In King trial wake, news media will be the message

NEWS ITEM: The latest Roper Organization survey finds that 69% of Americans, the highest percentage yet, view television as their primary source of news and information.

It would be hard to imagine a more disturbing thought for anyone who’s been monitoring local TV lately, which figures to receive increased scrutiny in the days leading up to and following the verdict in the second Rodney King beating trial.

Right now, the general verdict in regard to local TV coverage, to quote a famous “Doonesbury” cartoon, would be “Guilty, guilty, guilty”– at least in terms of adding sensationalism to stories, needlessly editorializing through mindless anchor banter and providing meaningless live coverage of events that happened much earlier in the day.

Among the local O&O’s, KCBS-TV has drawn considerable fire in that last area with its “Action News” format, but the biggest offender of late would appear to be KNBC-TV, which, with its ratings decline and changes both behind the scenes and before the cameras, has the feel of a desperate news operation.

Most glaringly, KNBC unloaded with both barrels during its 11 p.m. news on a made-for-TV story about a pretty young pregnant woman killed at an ATM machine in a largely white, upper-middle-class neighborhood.

The story was tragic and has received extensive coverage all over the market. Yet KNBC engaged in absurd overkill not only by teasing the story in prime time with how a security guard had done nothing to help the woman (his chance of doing anything to prevent the attack seemed minimal at best) but by reporting “live” from the crime scene not once, but on consecutive nights.

KNBC subsequently showed how big-hearted it could be by airing two stories on its late news about a small boy who had fallen down a telephone pole shaft in Mar Vista. The second piece was again driven by a “Who can we blame?” undercurrent, trying to ascertain why the opening hadn’t been filled. What is this, “I Accuse News?”

THESE LOCAL TV EXCESSES take on more dangerous overtones in light of the imminent verdict in the King trial, where business-as-usual television could be instrumental in fomenting civil unrest.

How, you protest, can the messenger be held responsible for the message?

In part, at least, by creating a sense that those who may be tempted to engage in violent forms of protest (or outright opportunism) are in essence expected to do so — that somehow a failure to react violently to the verdict would be perceived as tacit acceptance of the status quo.

Conventional TV norms, like going “live” to the scene of last April’s riot flashpoint at the corner of Florence and Normandie, would amount to inviting those with a beef to capitalize on that over-the-air platform.

Similarly, live coverage of activity that occurs immediately after the verdict would provide a strong visual cue that “it’s happening again.” Not only could this set off a degree of panic, but perhaps it will spur those who cashed in last year that more free shoes and video equipment await them at a particular location.

The same goes for the standard practice of going into a shopping mall and grabbing the nearest available yahoos for their knee-jerk opinion regarding the verdict.

Far better during those initial hours to allow experts, analysts and official spokespeople from recognized groups to express their views and explanations about the case.

Just as the “Dateline NBC” flap had the potential of tarring all network news magazines with the same brush, local stations — including the market’s independents and foreign-language outlets — have a vested interest in their brethren acting responsibly during the coming weeks.

It’s clear that during the first outbreak last spring, local television, by instantaneously providing pictures without explanation or insight, was more than just an observer to history, but also helped shape it.

Media analysts are fond of describing television as a “hot” medium. Unless those in TV exercise some much-needed self-restraint, they may find themselves partly accountable for seeing, again, just how hot it can get around here.

MORE ON MOYER: Needless “team coverage” at KNBC would be easier to swallow if only it weren’t washed down by the often inane, forced exchanges between anchors Paul Moyer and Kelly Lange.

Moyer, of course, enjoyed his greatest successduring all those years at KABC-TV headlining what pundits described as “happy talk” news. Much of that broadcast’s identity has followed him to his new stomping grounds. In fact, while still prone to some of its old sweeps tricks, KABC at times seems almost stately compared to the O&O competition, both of which have virtually become “Eyewitness News” clones.

That combination of stations without clear, distinguishable identities and stories as volatile as the King and Reginald Denny trials are a potentially volatile mix.

Pledges of responsibility will be sorely tested by the desire to court viewers, provide exposure for anchor teams and capitalize on live technology that can’t be easily controlled during a breaking story.

As noted here before, it’s far easier and more expedient to appeal to fear than reason, and much easier to lose trust than reclaim it. Based on recent history, those in TV who actually care about their credibility have ample reason to fear.

PROMO-OF-THE-MONTH: No, that wasn’t a hallucination or April Fool’s joke, NBC really did run a promo the other night for “Pink Cadillac” calling it “classic Clint Eastwood.” Can’t wait for NBC to air some “classic Al Pacino”– like, say, “Revolution.”

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