News race plays ‘Safety First’ marathon

REMEMBER “MARATHON MAN,” where Laurence Olivier’s aging Nazi tortures Dustin Hoffman while asking, “Is it safe?” That’s becoming the perfect metaphor for the symbiosis between the political class and media, down to the contradictory “Yes; I mean, no” answers.

The run-up to the midterm elections has witnessed a frantic referendum on security, as politicos jockey over who screwed up less prior to Sept. 11, who’ll protect us now and what current policies mean for the future. It’s no accident Katie Couric inaugurated her CBS News arrival with a primetime special titled, “Five Years Later: Are We Safer?”

Lost amid this debate, however, is the broadcast media’s role, which doesn’t just reflect this anxiety but actively promotes it — a self-serving routine calibrated to exploit the semi-rational psychology of the public, which, in matters of health and safety, yearns to cheat death thanks to modern science, wants impossible assurances from government and is simultaneously convinced that “our children” are imperiled as if no generation ever raised children before.

“Fear Factor” might be off NBC, in other words, but its spirit lives on, in a continuous loop, within the news/talk universe.

OF COURSE, for baby boomers weaned under the constant shadow of nuclear annihilation and duck-and-cover drills, this all seems somewhat absurd — as TV Land chronicled, albeit thinly, in its documentary “Generation Boom.” Yet there’s no denying that wall-to-wall coverage devoted to the latest volley of maddeningly arbitrary school shootings, missing girls and urgent “News Alerts” (often regarding something that occurred days earlier) conspire to heighten and feed our apprehensions.

Primetime newsmagazines, which once featured a mix of topics, now positively wallow in this mindset. With the exception of “60 Minutes,” they have virtually abandoned substantive reporting in favor of “They walk among us” killers and predators, garnished with exotic health scares. Then again, not only is making us frightened cheaper and easier than keeping us informed, it’s presumably more effective in keeping us glued to the set.

Or maybe not. The real surprise, actually, is that fear-mongering on all sides — by politicians, pundits, news directors — might be yielding diminishing returns. A sizable portion of the audience has pushed itself away from the table, with more educated younger types bypassing the idiocy altogether and opting to chuckle at the regurgitated version of it on “The Daily Show.”

Even so, with another month until the election, separating cable and talk radio from Halloween ads will be no small accomplishment. Still, if politicians have been guilty of playing to our most primordial impulses, they’re following a script the media have embraced with gusto — one where “news” is presented with exclamation points, amid a ratings race consistently run with the reckless abandon of a sprint, not a marathon.

SATURDAY NIGHT LIGHTS: If America has sat idly by while broadcast news and talk radio reshape political discourse, there’s been equally little outcry as TV has shanghaied marquee sporting events, transforming them from afternoon delights into midnight blues.

That’s why I sat in the car at almost 11 p.m. Saturday, driving home from a football game (UCLA 31, Stanford 0; so much for SAT scores) relocated to nighttime for the greater glory of Fox Sports. It’s a scenario reenacted all over, as ESPN/ABC and other nets capitalize on primetime college football to fill the programming void that exists, especially on Saturday nights.

The most vexing part isn’t that games start after sundown, but that kickoff times usually aren’t locked in until a week or so earlier — allowing networks to maximize the attractiveness of their schedules while holding the weekends of ticket-buying fans hostage.

In terms of TV driving the bus, college football has thus joined the pros — with NBC being allowed to cherry-pick NFL games for primetime later this season — and upcoming baseball playoffs, where relief pitchers will surely be taking the mound around midnight Eastern time.

“One can see by looking at our schedule that we aren’t turned down by many people,” ESPN VP Dave Brown boasted to the New York Times regarding its night-for-day college lineup.

Sure, dude, because these days, sports is a TV show, and the rubes who attend are just extras in it.

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