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On TV: An Act of Contrition

Over Christmas a miracle happened at WBBM: the Holy Ghost descended on the newsroom, and their whole crew of sleazy hacks suddenly began speaking in tongues.

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Say what you will about Channel Two news, they do know how to throw a party. Watching them these past couple of years has been like touring a carnival midway where barkers entice you with marvels and strange terrors--step right up to see the Keystone Kids! The Killer Mom! Pedophile Priests! Miracle Cures! They sent camera crews zooming off to the Waco barbecue in case we needed to know what the smoke smelled like to a Chicago-trained nose; Linda MacLennan raced to England to ensure that the North Shore beat out everybody else in America for the inside scoop on Charles and Di.

We all have our favorite moments. I myself loved their pioneering use of the news-tease. Every station does it now, of course. "A sniper on the interstate," the anchor will drone--but you know she can't possibly come out and tell you whether he hit anybody: there's no suspense that way. You have to promise to be good and sit through the commercials first. It was Channel Two, though, that turned the cliff-hanger into an art form--taunting the audience with nameless menaces as vast as impending asteroids. Linda MacLennan once years ago cut to a commercial with the following words, which I am quoting exactly: "Coming up next...thousands flee when they are told something dangerous is heading their way!" All local news condescends to viewers; only Channel Two conceived of its audience as exceptionally stupid, easily scared children and then devoted itself to giving them nightmares.

Now, I gather, things are going to be different. Over Christmas a miracle happened at WBBM: the Holy Ghost descended on the newsroom, and their whole crew of sleazy hacks suddenly began speaking in tongues. Strange words like "journalistic responsibility" and "balance" and "responsive to the needs of the community" came popping out of their mouths; they've suddenly renamed themselves "Chicago's News" and assigned themselves the mission of telling hopeful stories of life in our city. Assuming, of course, that there's any hope left and that everyone in Chicago who's been watching their news over the last few years isn't cowering helplessly in a closet.

But a repentant sinner still has a sinner's reflexes, so news of this journalistic Pentecost was announced in a frenzy of hoopla. They've been running commercials in which sober, concerned citizens talk earnestly to somebody offscreen about what local news needs to do to be a positive force in the city--and when you get the reverse angle, my God, it's Linda MacLennan. And she's actually pretending to listen. For a whole week the ten o'clock news ended with a visit to the "Interact 2" war room, where volunteers took phone calls, faxes, and E-mail. It was like a cross between a PBS fund-raiser and the 700 Club, and so exciting and honest, who cared if it cut down to nothing the airtime spent on news? What's news compared to such an important new marketing campaign?

The high point in this orgy of self-criticism and community responsiveness was a week-long News Extra series called "Local TV News: Under Fire," reported by Mike Parker. It was very sincere and tough-minded; it made a big show of inviting John Callaway, ex-employee Walter Jacobson, and even Walter Cronkite to say unflattering things about local news. But when you got past its fierce honesty, you found the same old exasperating vagueness with which TV reports any issue more complicated than last night's Bulls game. Channel Two's frank admission of its own sins amounted to the following: All local stations have been reporting a lot more about crime than they used to. Local news in general has become more sensationalistic. And all local news shows are out to get big ratings.

If that was their best shot at whistle-blowing, they're in worse trouble than they think. A really honest report on their own station would have begun by describing its internal workings over the last few years. Who exactly has been responsible for the editorial decisions at Channel Two? Which staffers quit or were forced out because they weren't sufficiently sleazy? What kind of influence does, oh, say, Bill Kurtis have over content, and what did he think about his own participation in this long-running atrocity?

It's not as though Mike Parker and his hard-hitting News Extra team didn't know where to go for answers. So why didn't he bring a crew into the hallways at Channel Two and ambush a few executives? It would have done wonders for the pose of integrity to see a few of those corrupt drones scuttling fearfully away from the camera while Parker dared them to respond on air to questions about their editorial policies.

Instead what we got were the usual evasive concessions about how maybe some mistakes had been made--passively and collectively by the entire news industry--and even more evasive promises of improvement. "We welcome your input," the ads say, which tells you what they used to think of your input. They--and the News Extra series--then conclude: "And we'll be making some changes." Not, of course, that they could possibly commit to specific changes. The market research isn't back in yet, and then they have to see how the ratings go.

The most repellent feature of the progressive bestialization of TV news over the last decade has been the absolute refusal of anybody involved to take the slightest responsibility for what they've been doing. Fabulously wealthy anchorpeople like Dan Rather deplore the actions of the unnamed executives who pay their salaries; the executives themselves, when cornered, offer the smugly unanswerable rationale that they're "giving viewers what they want." WBBM then announces that things are going to be different. They begin by dodging responsibility for what they've been doing--and then they promise to give viewers what they really want.

But then who knows? Maybe they do know what I really want. I've been watching them faithfully for the last few weeks, just to see. I've also been watching their competitors with more attention than I normally give to anything in the 10 o'clock time slot apart from the sex show on CNBC. My general impression is that not much has changed. They cover roughly the same stories in roughly the same order, with roughly the same shallowness, the same ignorance, the same stupidity, and the same aura of smarmy self-righteousness that has made local TV news into such a byword for everything rotten about American mass culture. I suppose, on balance, this has to count as an improvement.

But I'm not enthusiastic about their other changes. Their new set makes me nervous. The anchors sit before a wall of video monitors, across which flit enormous, indistinct, and menacing forms--as though they were doing the news at an aquarium in front of a tank of mutant killer whales. Nor do I like the way they keep saying they're "Chicago's News" every few minutes. The other night Jay Levine slipped up and used the old name--"Two News at Ten"--and he visibly flinched, as though picturing the reprimand he'd get from upper management the moment the broadcast was over. In general the atmosphere seems awfully tense. Even more than usual the rattled anchors are garbling stories or saying the opposite of what they mean. Somebody the other night--I don't remember who--read an item about corporations proposing to pick up the whole tab for public television and misread the tag line. "And that will keep Sesame Street and Barney off the air," he said, instead of "on the air"--though perhaps that was just wish fulfillment.

As for the news itself--they have indeed cut back on the raw sewage content a bit. This translates in practice into the same old excruciation, except that it's grown mysteriously duller. The only thing that stands out is this pesky commitment they've made to telling hopeful stories. Every night, or most nights anyway, they do one under the heading "Signs of Hope." It's usually something like a five-second clip of high school students listening to a jazz concert, which evidently counts as hopeful since there was no small-arms fire. But then it's instantly back to the live bulletins from the urban war zone, and out to the suburbs to pound on the door of some doctor accused of sexually abusing his patients, and so on and on. Presenting these little glimmers of nonnews as the only hopeful events in Chicago makes life here look even more hopeless than it actually is.

A couple of weeks ago, though, they put one of these hopeful stories in the lead, providing a fair representation of what their new approach really amounts to. It was a story about Chicago-area supplies being shipped off for earthquake relief in Japan. WLS, as it happens, also led with this story--but they couldn't approach the air of hushed reverence WBBM mustered. "Topping 'Chicago's News' tonight," Jay Levine began, "helping hands." And as he said it he held out his hands, palms up.

Here's what I think Channel Two really ought to do--at a bare minimum--if they want people to take them seriously.

First, fire all their anchors and reporters. After so many years in the whorehouse, they don't have a single on-air employee with even the remnants of an honest reputation. It's especially grotesque to see Linda MacLennan, who has so blithely chirped her way through that sinister folklore they've been passing off as news, now obediently posing as a serious journalist--or a serious anything. Send her back to Canada and have her agent get her a sitcom (Mary Ann Childers can play her wacky next-door neighbor). Send Bill Kurtis off to cable, where he can spend all his time narrating documentaries on the science of Lost In Space, or how John Wilkes Booth killed Kennedy. Send the whole bunch away to wherever God intended them to go in the first place. Maybe Dionne Warwick and her Psychic Friends need a new flock of reporters to ask those tough questions about caller confidentiality.

While they're at it, they ought to fire anybody they have on staff with any kind of degree in broadcast journalism. Broadcast journalism is like extraterrestrial biology--I'm sure it exists, but there's none of it around these parts. And whoever dreamed up Jay Levine's pantomime of "helping hands" should be publicly shot, as a warning to the others. Then invite some animal-rights group to break into those fish tanks on the set and rescue whatever behemoth is lurking there.

So let's say they bring in a new crew and start from scratch. I would next like to hear a public commitment that they'll never cover any story the reporter or the anchor doesn't understand. This would put an end to almost all the news they report now. In particular it would kill off all medical and scientific coverage--and not a moment too soon. No more stories beginning "Researchers have found that [commonly-used item] is good/bad for you." No more possible breakthroughs in the fight against anything. No more artificially induced hysteria over flesh-devouring viruses. There is not a single person in any TV newsroom in Chicago, as far as I can tell, who is even remotely capable of evaluating the merits of new scientific studies--and until there is they shouldn't be reported at all.

This commitment to on-air comprehension would also mean an end, at least temporarily, to all national and international stories. But that's really no loss: these now consist almost entirely of garbled and sketchy retellings of stories the networks have already mangled. Until there's someone on staff who understands that things happen in foreign countries other than people dying in large numbers, the news will have to be confined strictly to Chicago. But that's the point, isn't it? Isn't the new name "Chicago's News"?

To prove that the station really is committed to Chicago, I would propose fitting all reporters with those electronic ankle monitors. That way an alarm will sound if they try to leave the Channel Two broadcast area to cover any story. Also, I think it should be possible to rig all remote trucks and minicams to explode if they pass beyond a 90-mile radius from State and Madison. We could then be sure where the news was coming from.

As for what this news would be, I don't care much myself about content. Forget about telling positive or negative stories, and free yourselves of this ridiculous reflex always, at all costs, to find spokesmen on both sides: to quote unnamed "critics" who exist only to oppose, to reduce every issue to a stalemate of sound bites. I think this newfound concern for "balance," to the extent that it's not merely a sign of pure contempt for its audience--which is all it looks like now--might ultimately prove to do even more damage than the old hunger for sleaze.

Instead, here's what I would suggest: set an absolute minimum time for any news item. Let's be practical here and say three minutes. If there isn't three minutes of detail worth giving about a story--no matter what it is: a murder, an apartment fire, a jazz concert--then don't bother bringing it up. The news being covered now is only an erratic skimming of the day's crop of possible stories, chosen to create a mirage of comprehensiveness: so why not break the illusion? End this old, dreary litany of 15-second bits, on through the weather to the sports and into oblivion. Shake the audience up a little; tell long stories they might possibly remember past the basketball scores. And one last point: the three-minute rule does not include teases, segues, or on-air banter, all of which will have to be banned. If the anchors and reporters have small talk to exchange, they can do it during the commercial break like the rest of us.

Since we're all committed now to honesty, I may as well come out and admit that these changes won't make any difference. I have an abiding faith that the people who make TV news shows are unredeemable. But at least my way there's a chance that sooner or later, if only by accident, some little scraps of authentic news will slip past the guards and make it onto the air.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration/Konstantin Valov.

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