Kill the Messengers

TV news should be ashamed of itself—again

When the news broke that a gas explosion had destroyed a Ramsey building and killed three women last Wednesday, the local TV news teams hit the scene. The number of dead was still in question, so there was some legitimate newsworthiness, but it was clear to anyone tuning in for even a few minutes that there was no real news to report. Still, KSTP spent much of the morning and afternoon broadcasting live from the scene, preempting regular programming.

By the time the 6:00 p.m. newscasts hit the air, it had been confirmed that two were dead. WCCO field reporter Nelson Garcia introduced the story, saying something about how onlookers had compared the scene to September 11th. Going into the first commercial break, the camera focused on the flattened building and an American flag. Anchor Don Shelby pointed out the flag and, in a hushed tone, told us what we were seeing: "Nothing left but an American flag. A tattered American flag."

Now, I am not the brightest bulb in the Holidazzle parade, but I know the difference between a terrorist attack and a gas leak, and I also know when I'm being sold something. As the images of hard-hatted firefighters and sound bites of bystanders talking about loved ones and rubble were spliced together, it was plain to see that the newsies were preying on four-year-old but forever-ripe images: This was not a singular event with real casualties, but our very own 9/11. Oddly enough, the next day's news reports in the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press mentioned nothing about Ground Zero or the flag.

As I watched the 'CCO coverage, I did a conscious gut-check. I immediately realized that I felt nothing but suspicion for the messengers. The heartstrings the news directors were attempting to pluck in me simply weren't there. I felt zilch for the friends, families, or victims, because once again I was being told how to feel, the way I'm told how to feel about everything, and so all of it--Don's heart; the Randi and Amelia alpha-cat fight; Scott and Amber and Ikea and Tiffany; three dead in Ramsey; 150,000 in Indonesia and Sri Lanka and elsewhere--is served up on the same emotional platter.

Which is bad enough, but couple it with any number of examples of mind- and soul-insulting instances such as the night a Channel 5 reporter went to a Hmong New Year celebration asking Hmong folks if the shootings in Wisconsin would affect the festivities, and, well, write your own conclusion to that sentence. Then add the hoopla over retiring anchors Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw and the soap opera of Paul Magers moving to Hollywood, while none of those voices were raised in defense of their colleague, veteran presidential watchdog Helen Thomas, who this year was banished to the back of the press conference room by the Bush administration, and the result is that no half-wit watches or takes TV news seriously. Ergo, Jon Stewart and The Daily Show.

If we are to have a local whipping icon for all this, it must be Shelby, who in 1992 was pictured on the cover of the Twin Cities Reader with his headline quote, "There Are Nights When I Feel Ashamed." Shelby is a fascinating study in professional schizophrenia. He is obviously a deep thinker and curious adventurer, and every afternoon on his radio show on WCCO, he takes calls from listeners on a wide range of subjects.

Often, the talk turns to journalism. He is candid. He discusses the way the business has gone, the prevalent "if it bleeds it leads" mentality, and his disgust is often apparent. Then, every evening, he plays the game. To watch Shelby, whose admiration for Dave Moore and great journalism has been well documented over the years (just watch his face anytime he comes back from a Caroline Lowe-reported story), is to watch a man in the throes of a Faustian struggle.

In other words, Shelby knows his audience is smarter than the people pulling his strings give it credit for. He knows that viewers know all too well that shit happens--which is why anyone with any amount of life experience is suspicious of being sold real human emotion as dim sentiment, or inevitable tragedy as surprise.

In Craig Wright's 2004 play, Recent Tragic Events, five acquaintances find themselves playing a drinking game on the eve of September 12, 2001. One is a half-baked musician-slash-village idiot, who rants about the spectacle of seeing Katie Couric interviewing a fireman the day before:

 

She was being, like, all meaningful, and she said, "Can you possibly explain what it feels like to be searching through this rubble for your friends?" And I wanted him so bad to say, "I don't know, Katie, can you possibly explain what it's like now that your husband's dead?" But no, he said, "Oh, we're all doing our best, Katie, you know, we're out there working with broken hearts." Broken hearts!

He's a fireman, you know what I'm saying? He's a tough customer! Even if his heart was broken, he wouldn't say it! But now here he was on TV and so he says "broken hearts" because he has already agreed in his mind to let himself be scripted by this media machine that wants to con us all into thinking we're surprised!

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