Absinthe of Malice
POSTED DECEMBER 13, 1997--
It is, of course, with trepidation that one agrees to dedicate a full season to regular viewing of local television news broadcasts. Nightly ingestion of TV news is not much different in effect from nightly ingestion of absinthe. The latter, a robust liqueur distilled from wormwood, was long ago recognized for producing delirium and idiocy and, therefore, its sale was banned in 1912. Why TV news, so fraught with identical hazards, is not subject to similar measures, I cannot say. Perhaps there is some troublesome constitutional issue. In any event, one dismal fall evening not so many weeks back, I blithely risked stupor and despair and agreed to cast a cold eye upon a season of news broadcasts issued by the Twin Cities' NBC affiliate, KARE-11.
This ill-advised voyage into the barren, vanilla heart of upper Midwest television began with a simple question: Is KARE better or worse than three other local commercial news outlets: the grotesquely folksy WCCO, the intriguingly feckless KSTP and the simply strange, faux cyber-savvy KMSP? At the outset, I doubted that any Twin Cities station could possibly rival the bane of Golden Valley, which, in its fealty to the low principles of the Gannett Corporation, confounds one to decide whether that sinister octopus's print efforts (notably, USA Today) bring disgrace upon its broadcasting operations or vice-versa. They are, I suppose, on a par. It is as though Gannett has embarked on a deliberate strategy to weld the worst tendencies of each medium to the other. The typical KARE broadcast is a witch's brew of self-promotion, anemic feel-good stories (favorite categories: infants, puppies and other such syrups) and grave yet fantastically shallow accounts of urban mayhem.
Then, of course, there is the problem of "happy talk," the astonishingly empty, forced exchanges in the window between the finish of a story and the endless commercial breaks. The happy talk ritual has been formalized to a baffling degree at KARE, as the featured performers - flashing unnerving thousand-watt smiles - issue robotic chuckles at their colleagues' lame quips. It is intended, I suppose, to make us feel as though they are family. If that's the case, I want to run from home. Of course, all this is presided over by KARE's smarmy master or ceremonies, Paul Magers.
Every aspect of the broadcast - from weighty editorial decisions to the little display hankeys Magers stuffs in the pockets of his boxy, double-breasted suits - seems to emanate from focus groups or, perhaps, the feeble imagination of some marketing hack. Either way, the viewer is left wishing - yearning, even - that merely half the effort expended on the show's cosmetic aspect were dedicated to news gathering. It is all enough to send the weak-willed lunging for the schnapps long before the 6 p.m. show dissolves seamlessly into the putrid, John Tesh-penned score of "Entertainment Tonight."
Yes, I suffered wretchedly this season. The low moment? Hard to say. Was it the fear-mongering "road rage" piece? TV likes random crime as a subject and will go great lengths to convince us we may, at any moment, fall victim to some wild predator. The road rage "expose" - which even featured an interview with a motorist who admitted to getting hot under the collar - employed a slow-mo, shaky cam re-creation of a fist thrown in a sucker punch arc directly at the viewer. That little flourish raised a couple of good questions. When, exactly, did local television news appropriate the "cinematic" techniques of tabloid TV? And when did editors decide it was no longer necessary to declare scenes of fiction to be declared "reenactments?"
Of course, this is all a merely venal offense in comparison to reporter Gail Plewacki's pointlessly cruel, three-part hidden camera account of alcohol and pot use by assembly line workers at the Highland Park Ford plant. Plewacki's sanctimonious confrontations of the Ford employees were an awful spectacle to behold - testament to television's lust for the easy target. It seemed like the news equivalent of that unsporting tradition of western states, the prairie dog shoot. Plewacki, an ex-cop who enjoys the pose of intrepid, trenchcoated investigator, comes off more as a wicked, cross-dressing Alan Funt than Ida Tarbell. What ever became of the old journalistic bromide, comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable, anyway?
But shaky news judgment is a habit at KARE. Take, for instance, the
lead on a recent 10 p.m. show - a story about a minor injury suffered by the wife of
hockey great Wayne Gretzky. The lead story? The incident didn't happen in Minnesota. In
the newspapers, it barely merited notice. But the cameras were rolling as a sheet of
ice-side Plexiglas collapsed upon the lovely Ms. Gretzky. TV news, at its dimmest and most
voyeuristic, always prefers a picture to a story.
|For the sheerly
putrid, however, that could not rival the 10 p.m. Dec. 11 broadcast. I sensed trouble from
the moment Magers appeared to tease the show with a grim reference to alleged interference
with Christmas observance by "the p.c. police" - a loaded term, one would more
likely find in a huffy Rush Limbaugh rant than on a genuine news broadcast. Of course, the
lines between the two have become increasingly blurred. Sure enough, Magers led with a
preposterous story about a school district in Plymouth which formalized a policy
prohibiting Christian holiday observances. So what? It seems that the folks over at KARE
are actually shocked to find that we live - thank Jehovah, Allah, Jesus or your favorite
paranormal entity - in a secular society. I wonder, would Magers be surprised to find that
public schools do not celebrate Ramadan or Hanukkah or Black Mass? Nonetheless, Magers
could scarcely conceal his outrage. At the conclusion of the story, he gravely noted that
the University of Iowa has encouraged faculty to employ non-denominational seasonal
greetings such as "Happy Holidays" in lieu of "Merry Christmas." This
execrable addendum was delivered with a smirk intended to spark the ire of the zealots and
morons inclined to get riled by such matters. For viewers so incapacitated by nausea that
they couldn't shut off the box, there was a final spectacularly horrid segment at the end
of the broadcast certain to induce gut-wrenching spasms of vomit: co-anchor Diana Pierce,
dressed in a gaudy form-fitting sequined Christmas sweater, belting out turgid
contemporary Christmas music in front of an audience in Maplewood. Pierce ought to be
credited for possessing the peculiar ability to smile as she sings, but, really, what's
next? Perhaps a few chubby seraphim on the corporate logo?
The list of KARE's offenses, really, is nearly infinite in length. How many levels of irony, for instance, can you spot in the recent KARE-Extra feature about a community newspaper in Pine River which only prints "good news?" Reporter Mark Daly's piece didn't question, even for a moment, whether the paper had abandoned a fundamental trust. Was it cynical ploy or was he really swallowed whole by the bogus quaint-ness of the undertaking? Magers, in a typical, cloying appeal to the audience's dimmest anti-media sentiments, endorsed the story with a grin one would be hard pressed to describe as sincere.
Maybe it isn't fair to pick the low moments in such scatter shot manner.
So now let us consider a single, randomly selected broadcast - the 10 p.m. show of Tuesday, Nov. 22. It was a profoundly empty offering, yet in many ways typical of what one can expect from KARE. The show commenced with the lurid tale of a prison counselor who quit her job to romance a convicted rapist. Tabloid-style interviews with the lovers didn't reveal much aside from the mouthy cockiness of the inmate and the sad yearnings of the counselor. Yet, the story was typical of KARE's aim to both titillate (imagine, it urged us, this dark, inter-racial coupling) and appall (again, imagine the dark coupling). Despite the absence of any real newsworthy aspect, it contained three elements television news editors crave: sex, crime and race. And, so, it was the lead.
Next up, the ashen Magers appeared on screen and proceeded to offer up the details on the Twin Cities' second great event of the day - the emergence of a price war between competing filling stations in some forlorn corner of St. Anthony. Much footage of enthusiastic morons queued up in front of the pumps. Do you get the feeling that it is, somehow, the unrelenting aim of television to whip consumers into the frenzied search of bargains?
The number three feature on this night's broadcast: A live we-must-do-this-because-we-bought-the-equipment remote shot of a person named Brad Huppert standing outside the gray, Stalinist concourse at the Metrodome. Huppert tells us that the Rolling Stones are AT THIS VERY MOMENT rocking out. It is the sort of effortless, rote story that TV loves: A couple of interviews with the paunchy bond traders and dental hygienists come to pay homage and a few predictable, lightly sociological comments concerning the age of the band and its fans. Next, we are back at the studio, suffering with Paul and Pat as they drone on about new policies at the St. Paul impound lot, and a bank robbery in Blaine, and a "Safe and Sober" holiday driving campaign.
Next comes an unpaid advertisement for an upcoming Prince concert at the Target Center and a little feel-good piece about a St. Paul girl reunited with her lost dog. Puppies and kids are sure winners. Together? Gold. But our child fetish, the KARE gang surmises, cannot be so easily sated. We are treated then to a longish feature about a sweet old guy who volunteers at a hospital and coos at premature babies. Okay. Still waiting for real news.
Next, we return to Pat, who - flashing her I-can-smile-while-I-talk smile - tells us how to volunteer. At KARE, they are always eager to prove that they do, in fact, care and no effort is spared in the aim to show they are good corporate citizens.
Yes, it may have been a slow night, but the promo for the next night's EXTRA does not promise improvement. For unknown reasons, KARE believes someone other than immediate family yearns for a feature about a teenager who aspires to be a TV weatherman. Of course, this prompts much hilarity and mock "I feel so threatened" twittering from KARE weatherman Ken Barlow. Frankly, I just don't see how that story could possibly compete with CCO's upcoming Dimension report for the same night: Men who are unhappy with their penile implants.
An agonizingly long weather report by Barlow follows, the first segment of which concerns the weather of the day just passed and the current conditions. Is this for the benefit of those of us under house arrest? It is KARE's habit to make the viewer suffer through quite a bit of this nonsense, as well as a monumental commercial break, before the actual forecast is delivered. It is all a tease meant to keep our fingers from the clicker.
The hard news segment of the show now disposed with, we move on to sports, hosted by the goonish Randy Shaver. Shaver gravely relates news of injury to the Viking quarterback and then rattles off four more items, two of which feature footage of athletes dolloping out Thanksgiving chow at charitable functions. Is it too cynical to imagine the number of public relations professionals involved in the choreography of those stories? Of course we live in a culture where the appearance of performing good acts is generally more important than good acts themselves. So perhaps this really is news.
Impossibly, the sports segment doesn't hit bottom until Erik Perkins - one of Shaver's underlings - appears for a regular and spectacularly feeble segment - "Perk at Play." The schtick here is sort of a Plimpton-esque, participatory journalism, in which Plucky Correspondent thrusts himself in the midst of an athletic endeavor. In this case, we are treated to scenes of Perkins working out with cheerleaders. The footage shows Perkins hamming it up and, of course, by the time we return to the studio, Paul and Pat and Randy and Ken - well, they have dissolved into peels of yucks. We really do think the Plimpton thing isn't such a bad idea. It is just that Plimpton himself is...well, not a dim fraternity boy.
The hilarity of it all comes to an end with the promise of entertainment on the grandest scale: an appearance on Leno by that awful, Disney-fying degrader of jazz, Kenny G.
Do you feel improved? Informed? Or do you merely want to put a boot through the television?