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Dave Dahl -- Experienced; accurate; white.

Try to not watch
by Rob Levine

Makers of cinematic films know they can count on the principle of Suspension of Disbelief—the idea that when people watch movies they "pretend" to not see the holes in the plot, lack of continuity and other tips that would prove the story to be unbelievable. Judging by the public’s embrace of local television news as their favorite—as well as their most trusted— news source, it appears this principle may also be at work every night at 10PM on the local airwaves.

Perhaps no television news operation could possibly prove this theory better than the KSTP (Channel 5) Eyewitness News 10PM show, which is pretty much anything but the news people need to know. If a television critic was looking for a perfect example of all the things that are wrong with television news, he need look no further than the flying-pictures version of Hubbard Broadcasting known as KSTP-TV.

Given the station’s enormous journalistic breaches, listing their transgressions is in itself a daunting task, but here goes: No one goes to larger efforts to get emotion and violence onto the screen, and rational, meaningful humans off of it. No other station distorts and confuses more stories, tugs more at the heartstrings, shills more for itself, has replaced consumer reporting with consumerism reporting, showcases its million dollar technologies in astoundingly ludicrous ways, ignores more important and relevant stories, and commits other sins in such large volume.

Judging from their practice of dredging up old murders and mayhem when there’s none directly at hand, one can assume that over at Eyewitness News the television adage, "If it bleeds it leads" has now apparently been amended to include dried blood. This technique of picking at scabs works especially well when stories blur the time frame of an actual event. On the Saturday, November 22 show newsreader Vineeta Sawkar breathlessly led the 10PM news with the story that "A Twin Cities father is killed in this car crash!" What’s not revealed until later is that the man was killed more than a year ago.

That year-old murder was followed up with another tale of warmed-over violence, this one about a four month-old unsolved murder. The mayhem report was finally rounded out with a third time-shifted story, this one about a two month-old murder. These top three stories accounted for almost four and a half minutes—half the news hole-- yet not one of them appeared in the next day’s newspaper. I won’t bother you with the other tripe that appeared on that night’s show, other than to say that these weren’t the only violent (and/or old) stories that didn’t appear in the next day’s paper.

In fairness to them, trying to understand the nature of KSTP news using the yardsticks of journalism is a little like trying to understand Las Vegas using the standards of Ghandi—it makes no sense. KSTP’s sheer slavishness to ratings makes attempts to correlate stories that appear—and don’t appear—on their broadcasts with news produced by more venerable sources fruitless in more instances than not. Usually the emotional, titillating and violent stories near the top of an Eyewitness News broadcast show up buried in the News Digest of the Metro section of the paper. Other times reports are broadcast just because they’re easy to do, such as Vineeta Sawkar’s compelling 30-second report on where Minneapolis residents could get free sand for their sidewalks.

Emotional stories are made all the more poignant by the presence of godly people, where the camera can zoom in on some icon of preferably Christian idolatry. Usually these stories must place these holy men and women in a positive light, but if a dark shadow is present, so much the better. I detected no fewer than five such stories in the week of 10PM reports I viewed, including a report featuring the ubiquitous icon of caring Mary Jo Copeland feeding Thanksgiving dinner to the poor, and a story I didn’t see anywhere else about a pedophile Archbishop living semi-secretly in Jackson, Minnesota (where a cruel reporter put a nun into a situation where she seemingly had to lie.)

Brad nailed
Strangest of all in the week of KSTP Eyewitness News at 10 PM was Joe Schmit’s fawningly homoerotic pursuit of Vikings quarterback Brad Johnson. For a week straight I endured Joe promoting or telling us about Brad Johnson. There he was stalking Johnson’s personal history in the quarterback’s home town of Black Mountain, North Carolina, catching such nuggets as "Brad is King of the Mountain," from southern geezers. Later in the week Schmit was back in the studio, this time ruminating about Brad’s bad ankle.

Not counting the endless promotion of their big story, the Vikings quarterback was the focus of no less than seven minutes airtime. I detected a note of envy in Schmit’s voice when they rolled the tape of Brad singing amid a bevy of overdressed North Carolina teenagers in a high school talent contest. Things seemed okay a little later when Joe gave us his take on Johnson’s high school perm.

Despite the egregious offenses of their news selection, KSTP isn’t above making flat-out errors of both substance and form. The night of the Rolling Stones concert at the Metrodome, for example, newsreader Kalley King announced that a KSTP cameraman had actually gotten into the show and shot the first song. At that point they rolled footage obviously from a rock video, featuring various shots, including some from an on-stage camera and some from a camera behind the stage.

Let’s just say that was an oversight on their part. What happened on the night of November 27th was not so benign. Given a real story about a Washington County deputy being assaulted by some poachers in Afton, KSTP, in a rush to hyperbole, announced with their lead story that the deputy had received "a vicious beating," and, in a standup in front of Regions hospital, intimated he was near death. Like other KSTP lead stories, this one landed on page B3 in the Star Tribune, in the Briefs section, where the paper reported that the officer was in fair condition, and the injuries didn’t appear to be life-threatening.

Emboldened by the previous nights successes, KSTP led their 10PM news the very next night with the same story, only inexplicably the officer was now out of the hospital, and resting at home. Not content with the emotional scale of the follow-up, KSTP found some Aftonites to go on the camera and explain they had moved from the city to "...get away from this stuff. If they did this to an officer, what would they do to an ordinary citizen?" one white middle-aged guy complained over the 911 audiotape blaring: "Officer down, officer down!" Altogether, KSTP led their news with this story two days in a row, for a total of five and half minutes of airtime, almost a third of the total news hole.

Gathering an audience with titillation and pander might be one thing, but cashing in on it is another. To grease the wheels television stations have smashed the line (if there ever was one) between advertising and editorial. Consider the Thanksgiving evening’s "News" story on Channel 5 detailing the store opening times of four large retailers: Walmart, Daytons, Target and the Mall of America; all but The Mall of America advertised on that very broadcast--even though they had been the subject of a story the previous night on how not to end up looking like Willard Scott from eating while shopping. This expose revealed that Mall food isn’t really that bad, and you can work off those calories by walking down the endless rows of stores!

Just in case we didn’t get the message that we should get out and shop, damnit, the same story featured Judy Cook of the Retail Merchants Association, who reported that "It’s a fun day to be out among the crowds. People seem to be in a good mood." As opposed to shoppers in bad moods? As further enticement, Cook suggested that "There’s a lot of really good promotions to take advantage of. It’s probably the best selection you’ll see (all year)."

Given the previous hectoring, I knew there’d be a shopping progress report the next day, and I wasn’t disappointed. With the Skywitness Death Star 5 hovering above, Vineeta Sawkar was on the spot at Rosedale with a two and a half-minute report, informing us that "Today is kickoff day for the entire shopping season." Looking for that unique shopper, Sawker found one who said "I like to shop around and see exactly what I want to get." The Attack of the Shopping Stories continued with a 20 second report telling us to make sure to have a shopping plan, and concluded with 25 seconds of pictures from the Holidazzle parade in downtown Minneapolis, where Conangla reminded us that the whole reason for the parade was to get shoppers downtown.

Altogether over the three days of Wednesday, Thursday and Friday Eyewitness News treated their viewers to over six and a half minutes of shopping stories, roughly equal to one-quarter of the news hole.

Note that KSTP didn’t abandon the rest of their usual approach to the news on those nights, as they broadcast a total of over 16 minutes of crime/mayhem in those same broadcasts, roughly two-thirds of the news hole. Another three minutes and 25 seconds went to coverage of the McCaughey’s in Iowa, where Eyewitness News had broadcast a story from the previous Saturday about how the media there was going home.

Ultimately, even when it seems KSTP may be trying to do something good, they Frankenstein it into trash, such as their report about a violence prevention program at Bloomington Kennedy High School aired Monday the 24th. Using the vague language that signifies a weak story, Kalley King announced that "Despite today’s encouraging numbers about the drop in violent crime in Minnesota, there is one forgotten crime, teen aggression on other teens…" The promotion for the story, which ran earlier in the same broadcast, declared that "Your teenager could be the next target. Classmates sharing the school hallway between classes could be planning a violent attack."

Two nights later the melatonin-challenged Unbearable Beings of Whiteness at Channel 5 turned to media criticism. Eyewitness News anchor Chris Conangla angrily led the 10PM news with the hot story that Newsweek magazine had altered their cover photo to fix the teeth of litter-mom Bobbi McCaughey. Irony, being a more refined idea, seemed to be totally absent when Conangla concluded "They’re a newsmagazine, they’re not supposed to be altering the truth, do they regret it now?"

I wondered how many times KSTP had altered the truth, or how many things they had to regret. Did they regret the coarsening affect their crime-ridden broadcasts have on viewers? Did they regret (wrongfully) scaring us about impending icy roads the whole week? Did they regret presenting rock-video footage as their own? Did they regret aggrandizing the assault of the Washington County Deputy? Did they regret slipping in covert "News" stories that are really shills for advertisers on that very show? Did they regret that in their week of broadcasting they had totally ignored otherwise huge stories, such as the Asian financial meltdown, the environment, and city, state and federal governments?

And therein lies the rub. Maybe in the past people could just turn off the tube and get their news elsewhere. The trouble is, most people won’t get their news anywhere else, and the most vulnerable among us are convenient prey to the corrosive effects of gold-digging television "journalism." A report by the Media Studies Center found that reliance on TV news goes down as educational attainment increases. Conversely, the report found, just the opposite is true for non-television sources of news and information.

Editors and content-gatherers alike are aware that they have turned from producing journalism to producing titillating and ultimately meaningless filler to punctuate the short space between automobile ads. They also suspect that viewers may be aware of this downgrade as well, which is why KSTP employs a huge Promotions department, angling to convince us that these really are news people, that these newsreaders are just like you and I, and that they’re really on Our Side.

Try not to look
Of course, they’re fundamentally not on our side. As shown from their content, they’re on their own side, and the side of their advertisers, even in previously-hallowed areas like the newsroom. Yet, the same report found that people inexplicably trust TV news anchors more than newspaper reporters, leading to the sad conclusion that people are believing that this dangerous portrayal of the world on stations like KSTP is in fact a mirror of the real world.

Viewers seem to buy this even when the news itself says that crime and violence are down, such as the night of Monday, November 22, when KSTP broadcast the story that, according to FBI reports, violent crime had fallen five percent in Minneapolis, and two percent in St. Paul. Yet that very night KSTP contrasted the falling-crime story with no fewer than six crime stories, including the Teen on Teen Violence report.

When confronted with their sins, television executives often fall back on the mantra that "We’re only giving the people what they want." I find it hard to believe that people, seeking real news about their world, want to simply be scared and sold things. Closer to reality is the analogy to rubbernecking automobile drivers who can’t take their eyes off a highway wreck. And like the highway driver, when our eyes are diverted from the road, who’s to say which way we’ll turn?