True crime and celebs overrun 'newscasts'

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL’S Joe Morgenstern has mused about how summer movies wear critics down, causing them to sound like serial deprecators. A similar crankiness — mixed with bone-weary resignation — permeates analysis that details the excesses of TV news.

Setting aside PBS’ “Frontline,” cable news and network newsmagazines continue sliding deeper into the infotainment ooze, preoccupied with true crime and celebrity. Oddities and cretins abound in TV News World, but there’s precious little of genuine substance.

On Sunday, for example, “Dateline NBC” devoted two hours to titillating 911 calls and “The Secret Life of a Soccer Mom,” which — like last week’s ABC “Primetime: Crime” special — resembled a “Scream” sequel more than actual news. “Dateline” followed Monday with an equally mind-numbing hour devoted to abandoned divers, a la “Open Water.”

If this state of affairs fills you with a different sort of sinking feeling, you’re not alone.

It might all be dismissed as laughable — oh, those silly TV news people — if the nation wasn’t at war, California wasn’t ablaze and the U.S. economy wasn’t wheezing, topics deserving of some attention but almost uniformly ignored in primetime. Irritation thus festers as the news divisions dither, immersed in what the New York Times’ Bob Herbert aptly identified (addressing presidential race coverage) as “day after day of trivia.”

The impulse to do more consequential work, meanwhile, is mostly relegated to the equivalent of Off Broadway stages, making a recent flurry of laudable TV documentaries — including a pair about China — all the more refreshing.

This week, Discovery Channel launches “The People’s Republic of Capitalism,” Ted Koppel’s engrossing four-part examination of how the Chinese government has orchestrated economic expansion — a subject that seemingly wouldn’t demand a tough sell, what with U.S. jobs being exported and world demand sending gas prices soaring. And even if it’s summer filler, ABC’s six-part “Hopkins” depicts life at a Baltimore hospital in alternately heartwarming, grim and humorous detail.

Documentary kingpin HBO has notably bucked the trend of rouging up the genre with camera tricks, eerie music and dramatic re-creations, trusting provocative topics to engage the cabler’s audience. So when a despondent mother discusses her son’s abduction in “China’s Lost Children” — an agonizing documentary premiering July 14 about how the country’s one-child policy has triggered a rash of kidnappings — there’s no silhouetted figure or slasher music. Yet her impassive face and very real tears speak volumes.

Koppel’s managing editor, Tom Bettag, embraced the characterization of “People’s Republic” as an “old-fashioned documentary,” suggesting that the anchor’s steady voice stands apart from the crowd precisely because it isn’t overwhelmed by the histrionics passed off as news elsewhere. Then again, Koppel’s team spent months in China meticulously assembling material — giving heft and depth to an issue that “Hannity & Colmes” would reduce to “China: Are we at WAR ALREADY?”

“All of 24-hour television news is about what you can do in a studio, without going to reporters in the field, because that’s expensive,” Bettag said.

In that respect, when Koppel mentions blue-collar workers caught in the global economy’s “backwash,” he could easily be describing tattered purists that dare harbor passion for serious news, displaced by the sordid backwash from “To Catch a Predator” and TMZ.

Although Koppel remains in top form, he could be a free agent by this time next year if unable to negotiate an extension with Discovery’s new management. Dan Rather took refuge at HDNet. Another journalistic lion in winter, Tom Brokaw, was plying his trade primarily in basic cable before Tim Russert’s unexpected death temporarily summoned him back into service on “Meet the Press.”

The old guard is clearly swimming against the tide. In addition to the news-averse networks, cable factories for documentary fare like History and Discovery have felt the pressure to attract younger demos, frequently leading to stylistic or thematic flourishes designed to infuse projects with a requisite “edge” — and avoid the dreaded taint of stodginess.

The net effect is that viable options for quality TV journalism appear depressingly slim. And however fruitless the rant may sound, that’s beyond unfortunate — because despite what news honchos and self-serving anchors say, at a time that cries out for real news, they’re not lookin’ out for you.

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