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.