Saturday, May 03, 2008

You think the national television medium sucks? Try local newscasts for a while.

There are endless posts and more than a couple of books about how badly the mainstream media has fallen down on the job. I wholeheartedly agree. I can’t add much to that discussion other than an additional dose of disgust and anger. But I was thinking the other day about how bad the local news programs are. That is something I haven’t seen much about, so I’ll take a crack at that subject.

What I am referring to is the local television market, the one that reaches just as much as their broadcast area covers. Since I live in Seattle, that is the local news that I see. However, “news” is a relative term. “Infotainment” may be a better term. I’m actually surprised to see that Microsoft Word knows how to spell that, so it must be entering the English lexicon. Plus, whenever they can throw in some sordid bits of sex scandals, blood, violence and grieving relatives, so much the better. The old hack statement, “If it bleeds, it leads” is really quite true. Plus, our particular location makes any possibility of snow into a festival of overcoats and gloves, and reporters breathlessly reporting things like, “Well, Dan and Kathy, I’m in Lynnwood, where it was snowing JUST five minutes ago. But as you can see, it has turned into rain.”

Now, to be fair, they do some reporting of some good stories now and then. Those are the ones that fall into their laps and that there isn’t a need to do much in the way of serious analysis. Pictures and just straight reporting of the facts (“As you can see, the house behind me has burned down.”) work well for television news. But, for the most part, local television newscasts are a joke.

What I object to most is how anything to do with sex becomes a subject worthy of in-depth reporting. I blame it on Mary Kay Letourneau, the local schoolteacher that became a national news story for repeatedly having sex with a very young student. Since then, it’s pretty much all sex, all the time. I feel that they can report on the newsworthy facts of any case like that, but they really don’t need to dwell on the sordid details. Yet, that is where the local news departments seem to think they get the most mileage.

For instance, there was a very sad situation that happened recently here, where a local high school teacher and track coach vanished. He could not be found for several days. Then his car was found, parked along side the road with a door open and the keys still inside. Then, his body was found a few miles from the scene. He had been shot to death.

Details came out about some adult oriented web site that he had been a member of. I didn’t think much of it. I was much more upset by the fact that someone could shoot an unarmed man like that. It was reported that the authorities were looking into this web site to see if that might have anything to do with it. Once the television stations got that particular detail, boy, Katy bar the door. They started reporting that the victim had been advertising for sex, and in particular, sex with multiple partners. One newscast I saw actually showed a screen capture of they guy's web page with all the stuff he was into and what he was looking for. All sorts of sordid details about the person started coming out. It started to become more of a story than the fact that he was murdered in cold blood. Luckily, the police apprehended a couple that they termed, “persons of interest”. It looks like those are the people who did it, although the motive remains unclear.

However, the victim’s friends and family, and all the students at his high school have now been bombarded with all this crap that is probably not related to the crime, and his reputation is now more about that than the fact he had been a very popular figure at his school, well liked and well respected. I firmly believe that what consenting adults do for their jollies in private, so long as it doesn’t harm anyone else and involves adults and not kids, is their own business. The only time I have written about this kind of behavior is when these great hypocrites, the bastions of American society, say one thing and do another. In the past few years, that has mostly been Republicans (e.g., David Vitter, Larry Craig) but more than a few Democrats have been caught as well (e.g., Eliot Spitzer). But, in private, it should remain private. I think that the local television newscasts really had no reason to delve that publicly into this aspect of the case. What’s the point, other than titillation and sensationalism? It also makes sometimes for a news story that is worthy of an "R" rating. I really don't like my 12 year old daughter to hear some of this. I would rather not have to explain this particular subject right now, and I wish the TV stations would consider who is probably in the living room before they actually say some of this stuff on their programs.

I know that funds for local television news departments are not extensive. But I feel they really should do a better job of reporting important local news stories in depth. All this emphasis on the trivial is ridiculous. A news story that gets no more than a couple of inches on page 7 of the newspapers becomes the lead story on the local news. I don’t even bother anymore. I knew that things were really bad when I saw a promo for one of the local news broadcasts having to do with psychics for your pet. Yep, that one is really “news”.

I also object to the local newscasters just repeating anything that the Bush adminstration says. And remember, Seattle is one of the more liberal areas of the country. I really had a problem whenever one of the local stations had a story about the war in Iraq, the background graphics said "War On Terror!" Dammit, how many times do they have to hear that Iraq really has NOTHING to do with terrorists? Jeez. To be fair, they haven't done that for a while. I guess I should give them a break, because 95% of the media in the country fell for that one as well. Still, I do wish the local news departments would put a LITTLE thought into what they reporting, instead of just taking 20 seconds per story to read two paragraphs out of the local paper.

I have given up. If there isn't anything in the first three minutes of the local news (which starts at 4:57 p.m., instead of straight up 5:00), then figure that nothing has really happened today, and I switch over to MSNBC and watch Countdown with Keith Olbermann.

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