Don't believe the media lies, Conan hasn't quit. Yet.

by Paul William Tenny

Lay Leno and Conan O'BrienContrary to some of the misleading headlines you've probably seen by now -- saying that Conan O'Brien has already quit and left NBC and the Tonight Show -- things aren't quite that settled. O'Brien has not quit and that's not really up for debate at this point. If he had, he wouldn't still be on TV.

Use your heads.

I've seen absolutely no confirmation for any of the news being reported so you really need to take these things for what they are: unsubstantiated rumors. For example, Nikke Finke has written that O'Brien has hired legal counsel and that his representatives (lawyer and agent) met with NBC executives before this letter was made public the other day. Sounds believable enough but like I said, this is all very questionable. Despite Finke declaring many times over not to be a blogger -- and despite her having worked as a journalist previously -- she violated virtually every ethical policy I've ever seen regarding rumors and anonymous reporting. This is often the kind of behavior that so-called journalists use (often as an insult) to separate themselves from bloggers whom they consider to speculate too much and to lack ethics.
Finke doesn't cite her source or sources for the story, doesn't give any description of what position they hold, doesn't explain why they require anonymity, and doesn't confirm the information with anyone else. Supposedly that should be enough to have the story wadded up and thrown back in your face by your editor, but over the last decade this has become the status quo even for papers like the New York Times.

These policies exist for a reason. We don't know who the source of information is and therefore can't question what motive they might have to spin the story in a way that benefits them personally, or someone they know. It could be an NBC aide looking to move up the ladder, or an ally of O'Brien. It could even be O'Brien or his lawyer, for all anyone knows, because of how sloppy Finke is being.

If the person feeding her information was in a position to know exactly who was at the meeting, why didn't they know what happened? That kind of information could have come from a desk secretary guarding the office door. And it probably did.

The story about O'Brien crying while he read his letter to his staff isn't substantive information or meaningful in any way either, the only purpose it serves is to show Conan O'Brien in a positive and sympathetic light. Nobody can know for sure if it even happened, and if it did happen exactly that way, and you knew it came from one of his best friends or long-time colleagues, wouldn't that affect how you look at the event, possibly as biased and unreliable?

Every story about what's going on is like that. And some sites are going a step further and just lying about it.

Popeater (I've caught flack for my site name but come on, it's not as bad as these guys by a long shot) printed this garbage yesterday morning:

First Conan O'Brien Leaves, Now Jay Leno?

Sources close to former 'Tonight Show' host Jay Leno tell me he is furious with the way NBC has treated him and Conan O'Brien and is considering walking away from the entire mess with his head held high. "Now that Conan has made it clear he is leaving the troubled network, Jay is considering doing the same. They have put Jay in a terrible position. It looks like he is the reason that Conan is now without a job. Jay is a great guy and it's not fair that due to NBC's stupidity he looks like the bad guy," a TV insider tells me.

Again we're insulted with the anonymous account of a "TV insider" who could be anyone from Jeff Zucker himself to a blogger who head the story from a friend. That alone should warrant ignoring such petty gossip, and perhaps that's the reason that sites like Popeater are going a step further and just inventing information that they clearly cannot get on the level.

Just look at the leade. "Sources close to .. Jay Leno" are feeding gullible bloggers and "journalists" with information that is favorable to Jay Leno. Wow, who could have seen that coming? And like good little stenographers they simply reprinted it like a good little PR service. But that's not the worst part. Look at the sub-title.

"First Conan O'Brien Leaves"? Really? Because O'Brien was still hosting the Tonight Show on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and last night. And that's to be expected since O'Brien is still under contract with NBC and cannot unilaterally leave even if he wanted to. Even if things really blow up between the host and NBC, they are still going to be stuck with each other until the matter has been settled in court, or a very public mutual agreement is made.

This is really just sloppy attention whoring. Quite a few people quickly read the letter that O'Brien wrote and just assumed it was supposed to be his sign-off. They projected the best case scenario for their own publications -- the event that would give them the most to write about and obsess over -- rather than reading it for what it was. I've already seen corrections flying because of that and yet that behavior continues.

Beyond issues of poor reporting, there's also the matter of O'Brien's contract with NBC. Let's get something straight for those who don't understand how things work. There is no such thing as an iron-clad contract. Everything is open to interpretation. There is no language ever written into a contract by man that hasn't been disputed by lawyers paid to create holes where none exist. There are lawyers who specialize in doing nothing but that their entire professional careers.

No matter what NBC thinks, O'Brien can and may sue over having the Tonight Show time slot moved, and it's not like the suit has to have merit to become expensive and painful. He could sue just to offer to drop the suit if NBC backs off. It has happened before. Likewise, NBC can sue O'Brien over literally anything in order to force him to either drop his suit, or play ball. That also happens all the time, especially in patent lawsuits.

So take anything you read about contracts with a grain of salt.

Especially when that information is coming only from one side. Of course NBC is going to say that their contract with O'Brien allows them to do what they've already decided to do. That's obvious and expected. What else are they going to do, admit that they are breaching their contract, but intent on pushing forward anyway? NBC saying they are right and O'Brien is wrong is about as meaningful as anything I'm saying right now, although I would posit that my logic strongly outweighs anything being presented by anyone else.

Anyway, everyone has been having a laugh at NBC's expense (rather unprofessional on the part of Leno and O'Brien, if you ask me), but I really think Jay went over the line last night:

Well some good news from Afghanistan, you hear about this? Critics of the war have stopped referring to it as another Vietnam. They're not calling it that anymore. The bad news is they're now calling it another NBC.

I never liked Jay Leno very much but that really seals it for me. Joking about an on-going war that is on track to be the deadliest month for American troops in years is flat out disgusting. Using those people who are dying for our country as the punchline to make fun of the network that made you a hundred-million-dollar-star because they stopped treating you like royalty is beyond the pale.

Welcome of course to NBC, America's most dysfunctional TV family. [..] Well nobody knows what's going on. Conan O'Brien understandably is very upset. He had a statement in the paper yesterday. And Conan said NBC had only given him seven months to make his show work. When I heard that, seven months, how'd he get that deal? We only got four. Who's his agent? Get me that guy. I'll take seven.

Cute joke, except that Leno and the Tonight Show were in last place when Jay took over and stayed there for over 17 months without NBC doing anything like this to him. And when NBC finally did do something, it was bringing in a producer to revamp the show, not to fire Leno or move it around. It's cute in the current context but is actually pretty petty considering that Leno got double the time O'Brien did to make the show work, and Leno wasn't the one who actually turned it around.
in Media Criticism, Television


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1 Comment

Paul, your article is a breath of fresh air. Your points about psuedo journalism are spot on but mostly - your anger about Leno's Vietnam-Afghanistan joke was so very appreciated by me and probably every other military family in the United States.

I'm afraid I can't be as eloquent as you. All I can summon is, "Screw you Leno."

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