Backtalk: Hamburger Helper


There's an expression in newsrooms when the facts arefew on breaking-news stories and the principals involved are not cooperating to helpadvance the plot.

As the clock races on and deadline approaches, sometimesit's time to bring out the "Hamburger Helper."

Hamburger Helper is that ubiquitous product found onsupermarket shelves everywhere. It's loaded with fillers that create a gelatinousglob to transform plain-old ground round into a full and, supposedly, nourishing meal.

Or, in the case of a news story, it means adding backgroundand texture to a fact the size of a sliver of meat in order to assemble somethingresembling a news story, rather than printing an out-of-context blurb.

Last week, all news-gathering organizations were grabbingfor the Hamburger Helper when a very vague announcement came out about General Electricand Time Warner getting together to form a professional-football league.

NBC leaked the story on its own airwaves, and then itstonewalled the rest of the press -- hence the need for the gelatinous glob.

That contrasted with the way that Disney/ABC handled theunpleasant, but not unexpected, departure of Geraldine Laybourne, who is leaving her postas president of Disney/ABC Cable Networks to form her own company.

With Disney's breaking news, the public-relationspeople were professional, and they gave as much detail as they could. Laybourne wasaccessible to answer questions, which she did.

But back to the so-called football deal. Even the localanchors on WNBC-TV's early morning show last Thursday sounded dumbfounded andskeptical as they read about the latest chapter in professional football.

Shaking their heads, they read that their parent company,General Electric's NBC -- in a partnership with Time's Warner's TurnerBroadcasting System -- would form a professional-football league to compete against theNational Football League.

Earlier in the year, both NBC and TNT had lost out in thebidding contest to CBS, Fox, ABC and ESPN for the pricey, eight-year NFL TV rights.

So now, the losers say that they have been extensivelystudying the creation of a new professional-football league for several months.

To me, that lingo sounds more like they're simplyfloating a trial balloon, hoping to lure other investors out of the woodwork, rather thanlike an announcement about a real deal.

In their sparsely prepared statement, both companiesmaintained that they had a clear vision of a working model, and they have appointed DickEbersol of NBC and Harvey Schiller of Turner to spearhead the plan.

We still don't know anything about that vision,because neither company would respond to reporters' further questioning, except tosay that more details would be coming this fall.

By contrast, Disney/ABC and Laybourne cooperated fullyabout her departure.

Laybourne and ABC Inc. announced that effectiveimmediately, she, with the backing of ABC as the first investor, would form a new -- andstill unnamed -- media company.

As our page-one story on Laybourne's departure thisweek reflects, the parties involved provided far more meat on the plate than the sketchycomments surrounding the so-called deal between Time Warner and NBC to hatch a footballleague.

And in the end, the Disney-Laybourne saga will generatemore balanced reporting everywhere, which didn't need a lot of Hamburger Helper tojustify its existence in print.