numbers. And corporations want to see profit. Lots and lots of profit.

And without that profit, no one can afford to create enough new content to fill an entire newspaper. Or an entire 24 hour a day news channel—that’s why I say not just newspapers, but news itself has changed.

“For instance, a lot of the people you see on broadcast news are not reporters. They will show a video segment that looks exactly like a regular old news broadcast, with some pretty person with a perky smile standing on a sidewalk with a microphone telling you about something that happened. She ends with, ‘This is Miss Perfect Teeth in Washington, D.C.’ But Miss Perfect Teeth never tells the viewing audience who she works for. You assume she works for the network, but she actually works for a PR firm or a lobbyist or a candidate. These segments--they’re called Video News Releases-- look just as good and sometimes better than the real thing. The TV channel has twenty-four hours to fill up, VNRs are available, and they’re free. Newspapers get the same thing in printed press releases. The editors got to get the paper into the rollers, and the release is there, and it’s free. So they give it to the copyeditor. Why the hell not? But it’s not news.
 “We have a whole generation growing up who don’t remember that broadcast news used to mean someone came on and told you what happened. It wasn’t four people sitting around bickering like kids on a playground about their opinion of what happened. Then they bring on ‘experts’ and ‘consultants’ who get a few minutes to push whatever agenda they’re plugging that week. They look good, sound professional, and play into the political leanings of the target audience. But when they’re done all the audience has gotten is a slightly classier version of the Jerry Springer show, which apparently keeps them entertained enough that they don’t complain. But what they don’t get is useful information.”  Such as the play-by-play in Syria.
            This is only one of the lessons that forensic scientist Maggie Gardiner learns as she is thrust into this miasma of moving targets. Along with homicide detective Jack Renner, she works to learn why the staff of the local paper keep turning into that day’s headline…and that perhaps Jack has not entirely given up the questionable ways of peacekeeping she discovered in That Darkness

Lisa Black has spent over 20 years in forensic science, first at the coroner’s office in Cleveland Ohio and now as a certified latent print examiner and CSI at a Florida police dept. Her books have been translated into 6 languages, one reached the NYT Bestseller’s List and one has been optioned for film and a possible TV series. 


DEBS: And here's more about UNPUNISHED
       It begins with the kind of bizarre death that makes headlines—literally. A copy editor at the Cleveland Herald is found hanging above the grinding wheels of the newspaper assembly line. Forensic investigator Maggie Gardiner has her suspicions about this apparent suicide inside the tsunami of tensions that is the news industry today—and when the evidence suggests murder, Maggie has no choice but to place her trust in the one person she doesn’t trust at all….
        Jack Renner is a killer with a conscience, a vigilante with his own code of honor. He has only one problem: Maggie knows his secret. She insists he enforce the law, not subvert it. But when more newspaper employees are slain, Jack may be the only person who can help Maggie unmask the killer--even if Jack is still checking names off his own private list.

READERS, do you remember when news was news?



  1. When news was news . . . I’m afraid the era of Walter Cronkite and real news is in the past, but when the networks treated the news as if it were important, we certainly learned what we needed to know as we got the day’s news and information from those broadcasts . . . .
    While I’m certain there are still snippets of real news in today’s broadcasts and that real reporters work for the networks, the face of the evening news certainly has changed.

    Lisa, “Unpunished” sounds like a treat . . . I’m looking forward to meeting Maggie and Jack.

  2. Lisa, I do remember the news when it was news. I remember when it changed, too. My parents and I noticed together. We were in Boston, sitting in the kitchen, eating, and watching TV. Video reports from Vietnam. News. Weather. Sports. You could count on it like church on Sunday. Sit down. Stand up. Sing. Pray. Go play. I still see those reports from the battles. They were real. And they were horrible. The older girls prayed their boyfriends wouldn't be called or taken to go and die on TV in that war. People complained that all we saw was horror, but we couldn't stop watching. Every day. People begged for a little good news. Then it came. We were ready. Now it's gone. Some of us look in the only places we know where it could come back even when we know it won't.

    Thanks, Lisa.
    Thanks, Debs.

  3. Welcome, Lisa and congrats on the new book. Walter Cronkite was a little before my time, but I remember Peter Jennings, a Canadian who carried around a small edition of the U.S. Constitution in his pocket. For anyone pining for the way news used to be, I suggest following Dan Rather on Facebook. He's doing a great job providing some context for our current state of affairs.

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  5. Congratulations, Hank for your Agatha Award nomination for Best Contemporary Novel for “Say No More” . . . so well-deserved!

  6. When news was about "information dissemination" and they remembered their role in keeping everybody honest. That's a truly bygone era. Now, with the 24/7 "news" channels, they have to fill the airwaves and unfortunately it's often not really "news."

    As an aside, I love that a lot of the featured books lately have had unusual settings. Cleveland? Love it.

    Hank, congrats on your Agatha nomination!

  7. I agree that our local nightly news broadcast is helmed by good looking newsreaders, not journalists.

    But we are lucky in Canada that we have our version of Walter Cronkite or Dan Rather.
    Peter Mansbridge is the chief correspondent of CBC News and has been the anchor of CBC's flagship nightly news program, The National, for almost 30 years. But all good things must come to an end...he has announced he is retiring this year on July 1 (Canada Day).

    Lisa: I also discovered your excellent Theresa Maclean books while attending the Cleveland Bouchercon. I look forward to reading your new series.

  8. Propaganda. Fake news. It's so depressing.
    Lisa, I'm a huge fan so welcome to Jungle Red!

  9. Yes. I live this every day. It is terrifying and shocking and so very very depressing. And as a reporter, I have never felt so dismissed and reviled--as if my being a reporter means I am a fact-twisting unfair liar.

    LOVING your book, Lisa!

  10. People talk about "the media." There is no entity "the media." Just saying.

  11. Hank, I can't imagine. What a mess. "Media" is all forms of communication, don't you think? And the people who originally vilified "the media"? They were in the collective media themselves. Who clearly do not understand the concept of irony.

    I remember the first time it hit me how cheap "news", especially the 24-hour kind, is to produce. On Times Square in NYC there is a TV studio, I think it's CBS?, and at 9 PM I watched a single woman sitting in an otherwise empty studio, reading something from a teleprompter in front of her. There were cameras and other equipment, but it was all being run remotely, who knows from where. She was not a reporter; she was a reader, and she probably rarely left that studio, except to go home.

    My husband, who has been in the film industry since he got out of college in 1971, says nothing is cheaper to produce than news. Except "reality" shows. Tells you a lot, doesn't it?

    Thanks for this, Lisa. I am pretty sure I have one of your books in the Tower of TBR here. It needs to go on top of the stack!

  12. Thanks for the good wishes! I picked the idea of setting the book at a newspaper in a flash of whim (let's say insight) and found the whole subject so fascinating that I wanted to talk about it forever. I found myself stunned at the response--but of course I shouldn't be. 'The News' touches all our lives!

  13. From someone who lives close to Cleveland--thank you, Lisa, for this series! It's as much fun, in the hands of a good writer, to read a book set in a familiar place as it is to read one with a different setting.

    As for the 'news', the boys and I have this discussion often--especially concerning the internet. I point out that they shouldn't believe anything they read or see on the internet until they vet the source of the 'news.' But that takes time and patience and critical thinking skills--and this from another generation that doesn't know what a real newscast looked like.

    And Hank--it must be frustrating as h**** to be a real news reporter today.

  14. Hank. We are ALL counting on you and reporters like you - people who care, people with strong ethics - we do know who the good ones are. And we thank you. Every. single. day. What you do is of the greatest importance. Now more than ever. You do have our support.

    Lisa - Very much looking forward to reading your book.

  15. and! One more rant. The thing about covering the news that's he key to hte whole thing--is competition. You think that if one news outlet tried to make something up or miscast something--that all the others wouldn't RUSH to prove them wrong? The whole point is competition of ideas in a free and open marketplace--which leads to the truth. I can't imagine "the media" getting together--sheesh!--and somehow conspiring to create reality. It's completely antithetical to all we do.

    (Thank you, Kaye and Flora and all. If someone asks me to day what I do, and I say "reporter,"" I'm just as likely to be met with a sneering grimace as with a smile.)

  16. The next time someone sneers at you, Hank, whip out one of those 33 EMMYs and crack them in the head with it. Rant on, sweetie. You know me, I believe in the power of a rant - 'tis good for one's soul. xxoo

  17. The truth. A rare commodity these days. Love you, Hank, for your honest soul and tireless quest for truth and justice.

  18. Lisa, excellent comments on the type of news broadcasting that we grew up with. - And do you remember that the FCC (I think) insisted that there be time allowed for opposing viewpoints?

  19. First, congratulations to Lisa on your new book! Newspapers are fascinating microcosms, fertile ground for behind-the-scenes stories.

    I'd spent a chunk of time writing up a rant here about how -- thanks to Facebook, Twitter, and personal blogging -- we're ALL "the media" now, but then I deleted it. That I've had too much caffeine is entirely possible. People forget there's Mass Media, which serves stockholders as well as public interest. Mass Media is also made up of individuals, anyone's friends and neighbors trying to make a living and a difference.

    Aggh! Stop it, Rhonda. Hit "Send" and be done with this. Drink some caffeine-free herbal tea.

    Anyway, I've pre-ordered UNPUNISHED on Kindle. :)

  20. Hank, when you tell me you're a reporter all I think is "THAT'S how she stays so skinny!"

  21. A few years ago I read an interesting piece that blamed Watergate for the modern tendency for news media to hype everything. Newspaper editors were upset that The Washington Post got such a huge (there's that word again) scoop on them. One modern media tendency that drives me crazy is that first they tell you what they think might happen, then move on to what is happening, and end up with their opinion of what just happened.

  22. Lisa,

    Welcome to JRW!

    Apologies if I sound confused here.

    There is a real person named Meg Gardiner who is a mystery novelist. Here is her website:

    It is almost similar to the name of your character Maggie Gardiner.

    Great question about the news.

    When I was a kid, I used to stay up very late (for me) to watch the 10 o'clock news in the evening with Frank Reynolds then Peter Jennings because that was the only time the news had subtitles! For me, I usually read the newspaper instead of watching the news on TV.

    If I wanted to watch the news on TV now, I usually watch BBC America news hour or PBS Newshour.

    Regarding "fluff", I remember there used to be movie magazines and People magazine. Now it is People magazine, among other celebrity magazines. I remember the movie magazine had photos of people like Jackie Onassis and I asked my mom if Jackie was an actress. I thought everyone in the movie magazine were actors. Not always true, though! My mom explained to me that Jackie was married to President John F. Kennedy then to a Greek named Onassis.

    Regarding newspapers, I met several Deaf people who worked as printers - they printed the daily newspapers and the Sunday papers.

    I wonder if people still work in the printing or is it all automatic these days?


  23. Thank you for addressing such a complex and timely topic, Lisa.

    Big hug to Hank and all journalists who have to keep their feelings in check in the face of so much hostility. I'm married to a journalist--30 years together. He started out as a film critic and went on to cover courts, crime, politics, as a reporter, and now he's a managing editor. He has more personal integrity than any person I know (which is why I've been married to him for 3 decades!) He's an easy-going guy but I get furious at "the media" haters. I know, personally, a lot of reporters. They're not some nameless, faceless entity conspiring to trick the public. That's absurd. They work hard, at lousy pay with lousy hours, and they are ridiculed and reviled as if that is acceptable. Now I worry about violence against reporters, when I never did before. When people call the press liars and idiots, you're talking about my spouse, and your neighbors, and parents who send their kids to your school, etc. And, as we are finding out this week, you do not want to live in a country without a free press.

    I'm always amused when people bring up Walter Cronkite. Did he have integrity? You bet. But he's also the guy who said the word "thugs" on the air during the DNC in Chicago and he was an outspoken and unabashed Democrat.

    That's it from me, otherwise my ears will steam. Thanks for the outlet.

  24. Fascinating look at how news has evolved, Lisa. And very timely, too.

    I have such respect for journalists--like Hank--who do their jobs with such dedication, whether the stories are big or small. I am horrified by this generalization of "the media" as liars.

    I do read Dan Rather on Facebook, Ingrid. That's a great suggestion.

    And congrats on the new book, Lisa! It's next up on my TBR stack!!!

  25. Lisa - VNRs - I had no idea this was a thing, probably because I stopped watching TV news ages ago because I can't stand it and get most of my news from NPR and the NYT. My husband wrote for a Pulitzer Prize winning newspaper that went belly up during the recession. It is a brutal industry. I can't wait to read this book and share it with him as I'm sure it will strike a chord with him, too.

  26. Like Rhonda, I drafted a long rant and then deleted it. Suffice it to say I came of age with the utmost respect for "the fourth estate" and its role in keeping our elected officials on the up-and-up by shining a light on their actions. In the years since, narrow-cast media has become the norm, with most national media outlets tailored to please people with a certain world view. It's no wonder the remaining true journalists like Hank have to defend their honor and value at every turn. Having a president openly attacking the media -- and a big piece of the public supporting that position -- is frightening and unsettling beyond words.

    But Lisa, your series sound wonderful, and as a Columbus resident, I can't wait to visit Cleveland through your books!

  27. Having grown up with Walter Cronkite, the news today is especially disappointing, and it's been getting to the point of absurdity for a long time. One of my favorite movies is Broadcast News (1987) with Holly Hunter, Albert Brooks, and William Hurt. It's the struggle between passionate journalists in news versus selling a product. William Hurt is the pretty face they bring in to not just read the news, but to sell it. And so the decline has continued. VNRs are something I wasn't aware of, but I'm sure that the Albert Brooks character would have had a scathing rant with which to criticize them. Thanks, Lisa, for educating me about those. I do follow Dan Rather's FB, too, Ingrid. I would definitely watch you, Hank, if I were in your news area, as the reports I see you doing are always aimed at informing the public about issues they should be cognizant of and involved in. And, of course, your books, Hank, have those timely issues with which we all need to raise our awareness of. It's little wonder you have been nominated for an Agatha, Hank. Congratulations!

    Lisa, I first have to say just how cool I think your career in forensics is. I'm drawn more and more to books that feature this science through the fictional stories told. Unpunished is already on my New Books in 2017 list, and its cover is just outstanding. It is also on my wish list for Amazon, to which I have now added That Darkness. Oh, and your other series are going on my TBR Series list. You are one busy author, and then you have your day job. Wow!

  28. Oh yes. I remember when the news on TV was really the news. So boring for a kid. I still watch network news and local. I don't bother with Fox or CNN since so much of what they report is their reactions to the news. I was a CNN addict during the Iraqi war since they had an inbed with my son's outfit. I could at least get an idea of what was happening to him. More than I could when my husband was in Vietnam. Bleah.
    I can't wait to read your books Lisa! We lived in NE Ohio for 18 years. My husband's work brought him in contact with police departments in that area. We became good friends with a number of Cleveland cops. In fact we're going up to Cleveland in April for the wedding of the son of one of them. Those guys, especially the oldtimers, had the best stories! The mafia. Eliot Ness. Who's crooked. Who isn't. Loved it!

  29. Hank, the reason I like you as a TV reporter, and the heroic reporters in your books, is because you are the reporters who go after truth. This is what I seek in all my news sources, and it's getting harder to find.

  30. Oh, VNR's--they are so horrible, and cynical, and so disrespectful to viewers. They are banned at my station..

    And it is SO great hearing from you all. Whew. Sanity. xooo Thank you!

  31. Lisa, your books sound fascinating and go on my list.
    Hank, I live in the Boston area and have watched you for years. Your integrity and caring manner show in every story. You are a righter of wrongs, big and small. Thanks for what you do every day.

  32. Diana -
    I've met Meg Gardiner but I never noticed the resemblance of my character's name to her! I actually named her after Lisa Gardiner, who spells it without an i. And I've been naming characters Maggie since I was a kid.
    Yes, there are still plenty of people working in the printing area of the newspapers, even with the change to digital technology.