By RAYMOND A. SCHROTH
A wise man, philosopher Dennis OBrien, observed at an October Commonweal symposium on religion and the media, that local news is not really news. It is a ritual, a daily reenactment of basic myths life, death and resurrection on the public screen, through the paradigms of neighborhood fires, murders and kidnappings.
A former president of both Bucknell University and the University of Rochester, an author and essayist, Dennis wears his gravitas lightly. And hes the kind of man who can give a sensible response to almost any question. So if he says something about news, thats news.
In a June 19, 1998, NCR column, I addressed the local news problem by focusing on the blood-curdling images thrown at us to hold our attention between commercials: like the Los Angeles driver who stopped freeway traffic to set his truck, dog and self on fire before blowing his own head off with a shotgun.
Apparently the TV helicopters had pursued the O.J. Simpson van in anticipation of a similar ending. They did not want to miss the big payoff. In response the media watchdogs, rightly, went into a funk of self-criticism and concluded that local TV news was a disgrace.
More than three years have passed. The press, whatever its faults, is the most self-critical of professions. Largely, thank God, because the media attract idealistic young people. They have come out of journalism programs that included work on their college newspapers and encouraged them to believe that by shining light into the dark corners they can kill viruses -- and make a better world.
Three journalism events give at least a partial answer to whether we have made progress since 1998.
First, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Project for Excellence in Journalism, affiliated with the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has conducted annual studies to measure the quality of local TV news throughout the country. The 1999 results (Columbia Journalism Review, November/December 1999), which ranked the quality of 59 stations in 19 cities, came to some encouraging conclusions. Most important: quality sells. Now, the most recent study (CJR, November/December 2001) of 43 stations in 14 markets reaffirms the quality lesson.
The formula: Be more enterprising, source stories better, air more long stories, hire more reporters and above all be local.
The bad news, nationwide, is that 25 percent of the stories are still about crime. Out of 6,000 stories covered, only nine were on poverty, welfare or homelessness. Meanwhile, advertisers put increasing pressure on editors to kill embarrassing stories and to plug their products in news holes.
Nov. 9, as I flicked back and forth between New Yorks three network late afternoon news stations for two hours, Harry Potter popped up four times: One news item told us that a consumer group has condemned the Coca-Cola tie-in with a Harry Potter film commercial; Coke is liquid candy and will rot childrens teeth. But the news item included scenes from the film and the commercial. Later we saw the commercial selling little Harry and the liquid candy. Next, the anchor woman told us, with an enthusiastic gush, not to miss next Mondays news because we would have the adorable little tyke who plays Harry Potter right here in the studio for a live interview! Dont miss it. Hes the next McCauley Culkin!
Second, in February 2000, Carol Marin, age 51, a Chicago WBBM-TV journalist with almost 30 years experience, boldly anchored a CBS local news show that would answer the question, as Neil Hickey states it in CJR (January/February 2001): Could a low-rated newscast switch to old-fashioned journalism, say goodbye to celebrities, disasters, lifestyle features and scary health reports and beat the competition?
Marin herself had made news three years before when she resigned as co-anchor at Chicagos WMAQ rather than tolerate the presence of talk-show vulgarian Jerry Springer as an on-air commentator. An instant hero to TV news people across the country, she seemed the logical Lone Ranger to run an experiment that might restore integrity to a tarnished profession.
While other stations focused on water main breaks and brief neighborhood power failures, The 10 oclock News with Carol Marin investigated racial profiling and a local manufacturers use of a dangerous insecticide, and interviewed live former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres. It developed a baby abduction story into a report on 105 babies kidnapped from hospitals over 16 years.
It didnt work. WBBM canceled the experiment in nine months. Maybe they didnt give it enough time. Maybe it was too much Marin on camera. Maybe it was just dull. The Project for Excellence graded it B rather than A because, while it gave more stories, some lacked depth. To put the problem in a larger context, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reports that the audience for local news is shrinking dramatically. In 1993, 77 percent watched local news regularly. Today, only 56 percent.
Third, this October-November, PBS presented a much-praised five-part documentary, Local News, based on a nine-month cinéma vérité examination of WCNC in Charlotte, N.C.
In 1999 a New York camera crew moved into the station, eavesdropped on staff meetings and tracked reporters on their rounds. The new owners, the Dallas-based Belo company, was determined to move WCNCs ranking from a distant third to No. 1; and the newly hired news director, Keith Connors, age 38, a soft-spoken, walking pep-talk, bought the idea that capital-j journalism is the formula for higher ratings.
Whether or not the story of a band of earnest producers and reporters trying to produce exciting TV news is itself the stuff of exciting television is another question.
We get lots of long right-seat-passenger segments where the boss or a reporter drives the van through the city talking to us, with the Charlotte skyline on the horizon, about the tough story he or she is working on, about how they are struggling to be ethical, about blah blah blah. The cinéma vérité format allows the participants to speak for themselves in a free-form flow, without a tough interviewer to contradict them and without a third party narrator to put anything we see in perspective.
To the viewer it appears that black journalists play a major role at the station; yet several have or create problems. A youngish black woman, the education reporter, strives to cover in-depth a school board battle to overturn Charlottes 1971 busing plan to desegregate the public schools. We follow her with admiration for five episodes, only to be told that somehow she got a poor job review. Not clear why.
Another black woman, a producer for six years, is passed over for promotions and quits. Still another popular black woman reporter is dismissed after 22 years, and her fans demonstrate and demand a meeting with the management. Whether someone is being treated unfairly or the new management is weeding out some dead wood we will never know. We just watch it happen.
Because bad weather stories seem to hold an audience, the station keeps a reporter who would rather do human interest stories standing out on a beach in a hurricane in his photogenic yellow rain suit day after day saying the same stuff about how hard the wind is blowing.
When an 8-year-old boy is murdered, the station gets a tip that the prime suspect is a 15-year-old boy in the neighborhood. Rather than go with the story, they hold it, at the request of their police informant, even though they have confirmed it through another source. As of today, the murder remains unsolved. An attractive blond anchorwoman gets demoted because consumer research indicates she doesnt appeal to female viewers. Her replacement is another attractive blond. The demoted anchor leaves for another anchor job in Cleveland. When the Belo group completes its evaluation they conclude: cover more crime.
Since the documentary was filmed, somehow WCNCs ratings have been inching up -- still in third place, but closing on second. And there are more blacks on the staff. CJR graded it a C and called it the best station in the worst market.
Back in New York, where all three stations got Cs, watching local news in concentrated doses is still like turning over a trash barrel and rummaging for something worth hanging on your wall. A kidnapped 6-year-old is returned. Another anthrax case? Or not? The New York police commissioner retires, having just written a memoir in which he reveals that his mother was a murdered prostitute. Theres a clip of him reading a page from his book as tears run down his face. Dont miss the full interview on 60 Minutes on Sunday night!
Which brings us back to Dennis OBrien, whose insight springs from Mircea Eliades distinction between the myth of eternal return, which is the basis of primitive cultures, and Christianity, which is the story of news, things that havent happened before, like the Incarnation and the individual lives of each one of us. So the same old nightly ritual may be reassuring to some audiences; but its both bad theology and bad journalism.
Perhaps Dennis OBrien will be invited to explain this on TV news.
Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth, Jesuit Professor of Humanities at St. Peters College, Jersey City, N.J., has just published Dante to Dead Man Walking: One Readers Journey Through the Christian Classics (Loyola Press, Chicago).
National Catholic Reporter, December 7, 2001