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Money talks.

The scandal of local news is twofold. First, it "works": It makes financial officers hum with delight. Second, it isn't considered scandalous by the responsible parties. That is, in the light, or dark, of their degraded standards, a wave of the hand toward big numbers is the beginning and end of the conversation.

When I say local news "works," I mean, of course, that it does what its proprietors want and expect it to do: It delivers big audiences. It does this via the recipes dreamed up by consultants--the standard issue Mr. and Ms. weightless anchors indistinguishable from coast to coast, able to look concerned, chipper, urgent and cheerful--in rapid succession ("Now this..."); the state-of-the-art technology, the videocams and uplinks; the logos, the jaunty theme music, the hairdos and color combos. The resulting numbers please advertisers, which in turn pleases management.

The local news accomplishes this sequence of pleasures efficiently and reliably--reliably enough, anyway, to convince the top guns that there is no point tampering with a winning formula except in a formulaic way. "Dope busts tonight." "Celebrity trapped in fire donates liver." "Cheers" bloopers. Weather giggles. Happy talk. Rule One: Never be at a loss for pictures. Rule Two: Never be at a loss for words. Mindlessness abhors dead air and loves video wallpaper. (Just what kind of pictoral jolt is supplied by the flames of the 1,001st fire anyway?)

Sure, there are exceptions. For example, I've heard excellent reports from San Francisco-Oakland's Fox affiliate, KTVU. I recollect vividly the moment when the anchor segued from a report on President Reagan's Bitburg visit to a report on who the SS were. ("History!" as George Bush would have said.) In some major metropolitan areas, there's a bit of a market niche, to use the repellent term of the business, for stories that last more than a minute-fifteen, and periodically one of the franchises sucks in its collective breath and goes for a walk--usually short--along the high road. But that reliable strumpet commerce is invariably strutting her stuff at the next crossroads.

Television journalists will say, with a wring of the hands followed by a knowing look and a roll of the eyes, that they themselves would prefer to go down in history as the local version of Edward R. Murrow. But, alas and alack, there's no commercial alternative to the quick and the lurid, because, let's face it, sufficient numbers of masses keep offering up their delectable eyeballs for the rental of advertisers.

Who knows if the more probing, more analytical, more risky sort of coverage might, given enough time, make money? But in television, the point is not to make money but to make more money--more than the other guy, more than you used to make, more than you feared you might make. And this is the real scandal: There are no sufficiently powerful countervailing motives. That is why "the system works."

In television, as in football, "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." That this is the rule in local television is a comment not only on the power of the idea of winning but on the weakness of other passions in American culture.

I had a visit once from a former student who'd been one of the sharpest I'd known. As a college senior, he had displayed every interest in critical thought. Now he found himself the assistant news director at a network affiliate in a major city, and he confessed to me, with some embarrassment, that he hadn't read a serious book in years. (His shame was the most touching and impressive thing about him.) The reason, he said, was that he "didn't have time"--a claim difficult to assess literally without an intimate time survey, and yet a claim that requires a certain sympathy. The fast track is no place for reflection. Stand still and think, and somebody gains on you.

A friend of mine has spent more than two decades in local television news. His career is considered distinguished. He's won awards. But if he weren't there, personable and "believable," wearing lightly his knowledge of the world of cops and criminals, someone else--most likely somebody less knowledgeable--would happily substitute.

Naturally, I trust my friend to "get a story right" more than I trust someone I don't know. But he observes that the longer he works there, the faster he talks and the shorter his attention span gets. He doesn't trust his mind anymore, and rightly so. What he has come to value in a story, now, is a look on a hostage's face or the face of a bereaved mother. He knows there is something limited about the "flash 'n' trash" that is his bread and butter.

The thousands of wannabes who would "kill" for his job are waiting in line to leapfrog over his hard-earned knowledge of how institutions work and jump directly to his savoring of the moments of pain. In my experience, they don't particularly care what he has given up to "get" what's "real." They can't wait for the chance to go for the gold.
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Title Annotation:Bad News, assessment of local television news
Author:Gitlin, Todd
Publication:American Journalism Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
Previous Article:Mimicking the worst.
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