Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Night the News Died

Let's suppose for a moment that this paper decides to undergo a complete redesign, top to bottom.

Experts are hired, protoypes studied, opinions are offered, meeting are held.

Then on the big day, the redesigned paper appears, not without some fanfare.

But instead of news, that day's edition contains glowing articles about the editors, puff pieces about the staff and many other self-congratulatory stories.

This column on that day is devoted to interviews with senior staff members in which I ask them when they first recognized their genius, how it feels to be on the cutting edge of their profession and assuring them a place in the pantheon of journalistic excellence.

I'm betting my readers would be looking for a punch line somewhere, such as "April fools" or "Robert Rector has recently returned from an episode of nervous exhaustion."

That's because we tend to go about our business quietly, letting the product speak for itself.

Not so over in Television Land.

With Jay Leno about to appear in a new time slot on NBC, the hype was so thick it sounded like happy hour at a public relations convention. OK, I can live with that. This is show biz, after all, where
excess is the norm.

But, silly old me, I draw the line when local news operations offer up a menu of self-serving pap thinly disguised as something relevant. They even have a name for it: plugola.

Case in point: Monday night news on KNBC.

Guess what the lead story was? Yup, Jay Leno, followed by numerous other glowing reports on his new show. Any non-Leno news was squeezed to the back of the broadcast with the weather and feel-good animal stories.

While Leno's program may have some news value---after all, it was departure from the norm ---the positive coverage contrasted with the critics who generally found it dull and uninspiring. And the public which hit the channel change button on their remotes with all the gentle touch of a Gatling gun after the first night.

The clincher for me during the Monday night news segement om KNBC was an interview with the Man Himself by weatherman Fritz Coleman who tossed up enough sugar-coated questions to make your teeth hurt. Why the weatherman? I'm guessing it was because he, too, is a stand-up comic. Or maybe the field reporters and anchors were too overcome with emotion to carry on.

If that wasn't enough, Tuesday's newscast carried a long interview with a woman who is the percussionist in the house band. Rim shot!.

Look, I like Jay Leno. I don't care if his jokes are corny. If I want biting political satire, I'll watch John Stewart or tune into Glenn Beck, who can't possibly be serious.

I'll certainly look in at Leno from time to time. It might help if his guest list didn't include Kayne West, who single handidly united both major political parties behind the President when Obama called him a jackass.

Or Tom Cruise and Michael Moore who appeared the next night. Who's next? South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson?

KNBC isn't the only station to sink into this ethical quicksand. KABC treats "Dancing With the Stars" as though it was bulletins from the front, giving it breathless and prominent coverage masquerading as news stories.

Lest we forget the L.A. Times which published a bought-and-paid-for story on its front page that was a shameless promo for a new TV series.

But it is becoming all too commonplace on TV which at the same time promotes its news product as legitimate and important. Listen to what Michael Fiorile, chairman of NBC's affiliates board, has to say: "...Jay is a committed pro. He knows that the better his show does (for our newscasts), the more we'll promote him."

I'm not sure who the local news people think they are fooling. Most viewers don't need my help in seeing through this charade.

But I also think they don't care. TV news is no longer public interest programming but a moneymaking endeavor driven by ratings.

And with the competition from cable networks and the Internet, it will only get worse.

Let the viewer beware.

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