Like almost everything these days, local TV news is awful and getting worse. The FCC, under free-market ideologue Michael Powell, is preparing to relax ownership limits to allow further concentration of power and influence in the hands of just a few corporations. What's more, Powell says he will allow just one public hearing--on February 27 in Richmond, Virginia--before issuing the new rules. The less the public knows, in other words, the better.
We have been down this path before, when, following the (all but uncovered by the media) passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, commercial radio became transformed from our most vibrant and democratic form of mass communication to its current zombielike status. Clear Channel, the industry's dominant player, owns more than 1,200 US stations, compared with fewer than 200 owned by its rival, Viacom, according to a Wall Street Journal count. Its executives are so cheap they won't even invest enough money to provide communities with local DJs, preferring to scam listeners with phony cutaways to people and places its long-distance jocks have neither seen nor met.
The primary reason that local TV coverage is so awful is the same reason that Warren Beatty, playing John Reed in Reds, identified as the cause of the carnage of World War I: profits. As the Washington Post's Robert Kaiser and Len Downie Jr. demonstrated in their book The News About the News, pay in local TV is a lot higher than it is in print journalism, depleting its limited resources. Kaiser and Downie note that in Raleigh, North Carolina, the city's three network anchors together make more than the entire payroll of 260 at the local paper, the News & Observer. Meanwhile, local TV news owners demand profits of anywhere from 40 to 70 percent. At their own company, Post/Newsweek, stations demand more than double the profits that the Washington Post earns, while providing an unarguably inferior product. The company's president defends this practice with the nonsensical quip, "The viewers are not unhappy."
But if they're not unhappy, they should be. And so should we, whether we watch local television or not. It's not just that crappy news leads to a badly informed citizenry--which it does--it can also be destructive of the most important elements of our social compact and intensely reactionary--even racist--in its implications for our society. According to a recent study by the Pew-funded Project on Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) published in Columbia Journalism Review, despite declining figures crime coverage rose in 2001, while coverage of virtually everything else--even the economy--fell. As Robert Entman and Andrew Rojecki demonstrate at length in their study The Black Image in the White Mind, this "if it bleeds, it leads" mentality vastly overemphasizes crime stories at the expense of all others. It also exaggerates the degree to which criminals are alleged to be black and victims white. And at the same time, they ignore virtually every conceivable social cause of crime, such as lack of economic or educational opportunity, wide availability of drugs, lack of local role models, etc. As I argue in my spanking new book, What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News, it doesn't require a doctorate in sociology to understand that the newsmedia contribute to ignorance-based racism rather than ameliorating it.
Well, times for local TV broadcasts are now tougher than ever. The PEJ/CJR study notes that reporters are now required to produce an average of 1.8 stories a day, the heaviest workload reported in the five years since PEJ began its study. According to one Montana news director, quoted in CJR, "Ratings, style, story-count, pacing, hair and clothes seem more important on a given day than content and issues." Another news executive, this one from Texas, complains, "Owners even from top media companies...have very little interest in the quality of their broadcast product."
The irony thickens when one discovers that all this dumbing-down of newscasts repels viewers rather than attracts them. The PEJ study analyzed more than 1,200 hours of news and more than 30,000 stories and suggests that by several measures "quality...is the most likely path to commercial success." This is true even when measured incrementally. The higher a station's quality score, the more it gained in market share.
No less worrisome, therefore, is the fact that the networks that own so many of these stations are too dim to understand this fact. According to yet another PEJ analysis, this one just released on February 17, TV stations controlled by large group owners--including the major networks and their biggest affiliates--generally produce lower-quality newscasts than do their smaller rivals. And "stations controlled by affiliates get higher marks for quality than do those owned and operated by ABC, CBS, NBC or Fox."
This is important because one of the primary arguments the networks make, and that Powell enthusiastically endorses, is that bigger is better, because bigger brings more resources to news coverage and allows them to be spread over vaster and more efficient economies of scale. This is exactly the same argument made by Clear Channel, let it be recalled, which then proceeded to destroy both the quality and local character of the stations it purchased. The then-CEO of its radio unit, Randy Michaels, told the Wall Street Journal, "We can produce higher-quality programming at a lower cost in markets where we could never afford the talent."
Here's the kind of "higher-quality programming" Michaels apparently had in mind: In Boise, KISS FM listeners heard a DJ named "Cabana Boy Geoff" Alan explain, "On Saturday night, me and Smooch, we were hanging out at The Big Easy.... Just thinking about it, I'm cracking up." In fact, as the Journal reported, Alan taped the program in San Diego, before the Saturday in question. He had never set foot in Boise in his life, and incidentally, "Smooch" showed up at The Big Easy on Friday, not Saturday. If Michael Powell gets his way--and he will--you can expect this kind of "reporting" coming to a local TV program near you.