C’mon television news, tell me a story story

Feb 26, 2001  •  Post A Comment

The year 2001 began ominously with hundreds of layoffs at CNN. A heads-up to those of you reading this in your local TV newsroom: You may be next.
Now that the Federal Communications Commission is in the hands of efficiency expert Michael Powell, it shouldn’t be too long before Mr. Powell persuades the commission to raise the TV station ownership cap. And then? Let’s just say it would not be unduly pessimistic to predict another wave of mergers, acquisitions and budget cuts.
So before anyone else asks the question, I will: Is this the last gasp for local electronic news? Will the body snatchers of infotainment finally transform every newscast into a hideous marathon of prime-time tie-ins, sponsored health segments and celebrity crapola?
From my vantage point, I sure hope not. Call me naive, but I like to think that upstanding TV journalism not only boosts ratings and makes the folks in promotions squeal with glee but also wins over most fair-minded TV critics.
Unfortunately, as most of us know, upstanding TV journalism is getting harder to find. I was reminded of this not long ago, when my newspaper ran a series that exposed glaring problems with Kansas City’s restaurant inspection process. Some local eateries hadn’t been checked out in more than two years. The report landed like a rocket at City Hall, which promised some fast reforms.
What’s sad is that at least two TV stations in our market had a chance at this story before we did, and they completely missed it. They had tried doing their own knockoffs of “Behind the Kitchen Door,” the notorious investigative series that first appeared on KCBS-TV in Los Angeles three years ago.
Most Angelenos remember where they were when that nauseating expose aired-at home, having canceled their dinner plans. The series drew terrific ratings for KCBS and, naturally, inspired stations far and wide to scare restaurant patrons in their own towns.
But most stations took the cheap and easy way out. They’d ask for inspection reports from the city, then sift through them until enough disgusting details were found for a week’s worth of newscasts. Then each night, the station would “out” an eatery or two-always, of course, adding some sort of fudge line to make its legal eagles happy (e.g., “The cafe passed a later inspection”).
But that’s not what KCBS reporter Joel Grover did. He didn’t waste his time going after the little guy. Instead, he trained his crosshairs on the big guy-namely local government-and found glaring flaws in the way it enforced the health code.
Mr. Grover and his team spent months obtaining inspections for 20,000 eateries in Los Angeles County. They crunched the data on a computer and made a discovery: Hundreds of restaurants habitually failed their inspections yet remained open for business. The computer spat out a list of the 500 cleanest and filthiest establishments, which KCBS made available on its Web site.
Only then, after the heavy lifting was done, did Grover send staffers out to collect the hidden-camera video for which “Behind the Kitchen Door” became notorious. And Grover knew exactly where to send his cameras-the trendiest, best-loved and filthiest restaurants on his list.
The difference between KCBS and its imitators was a simple one: “Behind the Kitchen Door” told a story. It was a story of government failing to protect the public from harm and, only secondarily, a montage of food-prep guys wiping their hands on dirty rags.
As stomach turning as the story was, it was a story, a real story, and the public has shown time and again that it responds to stories. Not “stories” that lack narrative (which would cover most crime and weather reports), but story stories about people and places that matter to viewers, stories told in a way that makes them care.
Think about it, news directors. Everybody in your market has Doppler radar, a health reporter, delightful anchor folks, spiffy graphics. What exactly is setting your station apart from the others? According to some research, a lot of viewers no longer believe there is any difference between local TV newscasts in their area.
But I think the research is wrong. Every local newscast has its own crew of storytellers: reporters, producers, editors. It is these people and their stories that set each station apart from its competition.
Incidentally, the same holds true for national newscasts, and if you don’t believe me, consider the case of CNN.
There’s been a lot of nonsense written about the recent plight of the soon-to-be No. 2-rated cable news channel. We hear how CNN’s ratings have fallen because viewers today have many choices on cable, not just CNN. I love that argument. Since 1990, channels like Nickelodeon, ESPN and A&E have seen their ratings grow and grow, and yet CNN blames fragmentation.
Another excuse is that CNN is a feast-or-famine network, and without a major war or a criminal trial in the offing, it’s famine time. Come on. Nobody told Ted Turner that his network had to become a slave to breaking news, which is really just the video version of typing. That was a choice CNN executives made a long time ago, sometime before the Gulf War broke out-but after Mr. Turner fired CNN’s architect, Reese Schonfeld, in 1982.
Mr. Schonfeld has a memoir out now about those turbulent years he spent running CNN. It’s modestly entitled “Me and Ted Against the World” and it’s a terrific read. (Full disclosure: Mr. Schonfeld asked me to help write his book before deciding to go solo.) But more than that, it harkens back to a time when CNN didn’t behave like all the other TV news outlets, when CNN went out and dug up stories even the print media hadn’t reported-story stories, the kind that matter, the kind that make us care-and viewers couldn’t wait to hear them.
In his book, Mr. Schonfeld details how the broke-as-heck young network went from one compelling story to the next on little more than shoe leather and desire. There was Mike Boettcher standing vigil as hundreds of Cuban outcasts sailed right up to his camera in Key West. Jean Carper uncovering violence against abortionists. The San Francisco bureau stumbling upon AIDS.
Mr. Schonfeld believes that CNN is in trouble because it stopped doing those kinds of stories. The point is a self-serving one, which even Mr. Schonfeld will admit. And yet-as Frank Deford once said of Howard Cosell-in your heart, you know he’s right.
Mr. Schonfeld puts it succinctly toward the end of his book: “When another generation of journalists studies CNN, I want them to understand it was not the news that failed CNN, it was CNN that failed the news.”
And they will be saying the same for local TV news in much of the land-unless stations stop teasing us with “stories” that waste our time and start telling us stories that matter and make us care.