Television networks stumbled in their news coverage of Los Angeles riot

May 03, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,TV Critic

There are more black faces at the anchor desks -- that's for sure. But one question TV news executives have to ask themselves when they review their coverage of the Los Angeles riot is whether they are really any more in touch with the African-American community than they were in the 1960s.

They should also wonder if, despite all their marvelous high-tech gadgetry, their crisis coverage hasn't gotten worse in some important ways in the past 25 years.

TV news was nothing if not confused in its coverage this week.

The networks started out Wednesday night and Thursday seemingly so bedazzled by their own high-tech images of violence that they all but forgot about context.

Then, Friday, they did an about-face and shifted away from the potentially inflammatory pictures to a call for order and a new story line centering on the people who helped victims of the rioting.

The major TV news organizations -- CNN, NBC, CBS and ABC -- never seemed certain of how they should be handling the story. And some of their biggest stars never seemed more like old white men preaching a sermon of high-sounding but shopworn bromides about "dialogue" while clinging to the values they know best and truly cherish -- those of television and ratings.

Nowhere was this more evident than on ABC's "Nightline," a show usually celebrated for its performance in times of crisis. Friday's show with Ted Koppel from Los Angeles was a textbook case of show-biz values overriding any hope of the show's achieving its stated aims of "listening to each other" and understanding "the underlying causes for the rage."

The show was, as Koppel kept reminding viewers, "live from the First A.M.E. Church in South Central Los Angeles." The format was Koppel and four community leaders sitting at a table in a church hall, with members of the predominantly African-American congregation surrounding them.

But that's not how the show started. One of the first segments -- done on tape -- featured Koppel standing in an alley with two young men identified as gang members. Koppel said they were standing in the alley because church officials didn't want the gang members in the church.

But after the taped segment, the Rev. Cecil Murray, pastor of the church, angrily denied that there was any conflict and said, in fact, that many gang members are part of the congregation. Mr. Murray then flat-out accused Koppel of "pitting black against black."

Whether "Nightline" did it consciously or unconsciously and whether there is real conflict or not, Mr. Murray was right in his accusation. Alleged disagreements between two gang members and a church group were not the reasons for the riots. So why was it so important to "Nightline"?

One reason is that it was good show-biz TV. The two men were posed in front of a wall full of graffiti as if they were rap artists in an MTV video. The "stage" they shared with Koppel was a bombed-out alley that looked like Beirut. The message of the visuals was "Ted is on the streets and down in the dangerous alley getting you the real dope on the riots."

Once the charge of "pitting black against black" was made, Koppel couldn't get past it. Kopple self-righteously told Mr. Murray, "Figuratively speaking, I have broad shoulders; if you need to use me that way, you go ahead and use me." Mr. Murray responded: "I have lash marks on my back from the KKK."

Neither Koppel nor representatives for "Nightline" could be reached yesterday for comment.

But "Nightline" wasn't the only TV news operation that stumbled.

NBC's "Today" Thursday morning fed on the red-hot overnight images of a city burning with virtually no news judgment.

The appalling lack of context called to mind an interview in 1986 with former CBS News President Fred Friendly in which he decried the layoff of veteran news personnel at the networks, saying, "Sure, now you have all this satellite technology, but who's going to be deciding what images and words are broadcast over it?" At "Today," it was the 26-year-old executive producer with no news experience, Jeff Zucker, calling the shots.

The Watts riot, 27 years ago, was a turning point for TV news. The networks were so troubled by their failures in covering it that they issued written guidelines for future riot coverage.

ABC, NBC and CBS, the only games in town at the time, agreed on several key procedures, according to "Unsilent Revolution," a new book on TV news by former NBC Correspondent Ray Sherer and Robert J. Donovan, formerly of the Los Angeles Times. "In a potentially explosive trouble spot, beware of live coverage: film or tape can be edited; live coverage cannot. Be as unobtrusive as possible in a riot. . . . If underlying causes of a disturbance are evident, report them in perspective. Avoid provocative language. . . . In a tense situation, do not turn on [camera] lights. . . ."

All of those rules were violated consistently this week on NBC, CBS, ABC and CNN in the new and improved world of high-tech TV news.

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