By:
September 24, 2021

You know Josh Mankiewicz as the NBC News journalist and from his exemplary work on “Dateline,” the addictive true crime show where he has worked since 1995.

You probably also know that Mankiewicz is part of a legendary movie family. His grandfather was screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, who co-wrote the classic “Citizen Kane,” and his great uncle was Joseph Mankiewicz, who won back-to-back writing and directing Oscars for “A Letter to Three Wives” in 1949 and “All About Eve” in 1950. Josh’s brother, Ben, is a host on Turner Classic Movies.

So, naturally, when I had a chance to connect with Josh this week, I had to ask: “What’s your favorite movie about journalism — not counting ‘Citizen Kane,’ of course?”

Mankiewicz told me in an email, “Whenever I turn on the TV and ‘The Paper’ is on, I can’t stop watching. I think Herman and Joe would have loved it.”

Many say the same about “Dateline.” When it’s on, they can’t stop watching. Tonight, the show kicks off its 30th season on the air, making it the longest-running series in NBC prime-time history. The series has aired 2,853 episodes totalling 3,323 hours. And it has become something of a pop culture phenomenon, boasting famous fans, including Taylor Swift, Kristen Bell, Demi Lovato and Bill Hader.

What makes this show so popular?

“I think we tell stories in a way the audience appreciates, and I think we do a very good job of storytelling, which can be fun as you lead the audience around corners, while simultaneously being very careful about the story, which is always serious and awful,” Mankiewicz said. “I think people like seeing the system work correctly. For example, when scoundrels are caught and punished, which probably doesn’t happen enough in our day-to-day lives. A lot of people have followed us into true crime but no one’s as good at it.”

And it has been fulfilling for Mankiewicz.

“Reporting is reporting, and writing is writing,” he said. “I love coming in ahead of the competition. Those remain the best things about this job. Having an hour or two to tell a story is such a wonderful luxury for any television journalist, and the team of people you don’t see on ‘Dateline’ episodes is the best I’ve ever worked with.”

Mankiewicz has done scores of stories, but one in particular stands out.

“I covered the murder of a friend of mine in 2018, which was wrenching,” Mankiewicz said.

His friend was Dr. Steven Pitt, a forensic psychiatrist who helped police identify the Baseline Killer and worked extensively on the JonBenét Ramsey case. Pitt was murdered by Dwight Lamon Jones in a 2018 shooting spree in Scottsdale, Arizona. Jones had been required to see Pitt as part of his bitter divorce proceedings. Jones killed Pitt and five others, including two paralegals and a counselor, before killing himself.

Mankiewicz said, “I’d seen (Pitt) about 10 days previously, and I kept thinking about how his murder was probably being planned while we were chatting and laughing.”

Many stories Mankiewicz covers can be grim, and the past year and a half have been even more difficult with COVID-19. It has meant more remote interviews and doing more interviews outside, which can be challenging with noise and changing light. Mankiewicz said most of his interviews last two or three hours. But COVID-19 didn’t stop the show.

“It slowed us down,” Mankiewicz said, “but nothing stops ‘Dateline.’”

The Gabby Petito coverage

Blue ribbons in memory of Gabby Petito are scattered across her hometown of Blue Point, N.Y. on Thursday. (AP Photo/Brittainy Newman)

The Washington Post’s Jeremy Barr has an interesting breakdown on just how much news coverage the Gabby Petito story has received. The remains of the 22-year-old were found this week in Wyoming and authorities are searching for her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, who is a person of interest in Petito’s murder.

Barr wrote, “In a seven-day period ending Wednesday, Petito had been mentioned 398 times on Fox News, 346 times on CNN and 100 times on MSNBC, according to a Washington Post tally, with coverage across news programs and opinion talk shows. Television networks have sent reporters on the road and leaned on their pool of former law enforcement officials to provide commentary about the investigation.”

There has been much discussion about interest in the Petito story, with some, such as MSNBC’s Joy Reid, suggesting it was “missing white woman syndrome.” They add that the same attention is not paid to missing women of color.

New York Times media reporter Katie Robertson also wrote about this topic. Martin G. Reynolds, co-executive director of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, told Robertson, “What I’m most concerned about is the amount of coverage, and if you look at newsrooms, the coverage decisions are made in places that continue to be disproportionately white. These cases tend to involve white, middle-class women. And that resonates with assignment editors and news organizations. The one area of diversity that has actually improved relatively well in news media is actually women, particularly white women, in leadership roles.”

And New York Times opinion columnist Charles M. Blow writes, “Gwen Ifill Was Right About ‘Missing White Woman Syndrome.’”

One more note about the Petito coverage

I asked “Dateline’s” Josh Mankiewicz what he thought of the Gabby Petito story.

“We haven’t covered it, and if it turns out as cut and dried as it seems, we probably won’t,” Mankiewicz said. “Back in 2005, I did a story called ‘What’s Missing?’ about the inequities in how broadcast and cable news cover missing people. It’s one of the ‘Dateline’ stories I remain proudest of, and I’m glad the discussion we started is still going on; I think it needs to. Since then, ‘Dateline’ has launched the ‘Missing In America’ series, which covers a pretty diverse swath of cases. I think we’ve made clear that any good, well-told story can find an audience.”

Kevin Merida, three months in

For this item, I turn it over to Rick Edmonds, Poynter’s media business analyst.

The new and improved Los Angeles Times has been a coming attraction for some time now — first during a long search for a new executive editor and for three months now since Kevin Merida assumed the job.

Merida sketched out some of his plans for what’s next at the Times in an interview Thursday with retired ProPublica executive Richard Tofel as part of the Texas Tribune Festival. It sounds more like a work in progress — a phrase Merida used — than a fully fleshed-out plan, but the conversation yielded several tasty nuggets.

Merida said that his last five years as the executive at ESPN who launched The Undefeated were ideal preparation. “You’re starting from scratch,” he said, “but within a big company. You don’t have the long culture (of the parent organization) behind it, so the work includes reaching out within the company and beyond for collaborators with a different skill set than journalists.”

That parallels what the Times will need to do to expand its reach, he said.  For instance, it will make more use of an in-house studio for expanded video and audio production and build a test kitchen to broaden food coverage.

He wants to see the organization out more in Los Angeles’ heterogeneous communities, even at the level of “showing up at block parties.”

Tofel pressed Merida to explain what he meant in an earlier interview when he described the traditional newspaper as “a straitjacket.” With roughly 40 years experience at newspapers, half of those at The Washington Post, Merida said, he did not mean to disparage the skill of those who create the content and assemble it.

The print newspaper “is a beautifully curated thing,” he said, and he quoted Post owner Jeff Bezos as an admirer of “the amazing architecture” of the complex report that comes together daily. “But my sons, coming from a newspaper family, did not gravitate to newspaper subscriptions.” So there is a generational imperative.

In his brief time in Los Angeles, the biggest metro of the biggest state, Merida added, he has decided that if the objective is “to redefine the modern newspaper, this is the place to do it.”

From interim to permanent

Meghan Rafferty has officially been named executive producer of the “NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt.” She had been serving as interim executive producer since Jenn Suozzo left to join CNN last month. Rafferty has been a senior broadcast producer of the “Nightly News” for the past two years.

In a memo to staff, NBC News president Noah Oppenheim wrote, “Meghan has done a phenomenal job at the helm of the newscast during the last month. She is a respected, trusted, exemplary leader with the keen news instincts and innovative vision that have been a huge part of Nighty’s recent successes and, in this new role, will help propel the broadcast to the next level.”

You can’t make this stuff up

Kayleigh McEnany in a photo from last December. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Several times over the past couple of years, I said Kayleigh McEnany was overmatched and underwhelming as press secretary in the Trump White House. She has since moved on to Fox News, where she spends a great deal of time ripping into President Joe Biden. This week on Twitter, she took a big swing at the current president and completely whiffed.

Earlier this week, Jeff Asher, writing for The New York Times’ The Upshot, had this story: “Murder Rose by Almost 30% in 2020. It’s Rising at a Slower Rate in 2021.” McEnany put out a tweet that referenced the Times’ story and wrote, “The U.S. murder rate under Joe Biden …”

One problem. Her boss, Donald Trump, was president in 2020. McEnany deleted the tweet.

A ‘60 Minutes’ deep dive

Sunday’s “60 Minutes” will feature Alexey Molchanov — also known as “The Machine” for his ability to dive deep underwater without scuba gear. He holds 24 world records, including one from July when “60 Minutes” was there. Molchanov dove 430 feet, holding his breath for more than four-and-a-half minutes. Sharyn Alfonsi covers the story for “60 Minutes.”

“I don’t think (I am finished),” Molchanov said. “I know with all the skills I have, with all the mind control I have, I can go deeper and so because I can, then I will. I enjoy finding new boundaries and pushing them further because I know I can. I know through all these years and the thousands of hours of training and diving how well I can use my oxygen, how slowly I can use it and how efficient is my technique.”

Here’s an excerpt from the segment.

And speaking of extreme sports feats, if you missed it, go find HBO’s recently-aired six-part docuseries “100-Foot Wave.” Here’s the trailer of the show that followed surfing pioneer Garrett McNamara and others who attempted to ride some of the largest waves ever surfed off the coast of Nazaré, Portugal. Good stuff.

Another historic hire

Earlier this month, Lisa Byington made history. When the Milwaukee Bucks hired her as their play-by-play announcer, Byington became the first female full-time TV play-by-play announcer for an NBA team.

Now she has company.

The Philadelphia 76ers will name Kate Scott as their new play-by-play announcer. The news was first reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Rob Tornoe. She replaces Marc Zumoff, who is retiring after more than 30 years with the Sixers.

According to Barrett Sports Media’s Russ Heltman, “Scott has busted through a few glass ceilings in her career, just like Byington. The new voice of the Sixers is the first woman to call an NFL game on the radio, the first to broadcast college football for the Pac-12 Networks, and she was the play-by-play voice for the first all-female NHL broadcast in 2020.”

Remembering a Pulitzer Prize winner

My Poynter colleague Kristen Hare writes about Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Jim Sheeler, who died last week at the age of 53. She tells me, “Journalists, journalism professors and students have studied and learned from Jim Sheeler’s sensitive, powerful reporting in ‘Final Salute’ for years. But before he wrote that Pulitzer-winning work for the Rocky Mountain News, Sheeler was an obit writer. I spoke with some of his peers about him and how he got to the heart of a life and a story.”

A familiar face

Tonight’s “Washington Week” (8 p.m. Eastern on most PBS stations) will have a special and familiar guest. Former “Washington Week” moderator Robert Costa returns to the show along with Bob Woodward to talk about their new book on Trump called “Peril.” They join moderator Yamiche Alcindor, as well as panelists Jacqueline Charles of the Miami Herald and Weijia Jiang of CBS News.

Clarification

Just an update on the host and musical guest lineup for the upcoming 47th season of “Saturday Night Live.” Young Thug will be the musical guest when Rami Malek hosts on Oct. 16, and Brandi Carlile will be the musical guest when Jason Sudeikis hosts on Oct. 23. That was juxtaposed in my Thursday newsletter.

Carlisle tweeted, “I’ve been waiting my whole life to make this announcement! Live from New York it’s Saturday night!! Can you even believe we get to be on the same night as the wonderful @jasonsudeikis? Can’t wait to hug Ted Lasso’s neck!! See you there @nbcsnl!”

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Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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