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TV news fails acid test

Anecdotal stories dish up soft serve over incisiveness

The indignant email from Media Matters for America momentarily sounded like it must have come from the Onion: “Study: Kardashians Get 40 Times More News Coverage Than Ocean Acidification.”

To which anyone who has paid attention to broadcast news over the past 30 years or so must surely reply, “Well, duh.”

Television has always excelled at creating personalities and at telling intimate stories. Yet over a generation defined by such signature figures as Oprah Winfrey’s talkshow and Ronald Reagan’s “Great Communicator” label, the medium has all but lost its ability to grapple with big ideas and concepts, becoming wholly reliant on anecdotes meant to engage viewers emotionally, not intellectually.

Anecdotal news means that serious issues must be brought home through personal tales — a trend that has become conventional wisdom in both news and politics. Witness the frequent critique of President Obama as being too professorial, compared with Reagan’s signature ability to put lumps in throats by virtue of the imagery he conjured.

In a timely demonstration of this tension, on the heels of the landmark Supreme Court ruling on health care reform, ABC News will launch “NY Med,” the latest cinema-verite series chronicling the dramatic, harrowing and occasionally darkly comic doings at a major metropolitan hospital.

This recurring series from producer Terry Wrong, which begins July 10, doesn’t sound like it should be among the best projects ABC News has to offer. The template has survived, however, largely because it’s crafted around stories — much like the ones we’ve grown accustomed to in scripted series like “ER” or “Grey’s Anatomy” — while providing only tangential insight into the challenges of a cash-strapped health care system.

As if to underscore this point, “NY Med” opens featuring none other than Dr. Mehmet Oz, a world-class surgeon best known not so much for cracking open chests, but for filling the afternoon timeslots “Oprah” once occupied.

Et tu, “NY Med?”

In terms of news, though, what else is new? It’s so much easier to focus on Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes’ divorce than to explain what effect the economy might have on the family structure.

Add to that certain corrosive elements that are influenced by the Web, where even prestige print bastions that set TV news’ agenda — along with the most influential aggregator sites — aren’t immune to the ratings-like scorecard provided by traffic, and an underlying knowledge that headlines about an actress’ “nip slip” are a surefire hit generator.

Against that backdrop, the Kardashians have ocean acidification beaten hands down, just as Anderson Cooper’s sexuality (gay, in case you missed it) commanded more prominent placement on the Huffington Post’s home page than the network-wide travails of his employer, CNN.

In one respect, this is why Aaron Sorkin’s media critique in HBO’s “The Newsroom” has struck many as risible. Not because he’s wrong about TV news’ failings — he’s not — but because his analysis seems to conclude the public genuinely wants better, despite a dearth of evidence to buttress the argument.

Moreover, as Michael Wolff wrote in the Guardian, there’s some question whether a TV news landscape downsized in personnel as well as ambition could consistently deliver serious work even if it wanted to, with depleted newsrooms consisting of “a much-reduced band of very young ‘producers’ rewriting AP copy.”

Despite how lamentable much news coverage has become, railing about forces dragging the medium into celebrity and fluff thus risks being guilty of reporting yester-decade’s news, particularly when celebutainment-oriented morning programs “Today” and “Good Morning America” have become broadcast news’ most important profit center and top priority.

If there’s a path to modest redemption, if not outright salvation, it lies in migrating away from personality and anecdotes long enough to cover a few major issues, occasionally, in a way that doesn’t require it being set to maudlin piano music. Tellingly, the few reliable practitioners of this craft — think PBS’ “Frontline” or HBO’s documentaries — tend to operate outside the strict confines of conventional ratings.

In a sense, health care does provide the perfect metaphor for where news falls short: Cosmetic surgery is insufficient, and a major overhaul presents formidable logistical challenges.

Given that, nobody should really be surprised when all roads lead to Dr. Oz.

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