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San Diego Union Tribune
Taking the news back from Hollywood
By Bonnie Russell
October 28, 1999
Not too long ago, I watched Larry King provide the best illustration of what has become the Hollywoodization of journalism. I realized then that real news had shimmied into a sleek black party dress and hip-swiveled her way to Hollywood for a nicer home, some flashy jewelry . . . hipper company.
King's hour-long television show was devoted to the question of whether or not Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush snorted cocaine a decade or two ago.
That same night, a slew of government pooh-bahs, ex-pooh-bahs and PR-journalist types with serious . . . and seriously camera-ready faces, exchanged expertise, pithy comments and political asides, about whether Bush likely used cocaine way back when, and if so, would the populace accept him.
I realized I'd been asleep in front of the TV for a good long while when Jesse Jackson finally woke me up.
Posing a well-planned "off-the-cuff" question regarding a member of the populace, who wouldn't be voting in the next election, Jackson wondered why Gov. Bush hadn't attended the funeral of the black man who was dragged to death behind a pickup in Bush's chest-thumping Texas.
I liked that. Made me wonder too, but not about Gov. Bush. I wondered why a reporter hadn't asked. The response? Dead air. Dead air reminding me news is in her skin-tight number, sashaying around in Hollywood.
Not by accident are network types located in Hollywood. Network types are well aware dirt poor doesn't score precious air time, therefore Hollywood was not about to get her dress dirty driving down that particular Texas back road.
That time was a revelation for me. I realized that as part of the public, I was guilty of not paying attention when real reporting took her leave. I wondered if anyone would be interested enough to chase her down and bring her back.
At first it was unintentional, like when I innocently began substituting news discussion shows, those prominent on Sunday mornings featuring reporters, (who employ agents), and government figures, (who employ political consultants, i.e. agents), chatting about news, in place of actual news shows.
Back when news was, those reporting it were called news reporters. Now it's just a business, with networks calling the news people in front of the camera "talent" and moving them around the country for ratings.
As a good news consumer, I went along with the crowd.
Earlier this month, we marked the 10th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake. Anniversary reporting was day-long. Not too long before that, Turkey suffered a monstrous earthquake. The initial death toll was locally reported at seven thousand, (way off, we learned). After the initial national flash, coverage tapered off. Turkey was deemed not terribly sexy.
On the other hand, because San Francisco brandishes her sex appeal boldly, earthquake coverage there was relentless. When Loma Prieta flattened the top portion of Highway 880 to its lower decks, (causing locals to immediately dub it Highway 440), national anchors fought to cover the story.
Ten years ago, a caravan of chauffeur-driven limos glided daily to their marks in front of Oakland's flattened freeway. The talent, dressed in de rigueur earthquake-wear trench coats, emerged only to file their four-minute, non-news reports, usually featuring the same Marina District home, (with its Bay window), that slid into the street where it remained, perched at an elegant, but jaunty angle.
Then the "talent" would flee back to San Francisco, populate the best hotels, and hog reservations at the nicest restaurants for weeks. The locals crowded into Ed Moose's bar, where a fine time swapping interesting stories that would never see air, was had by all.
Turkey? Just a mention.
But where I think we may have contributed even more to the Hollywoodization of the news is in the new language we hear in order to avoid seeing.
I used to watch Tom Brokaw report the news, because Midwestern guys seem inherently better equipped to see through smoke others don't. I don't know why. But when Brokaw repeatedly described murder and genocide as "ethnic cleansing" I changed the channel. There is something intrinsically wrong with describing atrocities with clean-faced, cocktail-party words.
"Domestic violence" is another phrase I've simply never understood, although I am reasonably sure something so deliberately ambiguous wasn't meant to be.
I remember confidently telling a friend I'd bet money police action groups, real journalists, feminists and human-rights activists would rise en masse, screaming bloody murder over any media attempts to use cocktail-party phrases to describe murder, assault or battery.
My friend occasionally reminds me of this. On the capitol front, only top family law attorney, Marna Tucker, remains alert to the danger of desensitization. Tucker tosses out wake-up phrases such as, "domestic terrorism," and watches as faces go still.
When I was younger I considered journalism almost a calling. I did so in part because the journalists I read, reported as if they did too.
Still, ultimately the solution lies with the public. It's our job to pay attention to the reports as well as the reporter.
It's our job to demand in-depth reporting, without a spin. It's our job to call anchors and journalists on phrases such as "ethnic cleansing" and "domestic violence."
And to encourage the pendulum to swing back to more responsible news reporting.