Blank Screens, Blank Minds: TV News in America

One of the worst blunders in American recent journalistic history took place last week at the San Francisco Fox News television affiliate station KTVU, a blunder so wonderful it leaves you breathless.

For those few who haven't seen it after it went viral on Youtube, some blow-dried bimbo gravely but excitedly announced the station had learned the names of the four pilots aboard Asiana Flight 214, which crashed at San Francisco International Airport on July 6, killing three and injuring 181. The real names of the pilots had actually been released earlier by the US National Transport Safety Board and reported by everybody, but never mind - KTVU had them as Captain Sum Ting Wong, flight officers Wi Tu Lo, Ho Lee Fuk and Bang Ding Ow.

Also never mind that none of these names sounds remotely Korean. The station checked them with the NTSB, where some cheeky intern apparently told the station the names were real and the blowdried one read them on the air. That presumably meant the names had to pass through several hands - the person who received them from a prankster and called Washington, DC to check them out, an editor who wrote the piece for the presenter to read, the person who uploaded the graphics and the news presenter herself.

The NTSB intern will probably be garroted, but he should be given a medal.

The station has apologized for its error. But if the station manager has any presence of mind, he will gather the staff together, fire them all, change the station's call letters, disaffiliate from Fox News, and go to a place with quiet rooms where he will not be bothered for some time.

But there is more to this. A recent month spent in the United States required proximity to the Evening News at 5 on a number of local stations. Although Asian television news can be pretty terrible, this is news unlike anything anybody has ever seen in Asia and let us hope never will.

Of course nobody who took journalism seriously has ever thought US local television news was anything more than reading stories out of the local newspaper. But there appears to have been a major change. Twenty years or so ago, a guy in a suit and tie looked at the camera and read the news, with some visuals from camera crews at fires, floods or earthquakes. He was usually flanked by a sober-looking blonde who nodded at appropriate times, with a former baseball/football/golf player to give the sports, and a weather guy who said it would or would not rain tomorrow.

That isn't to say there isn't plenty to watch now. There's more than ever. For the fourth year in a row, according to the US-based Radio Television Digital News Association, the average television station set new records for the amount of local news aired, with the average daily amount of news on a weekday climbing to 5 hours and 18 minutes. The average station affiliated with a major television network - ABC, CBS, NBC - is even higher at 5 hours and 48 minutes.

The problem is that what they are showing is not news. The local stations appear to have taken their cues not from the business of presenting news but from a long string of television sitcoms that started at least in 1982 with a show called Cheers, then ran through another one called Seinfeld, then into another called Friends. There is now one called Big Bang.

The formula is about the same. Put six characters on the screen - three males, three females, all relatively cuddly, and let them exchange wisecracks for a half hour, or in the case of the 6 o'clock news, maybe for an hour. There is very little actual news in this format. A fire here, a murder there, although they are very good on the weather. But if any of them has been trained in the actual practice of journalism, it doesn't show.

As with Cheers/Seinfeld/Friends, the action depends on the chemistry between the players. It does not depend on news.The wrong chemistry will have you headed out the door, no matter how much you know about questionable city plumbing contracts and corruption in Fresno, say, You must instead deliver a substantial amount of chitchat about what you did over the weekend, what you intend to do next weekend, how hot/cold it is outside, a smattering of wisecracks, a bit of homely advice on lifestyles, something about a pet doing endearing things or being trapped somewhere, a fire truck racing here or there. It is telling that on a national level, on NBC the news originates from "Rock Center with Brian Williams." That would be Rockefeller Center in New York, where the other famous "Rock" has perched for several years--30 Rock, a clear attempt to identify the news program with a hugely successful sitcom starring Alec Baldwin.

There was a devil's pact made between television and news, starting with a phenomenally successful investigative series called 60 Minutes that went on the air at CBS in 1968 and has remained on the air ever since. It spent years as the top-ranked television show of any kind in America. And it made a lot of money, delivering the stunning implication to local stations that contrary to their long-held expectations and nose-holding presentation of public service, news could make money. And, unlike 60 minutes, they decided, quality didn't matter as long as the money rolled in.

Hence, the disappearance of any real economic, government or any other news that Americans need to make decisions in a democracy. There is news on the Public Broadcasting stations, which of course the Republicans in Congress want to drive a stake through, and on the BBC, which is available here and there, and hopefully there will be soon on Al Jazeera, which probably does the best job of English-language international reporting anywhere despite controversy over its Arabic news service. But real news is kind of dull, and the majority don't watch it, and there is almost no real local news available in the US.

But local news, if you call it that, does make money. According to the same Radio Television Digital News Association reports, television news operations have been increasing their hiring budgets since 2011. Nearly 39 percent of stations say their budgets stayed the same, with 38 percent reporting increases. Television news profitability reached its highest level since 1998 with 59.3 percent of stations reporting a profit, up from 57.4 percent in 2011.

Unfortunately, just 21 percent of adult Americans say they have "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in TV news, according to the Gallup polling organization. It is the lowest number since 1993 when the firm began its annual poll on the question.

There is a reason for that. The reading of Sum Ting Wong, Wi Too Low, Ho Lee Fuk could have happened on any television station in America, and there is little doubt that something similar will happen again, especially to Fox News affiliates.