Right Here in River City!

What we learn from newsmagazines.

The recent announcement that CBS will bless America’s TV watchers this fall with a second 60 Minutes–a lighter, crispier version–sparks the inevitable question: How many weeks will pass before former CNN producer April Oliver is hired to produce a segment on the secret U.S. Army plan to drop leprous dogs on the heads of innocent Sandinistas?

Actually, that is not the real inevitable question. The real inevitable question is this: Now that television is flush with newsmagazines–two or three each night, it seems–where are producers going to find all that news?

In an effort to arrive at the answer to this question, I have watched, intermittently, 15 or 20 hours of newsmagazines over the past month. I wanted to understand just how news is constructed by the newsmagazines, and also, I enjoy punishment. I will confess upfront that, like all ink-stained wretches, I watch TV news shows only so I can bitch about the superficiality of the form and (especially) about the salaries paid my TV cousins.

The terrible thing about the debacle at CNN’s NewsStand (motto: “We Just Make This Shit Up”) is that it occurred in the middle of a similar meltdown on the print side of the divide. I will not recite the roll of the dead and the wounded here–that’s what Howard Kurtz is for. But it is enough to note that, in the popular imagination, 87.6 percent of all American reporters make their stories up, and the other 12.4 percent are being forced by their employers to apologize to Chiquita Brands International Inc. for unspecified sins. In other words, this is not the best time for a print reporter to gloat about the failings of television.

Iam, however, up to the challenge.

There are, I have discovered, only four acceptable ways to create a newsmagazine story.

The first, naturally, is to build it on sex, preferably sex involving teen-agers whose parents constitute the aging baby boomer newsmagazine demographic niche. “You’re about to see a side of teen-age life in the ‘90s you might not know about,” promised Stone Phillips, the first animatronic anchor, at the outset of a recent episode of NBC’s Dateline. Of course, I immediately thought, “Oh, the old ‘crank fueled Satan worshipping bulimia and ritual scarification party’ story.” But instead, it was a story about–coed sleepovers. “Any of you make out during coed sleepovers?” the reporter asked a group of milk-fed teens. The answer was “yes.”

Now I understand Dateline is also about to air an explosive piece uncovering the spread of pool halls right here in River City. And besides, the coed sleepover story isn’t an unclever piece of manipulation: It frightens parents (though only the most innocent parents, I hope) at the same time it takes you inside the sleeping bags of lissome teen-age girls.

The subject of lissome teen-age girls takes me conveniently to the next brick in the newsmagazine story construct: the fake statistic. On a recent episode of ABC’s Primetime, Diane Sawyer, introducing a segment on sexy teen-age gang chicks, stated, “There are more than 600,000 gang members in the U.S,” without citing a source. As a former police reporter, I will state definitively that no one in the United States can tell you how many gang members there are in the United States, but there certainly aren’t 600,000, unless you’re counting the Jets and the Sharks and all those Amish gangs. Without the statistic, though, the story loses its urgency. Coed sleepovers might in fact be a widespread phenomenon, but the sexy all-chick teen-age gang story, in addition to being as stale as week-old cannoli (I recall reading it in a barbershop-copy of Life magazine a few years ago), is almost wholly contrived. It is, however, the only way Primetime can broadcast the expression “bitch ass” outside NYPD Blue.

Statistic abuse and Lolitaish voyeurism collided again in a segment I saw recently of CBS’s 48 Hours. The hourlong episode, titled “Vegas Stripped,” reveals that Las Vegas is a place where there’s a lot of gambling–and also showgirls. In one of the harder-news segments, focused on teen prostitution, the reporter states that, “according to police statistics,” the number of teen-age prostitutes in Las Vegas “has tripled in the past year.” No numbers are provided. Has the number jumped from 3,000 to 9,000? Or from two to six? Assume the latter.

B ut speaking of “bitch ass”: I discovered the third acceptable way to create a newsmagazine story while watching a segment of ABC’s 20/20 hosted by the reporter John Stossel, whose job it was to be really “bitch ass” to a blind man. Call this category of newsmagazine segments “Cheap Attacks on Defenseless Targets.”

Stossel, decrying the wave of political correctness sweeping the land (a recent discovery), mocks a spokesman for the blind for complaining about the Disney movie Mr. Magoo, the humor of which is derived from the Magoo character’s sight-challenged antics. He was ugly to watch (Stossel, not Magoo), even uglier because Mr. Magoo, the movie Stossel defends, is a Disney production, as is 20/20. Now that’s synergy.

The cheap attack takes many forms. The most notable, in the wake of the Food Lion decision against ABC, is the hidden camera attack on small-fry businessmen. Since Food Lion, the news divisions of GE and Disney and CBS seem loath to take on corporate malfeasance, especially the sort of malfeasance that provokes endless litigation. So instead of uncovering the next Bhopal, the newsmagazines uncover the fact that air-conditioning repairmen are shysters and that practitioners of quack medicine are quacks. There is very little investigative spadework done to report these stories. It is obvious to any reporter that they are born of Better Business Bureau press releases.

The fourth category of acceptable themes for newsmagazines is treacle. Hence, the uplifting 20/20 story about a boy born without pigmentation and another born without sweat glands.

I will not mock children born without sweat glands. I will, however, mock James Brolin, the new Mr. Streisand. Ms. Streisand, we are told on 20/20, is, for the first time in her life, “not afraid to love.” Also, Brolin is her “lover” and her “best friend” and plays the role of her “dad.”

All this is not to say that no actual journalism takes place on the newsmagazines. For all its faults (think: Out of control Audis, the subject of an infamous 60 Minutes investigation, which was later shown to be wrong in that the Audis weren’t out of control at all; just their drivers were), 60 Minutes is home to much of this journalism. The smartest segment I saw recently was a repeat of a Steve Kroft piece on government secrecy laws. It skewers the federal government for needlessly classifying millions of harmless documents, and features an interview with Sen. Moynihan, D-N.Y., who is a little bit witty and a little bit nutty and leaves the interview midsentence after hearing a question beneath his answering.

The thing about the Kroft piece, though, is that I’ve read it before. And this is the main problem with the newsmagazines: They’re entirely derivative. Even the best stories seem built on a mountain of old clips and press releases. Without Nexis, they drown.

Say what you will about April Oliver, but at least she had an original idea.