News stunts its reputation

TV news theatrics sometimes backfire

Evel Knievel recently died, but the daredevil endured long enough to witness the flamboyant hucksterism he popularized move from exotic to mainstream — a taste-defying leap that includes television news, which has sadly internalized reality TV values in its embrace of gimmickry and stunts.

With news subject to microscopic analysis from beady-eyed bloggers and others constantly probing for missteps and bias, it’s no wonder this reliance on intricate devices periodically blows up in their faces.

A colleague observed as much about CNN’s latest YouTube debate, which left the channel mildly red-faced over questions apparently submitted by political partisans. Yet given the theatrics at the heart of these made-for-TV critics, is it any surprise the medium wound up obscuring the message?

Continuing a couple of bad weeks for the Time Warner network, CNN felt compelled to delay “CNN Presents: We Were Warned — Iran Goes Nuclear,” a speculative what-if documentary in which former government officials pretended to be members of a fictional president’s Cabinet, grappling with an Iranian crisis. Faced with an unexpected National Intelligence Estimate downplaying Iran’s nuclear capability, CNN junked the panel — and the format of a special “set partially in the future” — ostensibly realizing that the “Terminator” motif had been terminated by reality.

CNN VP-senior executive producer Mark Nelson strongly objected to suggestions that the war-games device represented a gimmick, saying the approach was meant to create “a provocative and engaging program that fits perfectly in the CNN brand.” As for whether showbiz razzmatazz was involved — transforming a stodgy rumination on the Iranian threat into “Fail-Safe” for the news-averse — he said, “The word ‘entertainment’ never even entered my mind.”

Still, let’s not solely pick on CNN — where Lou Dobbs has morphed from the host of a sedate business-news program, “Moneyline,” into Howard Beale — inasmuch as the sleight of hand hardly begins or ends there.

To list just a few prominent examples of gimmickry, ABC used actors to stage public scenes for a hidden-camera examination of how people react to ethical dilemmas; NBC got into bed with Perverted Justice to orchestrate its “To Catch a Predator” stings; and in perhaps the shallowest end of the gene pool, Tribune’s Los Angeles station KTLA turned its hunt for a new weathercaster into a “The Apprentice”-like playoff.

Various factors are responsible for this collective slide, some of which are detailed in a recent media assessment by the Peabody/Lovless Seminar at the U. of Georgia, which doles out the prestigious Peabody Awards.

“Television news no longer commands the cultural and social authority it held in the broadcast era,” the analysis states, citing such influences as rampant cost-cutting that has undermined the newsgathering process.

“Some channels,” the report notes, “drown in punditry and inconsequential news reports calibrated to attract fickle audiences.”

As detailed by Media Matters for America’s Eric Boehlert, even “Nightline” — once the standard-bearer for international news — has largely steered clear of the Iraq war, as the major nets have generally done in primetime. Notably, an exception came with a built-in, self-referential hook: ABC correspondent Bob Woodruff’s first-person account of the head injury he suffered there.

All this brings to mind Laurence Olivier’s story about working with Dustin Hoffman on “Marathon Man,” when the method actor put himself through hell preparing for the dental torture scene. “My dear boy,” the elder Olivier said, “why don’t you try acting?”

Given that many of these stunts aren’t working so well, here’s an equally sobering idea: Dear nets, why not just try reporting?

The screener for “Iran Goes Nuclear” opens with a quote from the 9/11 Commission report: “The most important failure was one of imagination.” Ultimately, though, CNN has succumbed to a delusion plaguing TV news and indeed much of journalism — that draping yourself in reality TV’s garish, skintight clothes will somehow fool younger audiences into seeing you as cool.

The irony is that TV, unlike government, exhibits no such failure in imagination. What it’s suffering from, rather, is a lack of real news.

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