Devil without pitchfork runs television news


April 21, 1992|By Victor Kamber

I RECENTLY SAW "Broadcast News" again. It's a film whose observations about the television news industry are proving remarkably prescient five years after its release. I was particularly struck by the scene in which the witty reporter, played by Albert Brooks, characterizes the handsome but vacuous and unethical anchorman, played by William Hurt, as "the devil."

When the devil comes, the Brooks character says, he won't carry a pitchfork. Rather, he'll be a nice, attractive fellow who seduces us while lowering our standards.

Well, for lack of a better explanation, it appears that the devil is running the news operations of the major networks, particularly ABC, which set new lows with its reliance upon unnamed sources for a story alleging that marijuana and cocaine were used at a house owned by presidential contender Jerry Brown when he was governor of California.

ABC ran this story despite the fact that no accuser was willing to make his claim without being shrouded in anonymity; that accusers would suffer no retribution if their accounts proved accurate; and that close Brown associates and political opponents alike unanimously declared the charges implausible. A state police probe found nothing; the investigating officer told the San Francisco Examiner, "We view these two figures on the TV screen as phantoms. We cannot give them the credibility that ABC certainly was attempting to derive from them."

ABC made its report even shoddier by interviewing the two "phantom" accusers with their faces hidden and voices altered as if they were Mafia informants ratting on John Gotti.

In fact, ABC denied Brown a fundamental right that even Gotti enjoyed -- the right to face one's accuser. It is a sad commentary on our political process that aspirants for the highest office of our land are granted fewer dignities by the news media than murderers are given by the Constitution. Thus, if is not surprising that "Gotti got better press than (the Democratic presidential) candidates did," as former Democratic Party Chairman John White told Newsday.

Geraldo Rivera -- undoubtedly the devil incarnate -- may be relegated to syndication, but his spirit is alive and well in the network that gave him his first big break.

Perhaps that's why ABC News Nightline didn't interview Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton until the Gennifer Flowers flap broke out. The program didn't ask a man who might be our next president to discuss his position on the economy, his vision for the future, or his record as governor. Rather, it made him respond to allegation made by a woman who was paid lots of money to make her charges and who had already demonstrated a propensity to lie. This was his first significant national exposure to the voters.

Since then, it has only gotten worse, with controversies around the draft and marijuana. While Clinton deserves some blame for the way he has handled these stories, this is virtually all he is asked about anymore by the media.

Is it any wonder, as Time so loudly proclaimed on its most recent cover, that voters don't trust Clinton? In fact, after seeing that cover, with Clinton's face frighteningly reversed into a negative with black teeth and white pupils, would any voter trust him? What a horrifying image to burn into voters' minds.

Don't voters have a right to know what Clinton and Brown (and Bush, since he has given us little indication) would do as president to end the recession and revitalize the economy? Don't voters have a right to know what the contenders would do to fix our broken health care system, improve education and rebuild our infrastructure -- or how they would perform as commander-in-chief?

The television news medium has failed its responsibility to provide this information, turning the campaign from the defining event of our democracy into a trashy soap opera.

Consequently, it is no surprise that an April 10 poll by ABC News, ironically, found that only 27 percent feel the campaign has "addressed issues you care about," while 69 percent disagree. This is a stunning reversal from February, when 62 percent agreed and 36 percent disagreed. (Of course, at that time, campaign media coverage was more focused on issues and less obsessed with sex, drugs and peccadilloes.) Worst of all, voter turnout is at rock-bottom.

Actually, the real devils are the corporations and businessmen who bought the three major networks in recent years. They view their news operations as cost centers that must turn a profit on their own, and abdicate their societal responsibility to inform, rather than merely entertain the voters. Reduced news staffs combined with intense ratings pressure cause them to adopt the soap opera/Geraldo approach to news gathering.

On the rare occasion when the networks do address issues, it comes in the form of opinion or analysis -- mislabeled as objective reporting -- by their news staffs, not in lengthened, substantive "sound bites" by the candidates themselves. This is the result of the networks' perceived need to sell their own "talent" to the viewers to increase their ratings, even if it comes at the expense of our political leaders.

A nation forced to choose its president on the basis of soap opera-quality news coverage gets a soap opera-quality government.

What could possibly be more dangerous to the survival of our democracy?

Victor Kamber is a Democratic political consultant and president of a communications and public relations firm.

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