CNN executive Mark Carter joins BU faculty
by Brian Fitzgerald
This semester is Mark Carter's first as a full-time professor at the College of Communication, but perhaps you recognize him from his days at WCVB-TV, Channel 5 in Boston, where he was a general assignment reporter in 1989.
Carter brings a wealth of experience to the classroom -- both good and bad. In his present post at CNN, the country's top-rated cable news operation, he is a member of the network's managing board, shaping decisions about budgets, programming, and talent.
He says that he went into management because he felt television news was becoming a video version of the National Enquirer. After covering for CNN the trial of Tonya Harding, the Olympic ice skater whom prosecutors linked to the cover-up in the baton attack on rival Nancy Kerrigan, Carter did some soul-searching. He says that the news story was sensational -- and that was the problem. It was also the last straw. Carter, fed up with the way the news was turning towards tabloidism, decided to stop reporting from the field.
"For three years I researched, wrote, and produced some quality news pieces for CNN," says Carter. "But after the Tonya Harding debacle I knew that I had to make some changes." Those changes included becoming a 1995 Nieman Fellow, enabling him to study at the Harvard Business School, where he worked on a project to determine whether real television news could be profitable in a medium that was increasingly masking infotainment as journalism to generate ratings.
At Harvard, Carter studied corporate strategy and management and met with media analysts and consultants, preparing him for his new role at CNN. At present, often commuting to the network's Atlanta headquarters, he plans to balance his professorship at COM with his position at CNN, at least temporarily.
Not that he's afraid of flying, having reported from 15 countries on 5 continents to cover such stories as the Kurdish refugee crisis at the end of the Gulf War, Nelson Mandela's release from prison in South Africa, the famine in Ethiopia, the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, and the coup attempt in Russia.
As for the future of "real" news on television, Carter believes that quality reporting can indeed sell in the marketplace. He points to no-nonsense CNN programs such as Headline News and Crossfire. "It's a challenge, but the pendulum is swinging back," he says. "I'm just not willing to accept the arguments that tabloidization of TV news is inevitable. There are plenty of shows that are worth watching for more than just entertainment. Look at Sixty Minutes and Nightline. Those shows are as strong as they've ever been. And I think that CNN is taking the high road. CNN's Impact, for instance, which is produced with the help of Time magazine, does really groundbreaking work."
This year Carter played a large role in hiring CNN's new president, Rick Kaplan, who was an executive at ABC News. "He was one of the creators of Nightline and Prime Time Live," he says. "Real news, if done imaginatively, can win out."
For example, Carter says, he wrote and produced several news segments for CNN that "involved what could have been regarded as dry topics. But all it took was a little creativity to make them interesting." Indeed, his 1993 news piece on genetic engineering forecast many of the advances in genome research that are well-publicized now. "This was four years before the cloning of Dolly the sheep," he says. The segment was well-balanced and objective, pointing out the ways genetic engineering might help mankind -- using gene therapy to treat cancer and AIDS -- along with the ethical quagmire that this research presents: insurance companies, for example, could discriminate against clients whose genetic heritage makes them vulnerable to certain diseases.
However, the most compelling images in his genetic engineering segment are of Andrew Gobea, a newborn baby born without an immune system, and an interview with his father, Leonard. The piece clearly shows the advantages of using a television camera to tell a story, and that's why Carter entered the field. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what is the worth of a powerful video clip of an infant in an incubator. "On television you clearly have more weapons in your arsenal," he says. But he also has much experience in print journalism, having published stories in the Christian Science Monitor, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Boston magazine.
In fact, television news was just one of his options when he graduated cum laude from Harvard in 1986. During his undergraduate years, when he majored in history, economics, and government, the Washington, D.C., native worked for a radio station, a travel agency, a bank, and as a correspondent for Time magazine. Upon gradu-ation, he turned down an offer from Wall Street to take a reporting job for KING-TV in Seattle. Does he have any regrets? "It's funny you ask that, because two weeks ago I talked with two of my classmates who work for Wall Street firms," he says with a smile. "They are making a lot of money. When they told me how much, it took my breath away. But I think that what I do is much more rewarding. I bet that when I go to sleep at night, I am much more fulfilled and much more excited about the difference I've made in the world. That may sound corny, but it's important to me."
Carter says that teaching students about the responsibilities that come with being a news reporter is something that he has always wanted to do. "You have to be quicker in TV news today, and that presents a problem for the reporter," he says. "There is less time to ask yourself very important questions before you go on the air. And the temptation to compromise excellence and personal integrity is stronger than ever."
This fall Carter is teaching three courses: Media Law and Ethics, Issues That Matter, and Broadcast News. He says that he is impressed with the caliber of students at COM. "Many of my students are doing quality work that would make great television news at the network level," he says. "That's the most exciting part about being at BU: helping to mold journalists who will soon be dealing with the realities of the news business."
Carter still sees Tonya Harding whenever he goes to Atlanta -- not in the flesh, but her portrait. He obtained a courtroom sketch of figure skatin g's bad girl shortly after covering her trial. He had the drawing framed and hung it on his office wall as a joke. But he has left it up there because, in an ironic way, Harding did have a big influence on his career. And the portrait is a constant reminder of how campy TV news can become, of the type of reporting his students should avoid.
"I want them to know that in the battle for the hearts and minds of the viewers, they don't have to resort to tabloid TV," he says.