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Bad News

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.

What you will seldom, if ever, see are reports about the state Legislature, or stories about homelessness and the city’s lack of low-income housing; neither will you hear any mention of smog, obituaries of noncelebrities or references to books and literary controversies. In their place are telegenic fables of random violence and Samaritan charity, forgotten as soon as the next day‘s tales of personal tragedy and healing air. According to Not in the Public Interest, a 1998 Rocky Mountain Media Watch survey covering 102 stations in 52 metropolitan markets, the Mayhem Index (stories about crime, disaster and warterrorism) averages 40.2 percent of all news programming -- although for our own KNBC it’s up to a vertiginous 73.5 percent. Stories about the environment, poverty, labor issues and civil rights combined account for 6.1 percent. RMMW‘s executive director, Paul Klite, says his organization has found that “L.A.’s news is the worst -- the most tabloid, trivia-filled and celebrity-oriented.”

While complaints about the tabloidization of the news may sound high-minded to one ear, they may sound elitist to another. Aren‘t there times, after all, when the birth and death of pandas is legitimate news? In the end, any justification for reforming the news revolves around one’s definition of what news is.

For USC‘s Saltzman, “News is what’s important for an informed voter to know.”

“I think local news should be all-encompassing of our area,” says Marcia Brandwynne, a longtime reporter who is now executive producer of KTLA‘s Morning News. “We should know how the government works, how schools operate.”

Fishman, a former poli-sci professor, agrees with this civic-minded view. “Our job is to provide information to the public so they can make decisions relevant to their lives when they vote,” he says. “Before coming to TV, my job was to inform students. Today it is to inform the audience.”

Yet these opinions, reflecting such an iridescent faith in communitas, sound almost Periclean in a city where barely a quarter of the voters decided the last mayoral election. And even in its golden age, after all, television journalism was often beamed through a yellow screen. A respected magazine journalist (who asked to remain anonymous) recalls his transition from print to television in the mid-1960s, when, as managing editor of an L.A. station, he brought in some ideas for news stories during sweeps week: “The general manager laughed and said, ’We can‘t put this shit on the air. Let me explain what makes a good TV news story. It has to have one or more of the following elements: vets, pets, tots, tears or tits.’”

The Anchor

It‘s easy not to notice a news show’s set, but its appearance is critical, from the boomerang anchor desk to the backdrops depicting L.A.‘s skyline. “Look at Who Wants To Be a Millionaire,” says KCBS reporter Linda Breakstone, referring to the wildly popular quiz show’s Area 51 look. “Why should the Regis Philbin Experience go ballistic in the ratings? Because the set looks like Star Wars. If that show was done on some little Jeopardy! set, no one would watch it.”

But sound-stage architecture alone cannot guarantee ratings -- it has to be populated by attractive people who seem to care about the stories they are reading. Until the 1970s, the faces of local TV news from coast to coast were male, deathly pale and deadly serious, whether they belonged to Gabe Pressman and Bill Ryan on WNBC in New York, or Ray Tannehill and Roger Grimsby on KGO, San Francisco. Mercifully, that grim visage has changed, but only to transform into the grinning rictus we now find staring back at us from our TV screens every day.

“The anchors in L.A. are abysmal, mindless idiots,” says one veteran reporter, and local broadcast lore is full of stories about one on-air personality who bragged about never reading newspapers or another who looked up from her copy before a broadcast and asked, “Where is 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? This address keeps coming up in stories.” Yet it‘s almost pointless to pick apart the performances of individual anchors -- their mispronunciations, factual gaffes and inattentiveness. In the end, they are only the most expensive pieces of furniture on a news set.

The problem is that journalism schools have become hatcheries for young people buying into glamor dreams. “I’ll ask students in my class, ‘Why do you want to be a reporter?’” says Breakstone. “They‘ll say, ’So I can be an anchor,‘ because so many of them want to be on TV and become minicelebrities.”

“Since this is Southern California,” says a freelance reporter who has worked at KCBS, KTLA and KCAL, “people in management see themselves as being in ’the biz,‘ and are concerned with looks. For years Hal Fishman thought people just watched the news for information. Then Channel 11 came along, and Channel 5 had to back off from its meat-and-potatoes format. They had to get Hal a new wig, put some pretty women next to him and orient the show toward hipness.”

Fishman denies this, along with the idea that research outfits determine the look and sound of his program. “Here at KTLA, that is not true,” he says. “No one has ever told me how to look, how to dress, how to speak, I’ve never had voice training in my life -- I am who I am.”

In Washington state, a moose in heat causes a randy bull to menace a park‘s sightseeing trams . . . Firefighters near Lake Arrowhead read letters from children . . . Bears break into a La Verne trash dumpster . . . Mexicans like to eat insects in their tacos . . . People under financial stress are more likely to neglect their teeth . . .

When NBC’s venerable co-anchor Chet Huntley signed off for the last time in 1970, he promised his listeners, “There will be better and happier news, one day, if we work at it.” Huntley‘s promise has been half realized, but not exactly as he envisioned: The news may not be better than it was in the apocalyptic times in which he spoke, but it certainly is happier. Much, much happier.

“There was no cosmic cause behind it,” says Van Gordon Sauter, explaining why news went from information funnel to entertainment lint filter. “The so-called happy news began in the early ’70s, primarily as an invention of local ABC stations. Reporters and anchors changed from being fairly stolid authority figures into personalities. The weatherman became a personality, the sportscaster became a jovial blockhead who everyone had fun with. It was a subtle transition, where the reporters took off their fedoras and sat down at the dinner table with you.”

“Stations were looking for good-looking blond, blue-eyed women,” remembers Ben Bagdikian, a former Washington Post editor turned media critic and author of The Media Monopoly, among other books. “Later, they hired minorities. But all the anchors had to smile and laugh a lot at something not discernible to the audience.”

There are times, in fact, when it seems that someone forgot to turn off the nitrous in the newsroom, when Team Badinage can‘t stop laughing over its own apparent Wildean epigrams. Which explains KTTV’s Christine Devine giggling through this September 11 story intro: “Another deadly bomb rocks Russia . . .”

And which may explain the emergence of anchorspeak, that mysterious, half-audible metalanguage of non sequiturs and half-completed sentences, accented by raised eyebrows and accompanied by shuffled papers. Take KABC‘s thoughtful analysis, given on September 8, on Hurricane Greg, whose rains had killed three people in Mexico earlier that day:

[ART: use hanging indents:]

Laura Diaz: How can -- how can a hurricane be named Greg?

Johnny Mountain: Well --

Diaz: Sounds too friendly.

Mountain: It is, it is. Like a friendly person. But, but it wasn’t much.

David Ono: It wasn‘t a bad hurricane.

Mountain: Wasn’t a bad -- there you go.

Diaz: User friendly!

And if, like Hurricane Greg, the newsroom sounds too friendly to be taken seriously, so does the news itself. The November 1 lead story for KCBS‘s afternoon news program, Women2Women, involved female Southern Californian passengers who had been aboard ill-fated EgyptAir Flight 990 (“They were mothers, wives, sisters . . .”), but segued into the show’s second story on the wings of an improbable introduction. “On a lighter note,” asked smiling anchor Catherine Anaya, “how does it feel to get an extra hour‘s sleep?” Whereupon the station cut to a reporter broadcasting live interviews from Venice about the previous day’s return to Pacific Standard Time. Women2Women‘s third story? Bryant Gumbel’s arrival as co-host of CBS‘s The Early Show.

Bagdikian, a professor emeritus at UC Berkeley’s journalism school, deplores the changes that he believes have moved TV news from “journalism to melodrama, and changed journalists to father figures or friendly people.” Sauter, who has run several public and owner-operated network outlets, is more sanguine, calling the changes “a truly transforming experience in which the viewer was brought into this new collegiality” of a “true family” of newscasters. But then Sauter, an L.A. resident, doesn‘t watch the local news. “It’s insufferably vapid,” he says.

The Entertainment Segment

L.A. is a company town owned by what is loosely called “Hollywood,” and so entertainment reporting is only to be expected, as would automobile coverage in Detroit. But most entertainment news is sanitized celebrity gossip and studio-PR kibble. (It‘s not unusual for a movie-preview clip to be followed by an anchor muttering something like, “That looks like a good movie!”) Even the live interviews take on an assembly-line, junket look, as when American Beauty came out and Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening sat in front of the same props, wearing the same clothes, and were asked the same questions during interviews for all seven stations.

Equally notorious is TV news’ habit of running stories that are either about shows the parent network produces or tie-ins to its movies of the week. In November, this routine was taken a step further during the fanfare for CBS‘s Sunday M.O.W., Aftershock. Not only did local affiliate Channel 2 dutifully follow the disaster flick with a report about local preparedness, but Aftershock itself featured a CBS news-reporter character who flies above devastated Manhattan in a helicopter emblazoned with its corporate logo. Likewise, KCOP, which is home to World Wrestling Federation spectacles, betrayed no embarrassment about airing a September 23 story for nearly four minutes about WWF star Al “The Snowman” Snow, and immediately followed it with reports about Jesse Ventura’s old visits to a Nevada brothel and Jean-Claude Van Damme‘s DUI arrest. Then, a few minutes later, the program’s “In Focus” segment spent nearly three minutes debating how wrestling may or may not affect children. KCAL has gone even further down El Camino Tabloido by sandwiching the syndicated National Enquirer TV celebrity gossip show in between segments of its afternoon news, giving the impression that the Enquirer program is actually part of the news proper.

The current species of media owners, moreover, are no longer broadcasting corporations but are likely to be entertainment conglomerates -- which have their own ideas about entertainment values. Remember, the next time you watch the 10 or 11 o‘clock news, that Warner Bros., Disney, Viacom-Paramount and 20th Century Fox, respectively, own KTLA, KABC, KCBS and KTTV.

Bats plague a Utah high school . . . Dieters seeking to stay alert may want to try blueberries . . . A beehive has been discovered at the Long Beach Hilton . . . Musicians with Web sites are honored at House of Blues . . .

“This estate in Bel Air is called Rape Mansion. It’s a shocking story.” When anchor Hal Fishman solemnly announced this over footage of a large home on his October 7 broadcast, one could not help but remember the opening page of Double Indemnity. “That was how I came to this House of Death, that you‘ve been reading about in the papers,” James M. Cain’s narrator laconically recalls. KTLA‘s report, about a couple who allegedly slipped GHB mickeys to visiting young women before sexually assaulting and videotaping them, beat out the historic LAPD corruption scandal as News at 10’s top story that evening; a dozen more items would pass before viewers learned that more pockets of flammable gas had been discovered at the troubled Belmont Learning Complex.

“Rape Mansion” epitomizes a news culture that exalts violent crime and sex stories above all others -- as well as providing an unintentional eulogy for KTLA‘s once-respected news hour. For years, Fishman and his 10 p.m. crew’s calm, no-nonsense approach had dominated that time slot‘s news ratings. Then, in 1996, Fox 11’s revamped broadcast combined MTV-like video graphics with a pimp‘s understanding of audience desires, and lo, Los Angeles was suddenly revealed to be a living mural of drive-by shootings, marauding child molesters, bikini contests and movie-premiere parties. Fox TV had slipped Los Angeles a mickey and brought out the camcorders. The news has never been the same.

What is ingenious -- and so laughably insidious -- about TV news is that carnage and sex exist side by side with a lofty respect for family life. “News that keeps our community strong,” crows KNBC, a slogan that translates into ugly panoramas of immigrant children shot dead in gang crossfires or killed in hit-and-run car accidents -- followed by close-ups of grieving parents who must now scrape together money for a funeral.

“Every time someone has a baby or goes back to school, it’s ‘good,’” says Laurie Pike of this ethic‘s happy-time flip side. “That’s the sort of emotional overdramatization I object to the most.” Pike was Fox 11‘s pop-culture reporter in the early 1990s, then quit, she says, in disgust over the station’s obsession with ratings. Today, besides editing the L.A. scene magazine Glue, she is fashion correspondent for the syndicated National Enquirer TV show. “If you‘re going to do reality programming,” Pike explains, “you might as well give in and go with the camp factor.”

Yet can full-blown camp be far behind for mainstream programs that, ever obedient to the Hammurabic codes of entertainment, ensure that the news does not instruct? Violence and tragedy, global or local, are never seen as historical passages or the cause and effect of a socioeconomic process; instead, they are presented as acts in a citywide mystery play in which suffering is accepted either as random cruelty or as part of a cycle of injustice and vindication. Hence our TV diet of images of hand-holding survivors or wreath-laying schoolchildren, along with angry yet empowered parents demanding justice and that prime-time confection known as “closure.”

The Live Shot

The ideal stories, from the stations’ point of view, are “one-stop shopping” assignments, where the incident, the authorities and the witnesses are all present in one spot. All the crew has to do is arrive, “spray” or “hose” the scene for camera images, and interview two or three people. More labor-intensive reports involve getting a money shot -- a burning refinery or gushing fire hydrant.

“Everything you get on TV is a recitation from PIOs [public information officers] on the scene. No one goes door-knocking anymore,” says one field reporter. “Everyone puts spins on stories today, and they have these professionals who‘ll come out and talk to you. And we’ve fallen into a pattern of talking to those people and running to our trucks to do the live shot.”

Often what you see is there merely because the technology exists to put it there. If you‘re watching the 10 or 11 o’clock broadcast, the live report is usually a summary of an event that ended hours ago, often a plain medium shot of the reporter speaking in the driveway of Rape Mansion or on the overpass of a freeway that had earlier hosted a car chase.

“There‘s no reason to go live then,” the reporter says of nightly news recaps. “You’re just standing there in front of a wall, eating up 30 seconds to a minute of time you could be using elsewhere. But it‘s all about show biz. It gives the newscast ’energy,‘ a word all the consultants like to float.”

Warren Olney, who hosts KCRW radio’s Which Way L.A.? and co-hosts KCET TV‘s Life and Times, laments what is known as the “If it bleeds, it leads” principle and especially the emergence of its avatar -- the car chase. “They have to advertise the helicopters and get use out of them,” Olney says of the stations and their Luftwaffe. “It creates the impression in people’s minds that they are watching something important. It‘s depressing, because it’s so mindless and there‘s never follow-up.”

“Helicopters are just a tremendous waste of money,” concurs the field reporter. “It’s all just saying my dick‘s bigger than yours. And this incessant freeway-chase thing is the venereal disease of the industry.”

Jeff Wald, KTLA’s news director, acknowledges the power of using technology just because it‘s there. “It’s because we have these wonderful toys,” he says, referring to stories covered by helicopters and lightweight cameras. “The freeway suicide was kind of a wake-up call for us at KTLA. I feel terribly bad that people saw this man commit suicide on television.”

Wald was referring to the April 1998 incident that thrust a moment of Grand Guignol into after-school programming. An HIV-positive man, protesting his medical treatment by an HMO, parked his truck at the juncture of the Harbor and Century freeways, set fire to himself and his dog, then blew his brains out. And all of it was captured live. This provoked an especially long bout of throat clearing and hand wringing among media critics concerned about the impact such spectacles have upon children and, according to Wald, resulted in his station putting together a breaking-news manual to govern coverage of live-interrupts. “We did a lot of soul-searching,” he says. “We keep a copy of [the manual] at all the key places.”

Still, KTLA would be one of three L.A. stations to break into programming to air the freeway chase and suicide-by-cop of a Riverside man the morning after this past Thanksgiving. While KTLA and KTTV‘s helicopter views of Michael Thayer being struck by 17 bullets were wider and more distant than KNBC’s close-up, the event proved once again that the built-in cinematics of a car chase and its unknown conclusion are too powerful to pass up. None of these stations employed the seven-second time delay that they had pledged to use in the aftermath of the 1998 freeway suicide.

Yosemite bears are eating garbage left at campsites . . . Onions protect lab rats from osteoporosis . . . Sylvester Stallone complains about not being taken seriously in Hollywood . . . An English cockatiel has been trained to make an annoying noise . . .

KCBS‘s Women2Women is self-described as news from a female point of view, and, on paper at least, it may have resembled a real alternative to the police-blotter content of other news shows. In fact, the 4 to 5 p.m. program, anchored by Ann Martin, Catherine Anaya, Pamela Wright and Kelly Lange, might more aptly be titled Four White Chicks Sitting Around Talking. On the show’s September 13 inaugural, Martin announced: “We‘re going to have so much fun -- you know, the pregnant fashions, what’s new for babies, Weather

The funny weatherman is not a recent development nor even a particularly L.A. product. Tex Antoine, the New York area‘s droll ”artist“-forecaster, first set up his easel and sketchpad for WNBC back in 1949 and is perhaps the original weather clown. Locally, Dr. George Fishbeck set the slapstick tone at KABC in the 1970s, along with future Wheel of Fortune host Pat Sajak on KNBC. Fishbeck’s trademark bow tie has, figuratively speaking, been passed on to a most worthy successor at KABC, Johnny Mountain, Eyewitness News‘ second-string forecaster, who is usually seen before 6 o’clock.

Mountain‘s station-written C.V. reveals that he performed as the titular character in WTVK Nashville’s Bozo the Clown, and though he lacks a meteorology degree, his subsequent achievements in Tennessee more than qualified Mountain for the weatherman‘s job. ”Viewers were treated to offbeat antics irregularly programmed with straight weather delivery,“ his anonymous biographer discloses. ”Some days, Mountain would appear in costumes of such characters as a vampire, a gorilla on a swing, World War I ace ’Gwendolyn Pilot,‘ chicken baron Colonel Sanders or an escaped convict complete with chase-scene film cuts.“

But KABC has stiff competition under the weather big top. KNBC has moonlighting standup comedian Fritz Coleman, while KCBS’s Steve Rambo employs a video weather chart tricked out with the kind of bells and whistles you‘d more likely expect to hear in an arcade. If you watch KTTV or KTLA, you’ll find weathermen Mark Thompson and Roland Galvan, respectively, reporting from some yuppie sanctuary like West Hollywood‘s Saddlehouse Chop House, a Valley Starbucks, or Santa Monica store-opening parties for Banana Republic and Puma. Weatherwise, of course, there’s no need for them to be prowling these cashmere-and-khaki haunts, but by doing so they take live coverage to the next level, from talking about something that happened hours ago to talking about something that won‘t happen for another day or more, and not necessarily where they are standing.

What do weather forecasters in one of America’s warmer climates talk about? Surprisingly, the cold. Whenever the mercury drops below room temperature, the tone becomes alert, almost concerned. In fact, KCBS‘s second story on its September 3, 11 p.m. broadcast focused on the summerlong ice storm that was allegedly killing business at Santa Monica’s restaurants. Scouring Third Street Promenade for signs of life during that frigid night, Sophia Choi interviewed a man whose picture was captioned, ”Hates the Cold.“ This was followed by images of sullen-looking young women walking down the sidewalk wearing -- yikes! -- sweaters.

[CUT OR MOVE DOWN? FIXES TK]

The Sports Desk

It should be noted that one area of the news has remained more or less intact as a font of [TK] information: sports. Despite the introduction of replays, plays-of-the-week gimmicks and smarmy ”attitude“ news readers, the last few decades have seen the sports desk endure as the one place[??] offering objective reports on something that cannot be spun -- the immutable arithmetic of game scores. And that‘s no doubt why, in every newscast, sports comes at the very end of the program. After all, how would one tie in a network’s sitcom star with a no-hitter? How many sports are there for which the uniform is a bikini?

A Cessna lands in Big Bear Lake . . . An abandoned baby chimp from Florida is on its way to the L.A. Zoo . . . Onions protect lab rats from osteoporosis . . . A 14-year-old Canadian with big feet has a hard time shopping for football shoes . . . A malicious Miami surgeon gives a man breast implants instead of pectoral enhancements . . .

If, by the end of a news broadcast, you get the feeling something‘s missing, it’s that which makes strange bedfellows, the science of who gets what -- politics. Entire days, if not weeks, can go by without a single mention of the City Council or the Board of Supervisors, whose personalities and conflicting interests are about as familiar to the average viewer as the names of Beowulf ‘s characters. An example of TV news’ arm‘s-length relationship to government surfaced September 6,[CHECKING] when Mayor Richard Riordan anointed Steven Soboroff to succeed him at City Hall. This would have been news in almost any city, yet Riordan was only mentioned at the very end of a KABC broadcast that day -- and only because he was making a cameo appearance on an ABC sitcom, It’s Like, You Know . . . Should it really come as a surprise that the media-watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting found that of 2,160 minutes of local news sampled during L.A.‘s 1997 mayoral race, fewer than 24 dealt with the campaign?

KCBS’s Linda Breakstone, who came to television after 15 years in newspaper journalism, believes that the occurrence of five national stories in Los Angeles between 1991 and 1995 fatally nudged local news over the brink of sensationalism: the Rodney King beating, the L.A. Riots, the Michael Jackson and Heidi Fleiss trials, and, towering over them all, L‘Affaire Simpson.

”I wanted to be KABC’s political editor,“ she says of those years, ”but it‘s really hard to tell your news editor that you don’t want to do the city‘s biggest story. That’s when things started to get crazy. When O.J. happened, it got really ugly between reporters -- the competition just ripped everything apart. That‘s when city rooms got involved in big stories and thought talking to the governor was boring.“

Long before the Simpson saga, however, local news stations began closing their Sacramento offices, an act that first signaled the expendability of politics and government from TV news reportage. ”I was ordered to close our Sacramento bureau in 1977,“ Jeff Wald remembers of the time he worked for KCBS, ”and I did so reluctantly.“ At about this same time, the lamps were going out all over Europe -- the lamps inside the networks’ foreign bureaus, that is, as a new generation of media magnates purchased the airwaves. Unlike the Paleys and Sarnoffs, they were not broadcasting men but financiers like Laurence Tisch or corporate CEOs like GE‘s Jack Welsh, bottom-liners who viewed overseas operations as an expendable luxury.

Hal Fishman doesn’t see the lack of state-capital bureaus as a big loss. ”The concept of the bureau is rather obsolete. Today we can get news immediately from Sacramento on the bird,“ he says, referring to communications satellites. ”To set up a bureau to bring news out of Sacramento every day when sometimes nothing is happening is like sending up a news helicopter to patrol the freeways in the hope that we might find an event that we can tell you about.“

One reason TV news may appear to show less interest in electoral events is because it is involved in the theoretically more radical experiment of direct democracy, wherein viewers, through various ”Talk Back“ and ”Sound Off“ segments, get to e-mail their responses to news stories or, in KCAL‘s case, to talk on-air to a Republican ideologue like talk-radio host Larry Elder. But these are basically gripe steam valves and, of course, have no effect on any public policy.

Ironically, several news people interviewed dismissed local politicians for being less forthright and colorful than their brethren in San Francisco, Chicago and New York -- precisely because they have become too media savvy. ”Politics in L.A. is pretty boring because it’s so sanitized, no one wants to offend anyone,“ says KTTV‘s Chris Blatchford. ”L.A. is the politically correct capital of the world. Even the Times is still trying to figure out whether or not we had a ’riot.‘“ KTLA’s Marcia Brandwynne agrees, saying that while ”political news is almost pathetically not covered, politicians all just speak in soundbites anyway.“

The Special Assignment

After the weather, the news‘ narrative tone may suddenly turn stentorian -- when it does, assume a ”special assignment“ is in the offing. Some of these investigations are quickies catering to our paranoia, the ”What Do You Really Know About Your Baby Sitter?“ exposes. The more intensive ones dispatch reporters with button cams to various corners of the service sector to uncover consumer fraud and price gouging. Restaurants and automobile-repair garages are typical targets -- independently owned businesses that are unconnected to large corporate chains. While some of these pieces have been laudatory on some level, ask yourself just how important is an expose of a service station that overcharges for a ring job, or of a restaurant whose cooks have cigarettes dangling from their mouths while preparing your carne asada, compared to the spectacular municipal swindles for which L.A. enjoys world renown -- and which are seldom broken by electronic media?

Consumer reporting is a viewer-driven lazy cousin of the special assignment, in which people write or call in to complain about some faulty product or service. As with the special assignment, don’t expect any Dalkon Shield or radon-gas revelations from a station‘s consumer advocate, especially if he happens to be KCBS’s Mike Boguslavsky, the sputtering, bullet-headed action figure who heads ”Bogey‘s Corner,“ which debuted in September. Bogey weighs in on behalf of wronged but befuddled consumers, although he seldom seems to take on a business that has retaliatory legal muscle. Cases have involved a woman who complained that her college was slow in sending her transcripts, and another bitter about not getting the full value for the plastic bottles she took to her local recycling center. Even when Bogey ”attacked“ a corporation (Ford Motor Co.) for shoddy workmanship, the segment turned into a big ad for Galpin Ford, a car dealership that was not part of the consumer’s complaint but that made an effort, once the camera was rolling, to fix the man‘s problem.

Three months after his debut, Bogey’s crusades are still irrelevant curiosities, products from the age of miniaturization: During the first week of November sweeps, he took up the cause of a man who had left his sunglasses behind at a Claim Jumper restaurant, which then accidentally mailed them to a charity instead of to their owner. What‘s next? ”Bo-gey, I can’t get the lid off this ja-a-a-r!“

Even health and science -- the two remaining segments that vie for our attention -- seem less concerned with public welfare that with fads and labor-saving gadgets. On local TV, ”health“ translates into tips about physical appearance or stress release. The tone is urgently narcissistic (stay young and skinny) as opposed to communal (smog and water-table issues). Invariably, food lies at the heart of these stories; one night purple grape juice is touted for stress management, the next evening it‘s carrots. As far as ecological issues are concerned, TV-news science may as well be titled ”Silent Spring -- and Summer, Fall and Winter.“ Los Angeles’ air quality, which is rated in the daily papers and on the radio, exists as a TV topic only when favorably compared to a city like Houston, or when it has been declared by authorities to be unusually clean. And nature is the ultimate tie-in, as story after story revolves, suspiciously, around shark attacks, twisters, hypothetical asteroid collisions or whatever else this year‘s blockbuster disaster film features.

Curiously, many stories about the Internet, which is one of the profoundest technological changes to occur over the last decade (and, following cable TV, is the biggest threat to VHF television news), involve familiar themes of family values, sex and paranoia. For, in the overheated reports of TV news, the Internet is a virtual Central Park after midnight, a dangerous place filled with predators and molesters. Backing this view are perps-’n‘-pervs exposes of child pornography -- stories complete with (slightly) fuzzed-out images of nude children cavorting on computer monitors -- and of the lurid demimonde of Hidden Cam or Upskirt Web sites. Cynics might call this Exploitation for Dummies, but TV news knows this is how to make a community strong.

A New Jersey woman finds a bear in her garden . . . The body of a Virginia baby is found in a microwave . . . Moe the Chimp’s West Covina owners, represented by attorney Gloria Allred, seek to be reunited with their pet . . . A Cessna crashes upside down in Galveston Bay . . .

Eyewitness News. Action News. News You Can Trust. Behind the marketing hype stands a simple fact: News programming is the human face a television station presents to a city. (And, apart from sports, the news also happens to be the one place on prime time where minorities are allowed to congregate in groups of two or more.) When you talk to TV news people, the lifers who don‘t like being called veterans, a long-ago idealism still edges into their conversation as they recall moments that defined them as journalists. For Marcia Brandwynne, who was one of the Bay Area’s first women reporters and who had to get every male union member at her station to sign a waiver permitting her to work, it was making a story out of the thin air provided by Hubert Humphrey, who refused to talk politics with her. For Jeff Wald, who wanted to change the world in the wake of the Vietnam War, it was scooping the competition and getting a fix on the Symbionese Liberation Army‘s safe house just before all hell broke loose.

Some become defensive when the subject of the quality of TV news is broached; others are flatly defeated. ”I think the older guys have just thrown in the towel,“ says a local reporter. ”They go through the motions, make a good living and try not to fight it, saying, ’What else am I going to do? I can‘t go out and be a fireman now.’“ The optimism you hear these days comes from people who have moved out of the business and into academia or consulting. Their hopes always seem pinned on a maverick station somewhere taking the high road and becoming a local BBC. Or maybe it‘s the Internet or some other technology that will offer redemption.

But you feel that what escapes both the apologetic and the optimistic is the small picture, the screen-size reality that every viewer intuitively knows -- that the news isn’t really about the news, that for every brave attempt to go undercover and illuminate some dark corner of the city, there are a hundred unconscionable moments devoted to singing-pet contests and rave exposes. Austin‘s KVUE and San Francisco’s KTVU and a few other stations should serve as encouragement, but overall, local television news has failed the audience it once pretended to serve. ”It‘s a tragedy,“ Van Gordon Sauter says, ”that nobody stepped out of the pack and said, ’Okay, we‘re going to be the odd person out here, we’re going to do quality journalism.‘ The potential financial losses from a bad decision and the career implications were so enormous that no one chose to do that. I certainly didn’t do that when I was overseeing a lot of television stations.“

With communism dead, America‘s plug-and-play leisureocracy is now confronted by its real nemesis, boredom -- but television news is fighting a losing battle if it thinks its mission is to become pure entertainment. We live in a country where, according to a recent Gallup poll, one in five people believe in witches, and one on three believe in ghosts, and where one state has stricken evolution science from its mandated school curriculum. In the end, perhaps, the biggest mistake is to believe that forethcoming generations will even be interested in news as we know it. The future of news programming may have less to do with toning down the tits, tears and tots and more with simply educating audiences about a world in which we seem to have lost interest. Without a news culture that inspires us to learn and question, we will find ourselves adrift in a big ocean with no idea of what’s coming or why. [CQ: our weather never dull]

The Poetry of Anchorspeak No. 1

Consider the deceptive, William Carlos Williams--like simplicity of this exchange between former KCBS anchor Michael Tuck (I) and weatherman Steve Rambo (II). The layered unreality of the moment stems from the fact that the story they are commenting upon is a brush fire near Lake Castaic,[CHECKING] which, strictly speaking, is not a weather condition, nor located in the desert. As a further disorienting device, ”Castaic“ was misspelled in the story graphic.

I

Our

our weather never dull

around here.

We had the horrible heat wave

and now

this morning we had thunderstorms

and a lady struck by lightning

in West Covina.

II

Heat lightning

uh

is a frequent occurrence

in our deserts as well

and we gotta watch for that

in our springtime

-- in our summertime season.

The Poetry of Anchorspeak No. 2

A story about the construction of a ”halfway house“ in Iceland, so Keiko the whale can make the transition from captivity to life in the ocean, was the inspiration for this Black Mountain school ode to the star of Free Willy, begun by KCBS‘s Linda Alvarez and concluded, in italics, by Michael Tuck.

???

Keiko

has traveled

the world,

I think

Going home

where he belongs

The Fox Interview

Here, in its verbatim entirety, is Lisa Joyner’s interview with TV actress Jennifer Love Hewitt, as broadcast September 16. The story began with the actress‘s breakup with her boyfriend. Hewitt, we were reminded, was leaving the Fox series Party of Five to star in that network’s new Time of Your Life.

Hewitt: It‘s amazing, what’s happening in my life! [Giggles.] You know, and it‘s not normal! Like it’s [giggles]. I try to convince myself that this happens to everybody -- it doesn‘t! You know, I’ve been proven wrong. Um, it‘s a little different and, uh [giggles], but it’s like it‘s it’s a good digestion, like it‘s a it’s a great thing but I just have to try to make sense of it all because I really I I I think of myself as pretty unimportant and just like a normal, you know, person and and and like all these amazing things are happening . . .

Ratio of time spent on Hewitt to total time devoted to stories about a Russian apartment blast, Typhoon York, East Timor and the shooting death of Red Army terrorist Horst Ludwig Meyer: 1:1.


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