If you were looking for a dose of local news on your television set the other evening, you may have tuned in at 6 o'clock to find a professional basketball game still in progress. This is a common occurrence on weekends, when sporting events run longer than scheduled and force the delay or truncation of subsequent programs. But what is even more common is what happened once the game was concluded: The local station played fast and loose with what it calls, for want of a more precise term, "the news," and in so doing emphasized why it is so difficult for television viewers to take "the news" seriously.
The Lakers and Celtics were finished with their business shortly after 6. By the time the credits had rolled and transitional commercials had been broadcast, the station I was watching had 20 minutes left in which to present its local report. On a slow Sunday, this would seem sufficient time in which to present the basics of news, sports and weather -- this last being the principal reason why I, a weather junkie, watch local news at all. But that calculation did not reckon with, first, the station's determination to air all the commercials for which it had contracted or, second, its bizarre notion of what constitutes "news."
By the time all of the commercials had been aired, the time for news had miraculously shrunk from 20 minutes to about eight. That is not an eternity, but in television neither is it insignificant; use the time wisely and you can still get across the essential information in which viewers are interested. Ah, but wisdom is a scarce commodity, even in television. Earlier in the day, it seems, the station had sent out several reporters to film newsless "stories" for padding on what was correctly anticipated to be a slow news day. Now that they didn't need the padding, what did they do? Go to the head of the class: They ran the padding anyway.
This film, the fundamental meaninglessness of which quite defies description, consumed several minutes. Then the sports fellow came along with his own film, including -- you guessed it again, scholar -- film from the game that the station had just finished broadcasting. Still, the clock indicated about three minutes to go by the time he had finished, which seemed ample for satellite pictures of clouds over California, for talk of "snow activity" and "the outlook precipitationwise," and for the five-day forecast that is each evening's main event. Instead, the weatherman appeared in a condition bordering on panic, blurted out a few indistinct words about what might or might not happen tomorrow and faded away in disarray. Why? Yes: More commercials.
Admittedly this miniature spectacle was local "news" carried to the point of unintentional self-parody, but it certainly made the point: "The news" on local television may be many things, but few of them bear much resemblance to what reasonably well-informed people mean when they talk about "the news." What passes for "the news" on most local broadcasts is not serious or thoughtful coverage of local events, nor is it the regular, reliable presentation of basic information about weather and other matters of daily interest. Local television news is padding between commercials, and the amount of padding is determined not by its own intrinsic importance but by the time and personnel available to present it.
Consider, in more detail, the weather. Clearly this is information for which many viewers depend on local news, but does local news take it seriously? Hardly. Apart from the adolescent frivolity with which most weathermen present their material, local news clearly regards weather as inessential. If it doesn't have enough time for a full program, it immediately takes time away from the weather; one can't help wonder how newspaper readers would feel if, in an edition crammed with advertisements, the newspaper eliminated the weather map and the extended forecast and the weather in other cities -- and maybe the baseball standings and "Peanuts" and the over-the-counter stock tables as well. By the same token, if the television weatherman isn't on duty, then weather doesn't exist at all; when the national morning news shows break for brief local weather reports, often there is nothing except silence -- the local weatherman isn't in the station, so there is no such thing as local weather.
Local news does this because local news has no sense of itself as a medium providing public service. Local news is, first, a highly profitable enterprise for the station that broadcasts it; second, a means of self-promotion for the broadcasters and the station itself; third, a form of entertainment. It is quite impossible to take seriously an anchorwoman who appears in local "celebrity" festivities and competitions or a weatherman who clowns around in order to promote an evening at the circus sponsored by the station.
Are television reporters engaging in "news" when, at the end of a report, they congratulate each other, on the air, for their perspicacity and diligence? "Thanks, Alan. That's a really good story. We know you really went all out on that one. Way to go." "Thanks, Heather. I couldn't have done it without the guys and gals in the crew." This is news?
Of course it's not. We need another name for it. Perhaps, since this is the same medium that has given us "docudrama," we should call it "entertainews," as in, "Let me entertainews." Local news wants not substance but "visuals" and "graphics," so local news gives us pictures and personalities: fires and accidents to grab our attention, sentimental features about "special" people to pluck our heartstrings and happy-talk anchorpeople to be our friends -- to show us, every evening at 6 and 11, how much they and their station care about us, how much they and their station are "on your side."
There's a place for all this in the world, no doubt, but must we let them fob it off on us as "news"? It's show business pure and simple, and if they'd just call it that there would be no cause for complaint. The trouble is that they want to have it both ways: They want to be accepted as serious news people while broadcasting little except feel-good pap. Well, I'm not buying. And you can hold those cards and letters: No, I'm not envious of their salaries or -- heaven forfend -- their "celebrity." It's just that I was taught, and against all the evidence still believe, that "the news" is a serious business involving great responsibility to the public. "The news" doesn't get turned on or off depending on how many commercials are scheduled or whether the weatherman has taken a powder. The news is always there, and it must always be reported as fully and conscientiously as possible; with the rarest of exceptions, local television news simply fails to discharge this obligation.