By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Shortly before Labor Day, NASA‘s new QuikSCAT satellite made an unsettling discovery: Iceberg B10A, a Rhode Island--size behemoth, was breaking up in Drake’s Passage near the South Pole and posing a threat to international shipping. When B10A splintered off from Antarctica in 1992, its secession was seen as evidence of global warming. Now its voyage suddenly acquired additional symbolism, confronting the technological hubris of QuikSCAT with a leviathan drifting north toward the civilization whose pollution had orphaned it from the mainland.
Local television viewers might have been excused on September 3 from appreciating this event‘s significance, however, if they happened to be tuned to KABC’s Eyewitness News, which reported the rogue-iceberg story toward the middle of its 5 p.m. broadcast. The report was followed by some light banter between the anchors and weatherman about the movie Titanic and Leonardo DiCaprio, before viewers were treated to this analysis:
Laura Diaz: It‘s a good thing they know about that one.
Johnny Mountain: Absolutely! You know, I’ve been thinking -- it would be a hazard when it starts breaking up.
Harold Greene: Oh, absolutely.
Mountain: I mean, the size of New York floating out there. It‘s gotta be a hazard to someone, wouldn’t you think?
Greene: It‘s a big ocean.
Mountain: It’s a big ocean.
Neither the news report nor the repartee that followed mentioned the iceberg‘s history or the fact that B10A was already breaking up; even the runaway berg’s size proved too much for weatherman Mountain‘s short-term memory. Instead, it became one of those bears-in-the-swimming-pool stories that local news dotes on and nothing more. Global warming, after all, like ozone depletion and AIDS, wasn’t anything to get excited about -- just another distant fire that someone, somewhere, was doing something about, and that could only burn people far from Los Angeles. It is, as the man said, a big ocean. a
In Florida a cat named Caesar has run away from its heartbroken owner . . . Camera crews record the mess inside a Huntington Harbor pack rat‘s home . . . A Camarillo man is caught “keying” his ex-boss’s car . . . Women swear they lose weight by taping magnets to their wrists . . .
Today‘s news program is not the news program of a couple of generations ago, when the average TV station broadcast only 15 minutes of local coverage at night, followed by 15 minutes of a network show such as The Huntley-Brinkley Report or The CBS Evening News. Between noon and 11:30 p.m., L.A.’s seven commercial English-language stations now devote anywhere from 90 minutes to five and a half hours to local news alone -- and this doesn‘t include the morning coffee-hour shows. But the expansion of news programming is hardly the most significant aspect of broadcast journalism to change over the past 20 years. More important, how to explain the evolution of our local news from straight-ahead reportage into the psychedelic circus of murder and trivia it is today?
“Audiences have been conditioned for two decades to get this shit -- but that’s what they expect and get.” The speaker is Van Gordon Sauter, the former president of CBS News and onetime general manager of KNXT, and the “shit” in question is the look and sound of local television news coverage. It‘s a view shared by many TV reporters and disputed by just as many in the industry.
“We do a pretty darn good job,” says KCBS news director Roger Bell.
“Local news sucks the big one,” counters one 10 o’clock news reporter who, like others, wishes to remain anonymous. “It‘s lame, cookie-cutter journalism,” she says, “and I don’t think news in Los Angeles is being done justice. It‘s just not something I’m proud of.”
The view from academia is hardly more forgiving. “L.A. has probably the worst news on TV,” says USC journalism professor and former KNXT writer-producer Joe Saltzman. “It‘s not even a headline service.”
KTLA’s Hal Fishman has seen firsthand the changes that have shaped news presentation since he began anchoring nearly 40 years ago. “News has become more oriented toward ratings than ever before,” he admits. Perhaps choosing to put a happy face on such developments as slow-motion photography, background music and the overall invasion of entertainment values, he says, “Just because you didn‘t see it 20 years ago doesn’t mean it‘s not valid. I do believe we are fulfilling our function in bringing to the public the important events of the day as well as what might be called infotainment. All stations do that, because it seems to be what people want. We have become an amalgam of what people ought to know and what they want to know.”
On rough average, the first half-dozen stories of any local news broadcast in L.A. fall under “what they want to know”: wrong-address drive-bys, enraged-boyfriend murder-suicides and asleep-at-the-wheel van holocausts, salted with the occasional seizure of some high school coach’s hard drive. But somewhere during the first commercial break, the blood gets scrubbed off the anchor desk and the focus moves from sniffer dogs and jaws-of-life to softer stories and segments on health (usually concerning weight reduction and wrinkle removal), entertainment (“backstage” close-ups of the station‘s prime-time shows, reels of movie trailers masquerading as “previews”) and community involvement (anchors waving from parade floats). The mix is further leavened with laughing weathermen, snarling consumer advocates and updates about new arrivals at the zoo.
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