The awful truth

"Local News," a probing five-part PBS documentary on a Charlotte, N.C., TV station, is a bleak look at a possibly unsalvageable institution.

Published October 9, 2001 7:45PM (EDT)

It's hard to believe that there's anybody left who watches television news without realizing that what they're getting is processed and simplified info bites, with stories slotted into familiar "genres" (shocking, senseless crime; sudden tragedy; political battle) and the chosen few with "legs" drawn out into story arcs with a guaranteed new episode every night. What still has the power to amaze is just how willingly people who deal with the media are ready to collude in the dumbing-down process.

Early in the first installment of the five-part documentary series "Local News," a fire department representative asks a TV reporter covering a fire, "Do you need a sound bite?" Earlier, a school official responds to a reporter's question by asking if she wants his full opinion or an on-camera bite. It's a given to these men that real thought and experience have no place in a nightly newscast. They're not evil people, but they know what they have to do to get themselves on camera.

"Local News," which was executive produced by Calvin Skaggs and David Van Taylor is part muckraking investigation, part cinéma vérité examination that, like the work of Frederick Wiseman, gradually accumulates details and perspectives to offer up an incisive, finally unresolvable portrait of its subject. The series was filmed over the course of 1999 at WCNC, a Charlotte, N.C., NBC affiliate that, before filming began, had been purchased by the media conglomerate Belo. Dead last in the three-way competition for ratings, WCNC's nightly newscasts were slated for a major overhaul. The series -- subtitled "One station fights the odds" -- is about how the new news director attempts to take the high road.

Keith Connors, the man hired to fill the slot, is a young man in his 30s with baby fat still clinging to his cheeks and an incongruously worried expression. Toward the end of the series we learn that he has a failed marriage and we watch him somewhat ill at ease as he returns home for the holidays. It seems like the only real friend he has is his dog, a silvery-brown collie mix who trots alongside him in some scenes.

Connors is an unusual mixture. People with a fire in their belly are not often troubled by conscience and prudence, yet Connors clearly is. In a later episode we see him resist advice to bury at 10 a.m. on a Sunday a show that will give candidates in an upcoming election a chance to air their views. Connors insists that whether the show is boring is beside the point: Part of the station's job is to serve its viewers' interests.

In the first episode, which takes place a week after the Columbine shootings, a bomb threat is called into a Charlotte school. When the information that comes through from the school and police departments is contradictory and unsubstantiated, Connors decides to hold off broadcasting the story until the facts can be verified. The station gets scooped; Connors' decision is a gutsy move for a guy who's being pushed to make his charges perform. But given the state of local news, it's an amazing decision from any news director.

When I was growing up in Boston, a station one night broadcast a teaser for its 11 p.m. newscast that went something like "Canned tomatoes recalled in botulism scare. Film at 11." This was said over stock supermarket footage that happened to focus on one brand of tomatoes. The anchor didn't tell you if the recall affected the tomatoes they had showed. As a commentator noted at the time, the message to the audience could be summed up as "If you don't want to accidentally kill your family, stick around and boost our ratings."

And this continues even when things are as jumpy as they are now. After last week's attack on a Greyhound bus, I heard from a friend about a radio news station that broadcast "unconfirmed reports" that the man who slit the driver's throat was Middle Eastern. If they are unconfirmed, why were they broadcast at all?

Like a lot of the reporters and producers we meet in "Local News," Connors explodes the stereotype that the people who put these shows together are airheads more interested in putting on entertainment than in acting as journalists. Again and again, we see reporters scrambling to do a good job, agonizing over balancing urgency and fairness. If there's a hero in "Local News" it's WCNC's education reporter, an African-American woman named Sterlin Benson Webber.

In the course of the documentary Webber covers a lawsuit brought by white parents to overturn Charlotte's 30 years of busing to achieve integration. As with almost any white people who claim reverse discrimination when trying to overturn civil rights laws, they claim that busing shortchanges white children. Webber's sympathies are with the black parents. She never comes out as bluntly as her fellow reporter Beatrice Thompson (also African-American) who recounts tales of white colleagues asking her questions that boil down to "What do black people still have to complain about?" But she speaks briefly about her own school experience before busing and doesn't want to see black kids go back to that.

Her sympathies, though, are even more with the school kids, white as well as black, who've become political pawns. The case proceeds through rulings and appeals. What sticks in your mind about Webber though is her dogged determination to be fair to everyone. She shies away from inflammatory quotes from either side, both because she wants to allow each side to present its arguments and because she doesn't want to further divide an already divided city. Webber is the kind of journalist you'd want to cover a rocky story like this, though you can see, as she frets over each word in her reports, the toll that the experience takes on someone with her capacity for empathy.

But it isn't just fairness that drives Webber. She's also aware of the scrutiny she's under for being black (more so than being a woman). In one scene she confesses that one of the reasons she has not used some of the tougher quotes she's gotten is that she's afraid management will accuse her of taking sides. And "Local News" shows us that at WCNC, she's got a reason to worry. African-American women do not do well here. In the first episode, producer Wanda Johnson Stokes, who basically functions as the den mother of the newsroom, quits her job because she feels her race and sex have made it a dead end.

Thompson has an even more contentious departure. Tough and personable and clearly not someone who suffers fools gladly, Thompson is a walking bullshit detector, exactly the sort of talented person who, you understand immediately, rankles glad-handers and corporate smoothies. She's a hell of a reporter, with contacts and sources honed from years of community reporting but, to be plain, she seems too much like a real person to jibe with the tweaked and coiffed image that has come to define TV journalists. She's placed on inactive status and then leaves with a "parachute" deal for reasons that (frustratingly) are never spelled out. Charlotte's African-American community pickets the station, accusing them of racism.

Is it racism that causes her departure, and Stokes', or Webber's frustration? Not intentional racism. But when it comes to public relations, the perception of racism can be as damaging as the real thing. You could feel sorry for the management if these women had been lousy at their jobs and the station was place in the unenviable position of making a necessary change. But nothing we see of these women suggests anything but that they are passionate, engaged and discerning.

So whatever motivated their firing of Thompson (who later brought a discrimination suit against the station -- the status of which the documentary also does not disclose), it can't help but come off as an affront to the station's black audience. (And given the level of Thompson's community reporting, you can't help thinking it came off as an affront to white viewers who had come to rely on her too.) And you have to wonder about the mindset at a station where a reporter senses she should hold back reporting the most unpleasant aspects of a story for fear of being judged partial because of her race. You have to wonder when the assignment to report the first decision in the anti-busing suit is given not to Webber but to Mike Redding, a good-natured, shallow guy who dreams of following in the footsteps of Charles Kuralt, but is so inexperienced he has to ask other reporters to identify the principals in the suit.

You feel something for Connors, who's stuck in the middle of all this, trying to bolster the egos of his staff while being honest about their shortcomings. When the first broadcast of the station's revamped news hour goes disastrously, he's gracious enough to appear before the staff and take the responsibility, saying he pushed them to do too much too fast. You see him caught between his instincts to do good solid broadcasts and the pressure from his bosses at the station and at their corporate parent Belo to make it faster, slicker, emptier. The money men are the ones in charge, unimpressed even after WCNC wins more regional Emmy nominations than any other city. Can you be first, fast and right?

"Local News" has the integrity, though, not to absolve Connors of blame. At one point he tells his team they have to be first, be fast, be right. It doesn't occur to him that you simply can't be right if the priority is to be fast and first. When he pushes for new angles, new information on a story where there is no new information, he sounds a lot closer to someone manufacturing news than someone reporting it. The kicker of "Local News" is that, for all Connors' determination to take the high road, he is beholden to the principles of a corrupt system that can't help turning the news into simplified pap.

The most revealing parts of "Local News" revolve around the station's coverage of the murder of an 8-year-old boy. The story is given to Glenn Counts and to Alicia Booth, a former anchor demoted to reporter and perhaps the most fascinating person here. On first glance, she's everything we've come to think of as a typical news twinkie: young, blond, pretty, perky. She turns out to be smart and quite principled.

Assigned to approach people in the dead boy's neighborhood to talk on camera about how the experience has affected them, we can see that she hates every minute of the assignment. She knows it's a cheap exploitative exercise, and she's not surprised when people refuse to talk to her. Her instincts for what's right rear when the station gets information that a 15-year-old from the victim's neighborhood is a prime suspect. Connors tells Booth she has to broadcast the information.

Booth demurs, arguing that it will take away the only leverage the police have in getting a confession. The suspect and his parents are cooperating with police, the boy hasn't "lawyered up," which he will do if he learns he's considered suspect No. 1. Booth also points out that the news will indict the kid before he's even accused, especially in his neighborhood. She knows the story won't accomplish a damn thing, least of all the station's mission to serve community interests. Connors, however, keeps insisting they have to go with something; they finally agree on reporting that a suspect who lived in the neighborhood had been identified.

But he never stops to answer -- or even ask -- why? Arguably, parents would want to know that there is a potential child killer in their midst. But if the police have identified a suspect, how likely is he to be able to strike again? And just how can sticking a camera in the faces of traumatized people, or parking a news van and cameras outside the funeral of the 8-year-old (something that disgusts even the veteran cameraman given the assignment) be interpreted as informing the public? What exactly does funeral footage tell WCNC viewers? That the boy is dead? When Connors orders that coverage, it doesn't matter how high his aims are, he reduces himself to the garden variety TV news leech feeding off other people's misery. But then how can he not be when he's beholden to a parent company whose head honchos tell him that local news means crime? When some Belo executive starts saying he's not talking about the "murder du jour" but stories about how crime affects the community, you want to laugh in disgust. It's just a tony way of justifying the "if it bleeds, it leads" mentality.

At this point, right around the middle of the fourth hour, "Local News" begins to play like a variation of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," where the characters have the ability to switch from pod people to real human beings at will. It's sad to watch Alicia Booth struggle over a real ethical dilemma and then, on camera, assume the stilted phrasing and shellacked look that strips every bit of humanity from her. Everything begins to look phony here -- from the way anchors address each other as if they were just having a chat instead of talking to the viewer, to the pointlessness of "location" reporting, which gives the viewer no more information than if the reporter were sitting in the studio. The filmmakers show you fascinating things -- contentious school board debates, a panel of interviews with black and white adults who went through Charlotte's busing program -- and you realize that, on the news, each event will be stripped of all the nuance and interplay we've just witnessed.

There are things wrong with "Local News." The cinéma vérité style, which eschews narration, doesn't make all that we're seeing clear. (It wasn't until the synopsis that precedes the second hour that you're informed what the busing suit is actually about. And, in a really bad oversight, the end credits do not tell you the fate of Sterlin Benson Webber. According to the production notes, she's still at WCNC.) And there are times you just want more background, want to watch more of one given thread. But these are small faults of a documentary that's fascinating and smart. And, ultimately, dispiriting.

For all the clichés it undermines about the people who put local newscasts together, "Local News" reinforces one truism: that ratings and revenues rule to the exclusion of good journalism. As the show keeps returning to the news meetings, we're aware that most of the good, dedicated people we saw at the beginning are no longer there. And it's the truly vacuous and empty who rise -- like station general manager Rick Keilty, a corporate shill who, in moments of conflict, resorts to pieties and platitudes. He's ultimately given an executive position with Belo. I don't know when I've seen anything about people trying to do their best to such little effect. It wouldn't seem so bad if WCNC had made a decision to broadcast happy-talk infotainment. "Local News" locks onto the contradiction of trying to attain a higher standard in a system devoted to reduction. And it makes you wonder how it will ever be possible, in these conditions, to be informative, to stop hyping stories because they've "played" well, to allow reporters to function as reporters and not travelogue hosts. Is there any way to improve a profoundly dumbed-down approach, or has it become necessary to kill the local news in order to save it?

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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