We deserve better than Gunfight at the OK Corral

David Holahan

August 04, 1993|By David Holahan

AS THE weather gets hotter than hell, the news goes to hell. At the risk of sounding like Oliver Stone, is this some sort of plot? I mean, who has the most to gain from this coincidence?

Consider: When it's sunny and hot, fewer people stay mesmerized in front of the glow-box watching the world disintegrate; unless of course, Dan, Tom and Peter (when not on vacation) are proffering news you can't refuse: news that happens to be wildly titillating (Woody & Mia and Amy What's-Her-Name), surpassingly bloody (Bosnia and South Africa) or potentially apocalyptic (the Waco tragedy and the Middle East).

If this strategy works on other people, it doesn't push my buttons. I turned the news off the other night. The screen was littered with corpses. It was giving me a headache, not to mention my young son a skewed vision of the world. The CBS Evening News -- the one we watch, or used to watch -- is now virtually indistinguishable from "Top Cops."

Being in the business myself, I understand that news is by definition unpleasant. And the world, after a brief period of elation as the Cold War ended, does seem to be going to hell in a handcart a little faster than usual. Actually, one would have thought we would have arrived by now.

There is so much blood, hate and sorrow and so little time in a half-hour broadcast. Those Pepsi commercials, uh-huh, are just as important as the latest pile of human flotsam in (fill in your favorite trouble spot). At least we can buy a six-pack or two of empty calories from the incongruously upbeat Ray Charles and friends. Not likely you or I are going to straighten Bosnia out.

I have tried to figure out why I object to the network news so much lately. I appreciate that certain things must be covered -- although with all the trouble in the world, TV news can only scrape the surface. We see Bosnia, for example, but not Armenia and Azerbaijan. Somalia but not the Sudan.

Why? It is because the networks have the pictures from Bosnia and Somalia, have their people in place there.

Without pictures there is no story. Conversely, the better the pictures, the better the story, according to the laws of video journalism. And what self-respecting news director, if he or she can help it, airs a clip that lacks guns ablazing? If a picture is worth more than a thousand words, imagine how many semantic units a video fetches with dumdum bullets flying and bodies stacked like cord wood.

We are being led around by the camera lens today as never before. We "watch" the news rather than read or listen to it. And the images we see are more powerful than the words. "Image is everything," some hairy, bejeweled tennis player tells us in a camera commercial.

He's wrong, of course, but not wrong enough. It is more important for TV newscasts to show us the carnage than to put it in some sort of perspective. And the correspondents' brief soliloquies tend to have a mournful air. After all, these men and women have seen it all before, so many times in so many places. Who wouldn't be a little resigned to the horror?

I'm not arguing for happy, feel-good stories. But doesn't it make sense -- if the world is in the sort of shape that the evening newscasts imply -- that we deserve better than the Gunfight at the OK Corral night after night?

It is not enough to grab an audience with action shots, to entertain and to pander with flashy footage.

But that's what we get more and more. If a story has solid videos, like the Waco fiasco, its shelf life is in terminable. For all their engaging horror and dramatic appeal, stories like Waco are overplayed like a Top-40 record. News of vastly greater importance to our nation -- education issues or the environment or the economy or you name it -- go begging as Dan flies over the latest disaster. He may still be up there for all I know. We clicked him off in mid-flight.

When my son was too young to know any better, he offered that our vandalized mailbox was probably done in by "black people." I explained firmly to him that was highly unlikely in rural East Haddam, and that he shouldn't confuse what he saw on TV, even on the news, for reality.

I realized then that if the world is going to hell in a handcart, the glow-box in the living room is greasing the tracks.

David Holahan writes from East Haddam, Conn.

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