Media, thy name is ...
"Politico Pundit Panic Conflict-onator." Nationally, that is. Locally? Let's go with "Crime Reporter Horror Emotion-ator."
Props to "The Daily Show's" Jon Stewart for concocting a weird grammatical framework -- plus the articulation of viewers' wariness and weariness --at his quasi-facetious "Rally to Restore Sanity," while noting that his valid point about the national media's wildly over-amped approach to the news of the day has resonance down at our level in a related fashion.
While the yammering cable culture Stewart slammed is fueled by over-the-top conflict from commentators that inflames political discourse, local newscasts are powered by crime/accident horrors played for optimum outrage. The former fans our anger, the latter exploits our anguish. Either way, we're left with the ramped-up emotions and screwed-up perspectives Stewart condemns.
Locally, we're especially vulnerable to souped-up drama when crime/accident victims are particularly helpless -- say, last week's one-night, dead-infant/beaten-toddler/murdered-preteen/injured-teens news spasm. While every station reported them, it was -- yes -- KTNV-TV, Channel 13 that magnified the misery the most.
The stories were undeniably newsworthy and disturbing: one toddler killed after being caught under the front tire of a truck slowly moving forward; another surviving after being hit by a car in a separate incident; yet another beaten to death, allegedly by a woman's boyfriend; new information on an at-large suspect in the murder of a Las Vegas 12-year-old; and a local school bus accident sending students to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries.
Every station led with the first story and included the others, but only Channel 13 stacked all five at the top of the newscast for a solid kids-victimized-by-violence block. Individually, all the stories were unsettling on the other stations, too, yet packaged together, the impact was all the more upsetting.
Most attention was allocated to the child beaten to death. Accompanied by Drew Karedes' signature my-shorts-are-on-fire! narration, it was headlined "Despicable Details" and included interviews with neighbors, employing graphics exclaiming: "shocked by accusations" and "disgusted by accusations." That's if we didn't know on our own to be disgusted and shocked, or perceive it as despicable, without Action News' invaluable assistance.
Subtle viewer manipulation -- ominous sound and visual effects, tweaking of facts and time elements, positioning of stories -- have long been central to the Channel 13 playbook. Yet at an intriguing moment in the national dialogue when screechy cable outlets paused to examine Stewart's call for curbing media excess in one way, this might be an appropriate time for drama-queen stations to re-examine their overkill in another.
Hey, 13: If MSNBC's smug-and-a-half host Keith Olbermann can suspend his snotty "Worst Person In The World" segment on "Countdown" as a genuine gesture toward restoring civility -- conceding its angry vibe -- can you rethink throwing maximum fright at viewers as a sincere concession toward restoring emotional balance?
Left untouched, overheated national cable commentary and overwrought local news reporting reflect the world back at us through an alarming fun-house mirror image: shrunken heads and giant mouths.
Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0256.