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The cult of personality.

Polls indicate more Americans get their local news from television than newspapers. But just what are they getting? In many cases, the answer is violent crime, abandoned warehouse fires and cutesy features.

Why is local television news so bad? What can be done to improve it? Ten media-watchers--including television professionals, critics and academics-offer answers and make suggestions for change.

When someone from print comments about television news, his objectivity is automatically suspect. Our judgment, as the argument goes, is distorted by envy: We're jealous of our TV counterparts because they're more famous and better paid. Or because we realize that we're the past and they're the future.

In my case, the bias label doesn't apply. In my house, electronic news is cherished, and we couldn't survive without it. For example, there's nothing my wife and I enjoy more on a Saturday night than having some friends over, pouring a few drinks, turning on the local news...and dancing.

All right, cards on the table. No objectivity. That's because local news--in Los Angeles, at least--is mostly an extension of the entertainment programs that surround it. If I want nightly triple features of violence--endless coverage of grisly, blood-spattered offenses that feeds our paranoia about crime--I know where to find it. Local news.

If I want the latest buzz on crashes, fires and natural disasters--or anything that can be conveyed with striking pictures--I know where to find it. Local news.

If I want a big, wheezing laugh, local news again.

Yet, really, what's to laugh about? Increasingly, we depend on these people to inform us about our communities and our connections to the wider universe. But talk about being unequal to a task. At a critical time for America, when an intricate tangle of problems demands a smarter, more enlightened public, local news stubbornly refuses to be deterred from its primary objective: glorifying local news.

This driving narcissism underlies everything it does. Take the emphasis on personalities. To encourage viewers to watch newscasts for the wrong reasons, stations for years have promoted their local news personalities not only as a family unto themselves--warm, cuddly and complementary--but also as the community's extended family. These aren't cold androids, you see, they're Uncle Fred and Aunt Figgie. They care about us, they're part of us. How could we not welcome these wonderful human beings into our homes each evening?

Oh, please. Only politicians are as self-serving and self-congratulatory as local newscasters. The drive of these camera peacocks to preen and strut for viewers has become so compulsive that the message of news has inevitably shrunk to a tiny, gray blip against their blinding gloss.

And who are these messengers, anyway? Increasingly, they enter the "business" to become personalities, not journalists. With the exception of sportscasters, they rarely cover beats. A station in a top 10 market that will think nothing of assigning two or three persons to sports will typically have no one regularly covering education, or the environment, or local government, or minorities, or public health. That's not its agenda. Instead, its reporters careen from hot spot to hot spot, rarely staying on one topic long enough to acquire knowledge. Hence, rather than prepare the public for what's ahead, local news is inevitably shallow and reactive.

Ironically, this jumping-bean reflexiveness itself has become a tool of self promotion, epitomizing the "We're on top of everything" syndrome in which the message becomes the technology. KABC, the top-rated L.A. news station, is especially cute about it, making a piece of machinery--its Eyewitness Newsvan--the symbol of its proficiency. Reporters no longer report live from the field without adding that they're "with the Eyewitness Newsvan" to convey an image of action.

Far more significant is the tendency of stations to abuse technology by deploying live coverage as a gimmick, to gratuitously go live solely to impress viewers. In L.A., that can mean preempting daytime programming to air live chopper coverage of cops-and-robbers-style freeway car chases that offer action, but no news. And it can mean erasing chunks of prime time for live coverage of an essentially meaningless story, purely for competitive reasons.

If news, indeed, is the first draft of history, then television's live reporting is often the scribbled notes of the first draft. That was the case in L.A. when the city's three network-owned-and-operated stations went live for as much as an hour on a recent evening to cover a moderate earthquake outside distant Bakersfield that caused minor damage and no injuries. Having little information did not stop the anchors from babbling continuously. But at least they were live.

Even trickier is the live standup used in conjunction with a story that is hours old, or even days old, to convince viewers what they're watching is fresh. This self-promotional show biz requires reporters to stick around for the standup when they could be doing something more productive. In fact, it's likely the entire newscast could be doing something more productive.
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Title Annotation:Bad News, assessment of local television news
Author:Rosenberg, Howard
Publication:American Journalism Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
Previous Article:Lose the malaise, cover the story.
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