Anchors Awry

THE GOOD NEWS about TV news is that audience-tracking technology has all but rendered sweeps periods obsolete except as a matter of custom. Or maybe this is the bad news, since sweeps months like the one we're living through now are practically the only time when one can have any fun watching the news. There is always the possibility you will see Esme Murphy go undercover as a toiler in the sex trade, a prospect whose prurient appeal is not unlike that of the Faces of Death videos. Sweeps time lets the real essence of the TV news enterprise shine through; what Gore Vidal said of the Sunday morning network politics shows is all the more applicable here: "The level of the chat on those programs is about as low as it is possible to get without actually serving the viewers gin."

This month, with the help of regular updates from the organization PR Newswire, I tracked the daily 10 p.m. newscasts. I'm sad to report that sex, a staple of sweeps gone by, has been a negligible factor in the special focus segments thus far. No doubt it's become a casualty of the Minnesota Nice that KARE made the subject of its Extra report on May 7. Fearlessly casting aside conventional wisdom, the segment asked whether we aren't just a little bit chilly to strangers. Two nights earlier, the Extra report had spent several minutes turning up the dirt on smudge-free mascaras.

Happily, though, the desexed sweeps have not been besmirched by news. According to my own scientific survey--in which I counted all the feature and special project reports, assigning a 1 to the really good ones and a 2 to stories of marginal but perceptible merit--there was exactly one investigative report premised on a substantial subject: KARE's piece about concerns surrounding a number of patient deaths at Fairview Southdale. Nearly all the 2s, of which there were not many either, were consumer news of one stripe or another. Some, like Channel 5's story about restaurant inspections, had a broader public dimension; most, like KARE's two-part piece about infomercials (shockingly, they are biased and sometimes misleading), did not. Watching these broadcasts, you would scarcely guess that there was any such thing as politics (apart from the presidential campaign) or a public sphere. On TV news, to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, there is no society, only families.

And only well-heeled families at that. Naturally the consumer news tilted toward appeals to the more genteel demographics: the skinny on premium lipsticks, professional wedding photographers, drinking and boating. Did you know that Minnesotans spend more on groceries than other Midwesterners? It's true. A related story genre is the (increasingly angst-ridden) middle class lifestyle piece. On consecutive evenings, WCCO featured Dimension reports on finding quality time to spend with your family and class reunions--to go or not to go? The former must have caused a great wailing at KARE, since they had a story in the can based on the same press release (a survey showing that Americans value time more than money) that did not run until the next night. I expect that before the month is out we'll see a feature about the impact of 35W construction on the nuclear family in Burnsville. Assuming, that is, that someone has been forward-thinking enough to issue a media alert about it.

So there you go: a puree of easy pathos, canned stories served up by PR flacks, consumer news, and general puffery topped with the usual generous dollop of crime coverage. A little light on the outrageous as sweeps time goes, except for the dependable Tom Gasparoli. Following the latest non-story about the futile efforts of Iowa anchorwoman Jodi Huisentruit's friends and associates to turn up a lead in her disappearance, which was covered in copious detail by all the local stations, Gassy managed to find an exclamation mark where others saw only ellipses.

Seizing on the sloppy seconds from a Channel 5 report about a number of assault cases in Rochester purportedly involving Arab foreign nationals in town to visit the Mayo Clinic, which was in turn lifted from a print source, he gathered up a tabloid-TV clip in which Huisentruit's sister mentioned an Arab man Jodi had gone out with. He then proceeded to spin a story hinting that Middle Easterners might have spirited her off, presumably to perform unspeakable acts and read OPEC price updates over the air. Did you know that one can still spout the most virulent and baseless things about Arabs (and, to a diminishing extent, the Japanese) without fear of being called to task? It's true.

LAST WEEK URBAN League President Gary Sudduth conducted a press conference to announce the formation of a liaison panel to help resolve the grievances of the Minneapolis Black Police Officers Association against Chief Bob Olson's regime. Privately some of the black officers are worried that Sudduth's role in the affair is to carry water for Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, whose tack in matters of racial discord touching city government is typically to tread lightly and try to keep a lid on things, lest they blow up and expose her as the shill to the institutional status quo that she is. What will come of the effort remains to be seen, but Sudduth's performance at the press conference--declining to spell out the officers' complaints, and neglecting to mention the role or composition of the citizens' panel until asked--indeed bore the scent of a containment strategy.

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