Call it a journalistic moment of clarity. Code 33 was unspooling to a packed theater during last month's Miami International Film Festival, and the bulk of the audience's groans and verbal cringes should have been reserved for the documentary's main subject: the serial rapist who preyed upon Little Havana during the summer of 2003. Code 33's filmmakers, riding COPS-style in the back of a detective's squad car, certainly gave us plenty of disturbing crime-scene footage to ponder, all keyed to the mounting frustration of Miami's police as they hunted in vain for the rapist.
But it wasn't the vicious criminal who seemed to provoke the angriest reactions. It was our local television news reporters: Channel 6's Hank Testor infuriating cops -- both onscreen and in the viewing audience sitting right behind Kulchur -- as he seized on an offhand remark from a police spokesman to spin out his exclusive "rainy day theory" about the rapist's identity. Or a Channel 7 field producer becoming visibly exasperated as his news director lit into him via cell phone. There weren't any new developments in the story, the producer insisted, to little avail. Something had to be aired to keep viewers tuning in, to keep ratings high, and to keep advertising dollars flowing. With that scene in mind, it's little wonder many TV reporters refer to their jobs less as journalism than as simply "feeding the beast."
The appearance in the film of a print reporter to offer a bit more nuanced analysis (the Miami Herald's Jim DeFede) did little to stem the theater audience's grumbling. The media's role in Code 33 seemed at best an irrelevant distraction from the real story, and often -- as with the herd of cameramen camped outside the home of a twelve-year-old rape victim -- an exploitative menace.
With every available study telling us that Miamians (like the rest of the nation) now get the bulk of their news from local TV, the distinctions between print and broadcast journalism are rapidly fading in the public's eye. As Chicago Tribune deputy managing editor James Warren recently griped to The New Yorker: "People don't associate investigative reporting with us, but with local TV news. They see what we do as no different from 'Could this pastrami sandwich kill you?' 'Could this screen door harm your child? Tune in at ten!' They don't see any difference between an investigative reporter and a blow-dried idiot."
So how bad is it? The University of Southern California's Norman Lear Center has just released a study that scrutinized virtually every Miami television news broadcast during the four weeks preceding November 2004's election day, recording each station's daily lineup from 5:00 to 11:30 p.m. The results are depressing, to say the least.
Though the stations' commercial breaks were filled with an onslaught of lucrative political advertising for local races -- mayoral candidates, county commissioners, judges, public defenders, State Attorney hopefuls, U.S. Representatives -- those ads were virtually all you learned about the glut of candidates. What little airtime was set aside for political coverage largely went to the presidential race or to generalized pieces about the voting process. Beyond choosing Bush or Kerry, you were on your own.
Miami's TV stations devoted eight times more coverage to accidental injuries such as car wrecks, and twelve times more coverage to sports and weather forecasts than they did to covering all of Miami's local races combined. Subtract ad time, snappy intros, sports, and weather, and the average 30-minute newscast devoted a grand total of 75 seconds to local races and ballot measures -- on a good day. "Local stations were fairly diligent about telling people where and how to vote," noted Norman Lear Center director Martin Kaplan in his study. "If only they'd done as well at telling people who was running and what the issues were."
Channel 10 led the pack with 12 percent of its news stories covering local races, and with 28 percent of its overall political stories discussing actual issues as opposed to simply announcing poll numbers or a contender's campaign strategy. In fact, of the twenty stories the English-language stations ran on the Miami-Dade mayoral race between Carlos Alvarez and Jimmy Morales (that's right, just twenty stories total in the month preceding the election), only seven were issue-oriented.
Spanish-language television was just as derelict, running a mere seventeen stories on the mayoral race during that same period -- thirteen on Univision (Channel 23) and four on Telemundo (Channel 51), with only two (both on Univision) addressing bona fide issues.
Turning to the county commission races, Channel 10 once again took the honors -- slim as they may be -- by running three stories on various commission candidates. Univision, Channel 4, and Channel 6 each ran a single story, with Channel 4 using that precious airtime to convey the earth shaker that these races were "likely to be heated and close." Could that be because most of Channel 4's viewers had no idea which would-be commissioners were actually on their ballots?
But it's unfair to single out Channel 4. Neither Channel 7 nor Telemundo deigned to spare a single second of airtime on a county commission race -- though both found room to highlight rap mogul P. Diddy's Vote or Die! campaign when it hit town.
Accordingly, with this void of coverage to hold Miami's officials accountable to the public, it's hardly surprising that the county commission's supposed ringmaster, new mayor Carlos Alvarez, remains a political cipher. He swept into office thundering about ending business as usual at county hall, yet it has become apparent that no less than half his staff is now composed of holdovers from the administration of predecessor Alex Penelas. As Kulchur has previously noted, this is certainly convenient for Miami's lobbyists -- they don't even need to reprogram the speed dials on their cell phones. For the rest of us, though, it's a situation that cries out for some critical reporting.
True, sending a TV news crew to grill a local elected official won't be quite as action-packed as an afternoon on the road with P. Diddy (Art Teele excepted). But Kulchur isn't asking for Channel 7 to wholly abandon its "if it bleeds, it leads" programming ethos, or that Channel 6 should adopt a homegrown version of C-SPAN. As for those craving a steady diet of mind-numbing, 5000-word feature stories on the latest municipal dustup in Surfside or Hialeah Gardens, there's a certain weekly newspaper nicely filling that niche. That said, it would be refreshing to have Miami's TV outfits tear themselves away from the latest highway wreck for an occasional look at the forces that run this community -- and that ultimately affect all of us much more profoundly than any I-95 fuel spill.
"Every station has good reporters who can do fine stories," offers Channel 10's Michael Putney, the sole TV newsman in town whose full-time beat is politics and government. However, Putney continues, instead of scorning Miami's on-air talent, try looking behind the camera. "These stations' managers won't break their reporters free to do those stories. What this [Lear Center] study reiterates is not so much the failure of reporters but the failure of management to see that this kind of local political reporting matters to people, and that they could do it in a way that's meaningful, that connects with how people live, with their neighborhoods, with their schools."
Good intentions aren't always enough, of course. Putney recalls covering one county commission session when a budget debate became heated. As the dais erupted with talk of raising Miami-Dade's ad valorem (property) taxes, one newsman sidled over. "This reporter, who shall remain nameless," Putney chuckles, "came up to me and asked, öSo who is this Ed Valorem guy? Why does he have a tax named after him?'" Kulchur can detect the faintest sound of a tongue being held firmly in place before Putney sighs: "I don't want to sound condescending, but some of these issues may be beyond the ken of a few of my colleagues."
Minute by Minute
Advertising: 8 minutes 51 seconds
Sports and weather: 6 minutes 21 seconds
Elections: 3 minutes 11 seconds
Presidential coverage: 2 minutes
Noncandidate coverage (ballot measures): 45 seconds
All other races (local, state, federal): 30 seconds
Crime: 2 minutes 34 seconds
Local interest: 1 minute 56 seconds
Teasers, intros, outros: 1 minute 43 seconds
Health: 1 minute 22 seconds
Other: 1 minute 12 seconds
Unintentional injury: 55 seconds
Business/economy: 47 seconds
Government (nonelection coverage): 28 seconds
Iraq: 25 seconds
Foreign policy: 13 seconds
Source: Norman Lear Center study of English-language broadcasts, October 1-November 1, 2004
Stories on Local Political Races
WPLG-10 ABC 12%
WFOR-4 CBS 9%
WLTV-51 Univision 9%
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WTVJ-6 NBC 6%
WSCV-23 Telemundo 3%
WSVN-7 FOX 2%
Source: Norman Lear Center study, October 1-November 1, 2004