Ledes of the Night
Welcome to the local TV news. With all the subtlety of a street-corner hooker, the pitch is delivered fast and brutal, before you get a chance to get bored and drift away. A salacious tease here, a lewd promise there, a suggestion of sex or blood or must-see insider details about the show you just finished watching, they'll do anything to get you to hang around.
"Some thrilling moments on the local baseball diamond today. Stay tuned and we'll tell you how the game turned out!" "A favorite Hollywood star is arrested today. Stay tuned and we'll tell you who!" "The government issues urgent new health warnings today. Stay tuned and we'll tell you what common appliance in your home might suddenly turn deadly!" And on and on and on.
Forget the "inverted pyramid," the journalistic golden rule that says you always place the most important information at the top of a story. Local TV news works with all the heavy-handed manipulation of a peepshow: a hint, a peek, a tantalizing glimpse that leaves you no more informed, but a lot more inflamed. The single overriding goal of local TV news is to keep you right where you are -- through as many commercial breaks as possible -- and if they have to resort to tawdry sleaze to do it, then, by God, tawdry sleaze it is.
It's an ugly business and a shameful legacy for the quaint old notion of honest journalism. Journalism, in a little bit of linguistic irony, doesn't have anything to do with the news anymore -- journalism was beaten up and run out of town by an angry mob years ago. In its place are left ratings and sensationalism and shallow, endless come-ons.
Does anyone remember the days when the local "news updates" that pepper primetime actually contained, y'know, news and/or updates? Today, news updates are little more than ads, indistinguishable from the other fifteen-second blurbs that pitch soap or cars or whatever. And more often than not, they don't even bother to sell you the top story -- instead, you're left with pulse-pounding, must-see come-ons for some lame-brained feature that will be buried 25 minutes into the broadcast.
It's actually a blessing that the payoff to this shameless hucksterism is the celebrity-filled chatter that passes for news these days. Because the prospect of having news -- actual, real, important news -- reported as a series of increasingly revealing crotch shots is too depressing to bear.
"The American Navy is wiped out in an aerial attack today. Stay tuned and we'll tell you which country we're at war with!" "Several voters turned out at the polls today. Tune in at 11 and we'll tell you who the next President of the United States will be!" "A surprise awaited President Kennedy in Dallas today. Stay tuned and we'll tell you what happened!"
Of course, far worse is projecting the trend into the future. If the quality of broadcast journalism has been headed downhill for years, over the next decade it can only asymptotically approach zero. The phrase "Details at 11!" may well end up a fondly remembered beacon of good reporting: at least it includes a specific time. As things stand now, the words "Coming up next!" at the beginning of a newscast really mean "as close to the end of the newscast as we can get."
In a world where news departments are being gutted in favor of cheaper programming, decrying the quality of the journalism that actually makes it on the air seems counter-productive. It seems oddly Victorian to claim that there's a moral duty to informing the public. It seems downright archaic to claim that a responsible press is a vital component to a healthy democracy.
But when the Fourth Estate has been converted into a bordello and journalists have inherited more from Gypsy Rose Lee than from Edward R. Murrow, just standing on the corner with them and thumping a Bible isn't enough. It's time to break out the scarlet "A"s and start pinning them to chests.
Or, better yet, let's use staples.
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