Honey, I Shrunk the Story
One thing has already become clear during November sweeps, the most important of four annual ratings periods when local TV stations try to pump up their numbers with made-for-tabloid "news" and over-the-top promotion (February, May, and July are the others). When it comes to extreme headlines and the sort of haughty packaging that's overtaking cable, no one in the Twin Cities comes close to FOX-9, where news director Ted Canova has to have management at the relatively lackluster WCCO-TV second-guessing their decision to let him go in January 2002. From night to night, Canova's hand-picked cast has shamelessly featured a mix of sex, sensation, and yes, even slapstick, in an effort to capitalize on last spring's stunning ratings surge, when Channel 9 got within spitting distance of the number-three rated KSTP-TV, which is floundering on air and off.
A few highlights include Tom Lyden's wry profile of Hibbing-born drag queen and porn director, Chi Chi LaRue. The dangers of strolling through megastores like Home Depot, where perilously arrayed stacks of appliances can come crashing down on an unsuspecting customer at any minute. And--the highlight so far--Trish Van Pilsum's seatbelt safety story, which features Fear Factor-like footage of the normally stoic reporter rolling over in a crash simulator and squealing like a kid at Camp Snoopy.
While KSTP and 'CCO are gamely trying to keep pace with Canova's circus act (Channel 5's story on exploding cell phones was particularly inspired), the longtime rating's leaders over at KARE-11 resisted the temptation to alter their formula. While FOX hopes to attract a younger, mostly undecided demographic with sin-soaked profiles and reality TV masked as libertarian muckraking, KARE continues catering to its middle-aged, middle-income audience with squishy mom-and-pop features, consumer reports, and alarmist stories about crime and punishment.
Besides Paul Magers's recent on-set visit with a zookeeper and her reptile companion during the nightly news (a stunt reminiscent of Johnny Carson circa 1977), the best example so far of KARE's old-school approach to sweeps was a hard-boiled dispatch from weekend anchor Rick Kupchella, who happens to be among the front-runners for Magers's chair. Heavily teased as a revealing investigation of how fiscal mismanagement in Minneapolis has depleted its police force and endangered an embattled citizenry, the piece played like a campaign commercial for those suburban conservatives who routinely fan their constituency's resentment and fear of the urban core.
The oft-repeated factoid that drives the story is that the city of Minneapolis has 160 fewer cops than it did seven years ago and, despite a dramatic reduction in crime over that same period, "the police say that means only one thing: more guns, drugs, and money on the street." What should be even more alarming to those of us who were planning to spend a little time Christmas shopping in Uptown, Kupchella reports, is that "the Minneapolis police department is literally coming up with crimes it will no longer respond to."
For nearly 13 minutes over two nights, we watch grainy photographs from the mean streets of south Minneapolis, taken during a four-hour tour KARE's brave reporter took in the backseat of a police cruiser. The video does little to advance the story, but sure makes you glad you're curled up in front of the tube: There are black kids "drinking, getting high," black kids getting pushed into the back of a squad car by a clean-cut white cop, and a black couple involved in a dimly lit domestic dispute. To top it all off, we are treated to the quintessential, confrontational interview with a city employee--shot with two cameras so we can see the reporter doing his job, asking the tough questions. In this scene, Minneapolis police Chief Robert Olson, playing dumb but still smart enough to take a swing at Mayor R.T. Rybak, tells KARE's Mike Wallace wannabe he's "not talking to the right guy" about budget cuts.
These rote aesthetics came as no surprise, in large part because Kupchella has always had a fondness for hyperbolic crime stories. Moreover, he's always come off as essentially reactionary--a Type-A guy who believes the world needs tougher laws, stricter morals, and the sort of (dollars and cents) common sense that conservatives like to find lacking in liberals. Still, the sweeps entry is striking--both for the breadth of sources and information Kupchella blithely ignores, and the boldness with which he disguises his political screed as reportorial journalism. What's most disconcerting, and what should be giving executives at KARE pause as they consider whom to pick as their next anchor, is that the story seemingly harbored a bias in favor of Governor Tim Pawlenty, for whom Kupchella's wife, Leslie, works as a spokeswoman.
According to Gail Plewacki, communications director for the city of Minneapolis, Kupchella began working on the cop story in August. She claims to have provided him with reams of data, which shows that crime is not only down dramatically, but that reductions in the police force are due to a number of complex and complementary factors, including Pawlenty's dramatic cuts to Local Government Aid, which is earmarked to help cities pay for police, firefighters, and street sweepers. "There's no question that the LGA cuts in general affected services across the board," says Minneapolis finance officer Pat Born. "A substantial cut in LGA occurred this year, and there's an additional drop next year."
Kupchella totally ignored the LGA issue, suggesting instead that the only explanation for the MPD's depletion is incompetence on the part of politicians in Minneapolis. "I've wondered if it's ultimately not a question of the management of the money in the city," he says to Olson during their on-air interview. "Here we seem to manage it in a way where the Minneapolis police department really gets kicked." This exchange was particularly galling to downtown bureaucrats who, after viewing KARE's investigative report, could be heard grumbling about Kupchella's marital ties.
Though he never says so, the seven-year period Kupchella chose to focus on conveniently coincides with a period in which the city received federal dollars to hire more officers, known as "Clinton Cops," then lost that funding. In a throwaway line at the end of the first night's segment, Kupchella does acknowledge that those Clinton Cops account for half of the 160 positions used to tease the story, but then tells Magers that those cuts don't excuse the force's overall depletion rate. When Magers asks if city officials gave Kupchella any other explanation for reducing the size of its force, the reporter says no.
Of course, if Kupchella had bothered to interview a few folks in the city's finance department or a City Council member, he would have gleaned a very different picture of the cuts. The only sources quoted in the piece, however, are Olson (who passes the buck), police union head John Delmonico (a political ally of Pawlenty), and a handful of beat cops. Kupchella failed to contact the city's finance director, Pat Born, and, according to Rybak's spokeswoman, Laura Sether, he never contacted the mayor's office for comment. A conspicuous oversight, since Kupchella repeatedly infers during his sweeps story that it's Rybak, not his wife's boss, who has left the MPD in a shambles.
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