Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer The Airwaves are Ours

But they have to be taken back from TV's absentee landlords.

By Basil Hero

JUNE 21, 1999:  Memphis, like other medium-size television markets, has finally fallen victim to the formulas of faceless media companies who are absentee landlords in the cities where they do business.

Local television stations today (more than in the past) are managed by out-of-towners who answer first to their corporate masters and to the community only secondarily. Of course, station managers must be responsive to the cities they serve, but they do so through the ratings lens and not with an eye to maintaining journalistic standards.

While ratings were important even in my day in Memphis television a decade ago, debt service from the frequent ownership changes since then has put ratings, not journalism, in the driver's seat.

Consequently the city is being subjected to the "sex and wrecks; it it bleeds, it leads" style of news coverage. If democracy is stolen in the middle of the night, your local news team won't know it because they'll be too busy covering a murder instead of being the watchdogs of government.

Entertainment values have permeated news coverage. The most egregious example is the media ride-along in which police enter someone's home with a search warrant. It's a ratings grabber, to be sure, but it also happens to be a violation of a person's Fourth Amendment right to privacy, and the U.S. Supreme Court has so held just this month.

This sort of invasive, police-state journalism would have been unthinkable to an earlier generation of journalists. Today's television reporters have lost this sensibility because they are mostly products of communications schools who screen applicants primarily for their looks and voices. Their focus is on the cosmetic arts of news presentation, not on political science, economics, and history which are the real tools of journalism.

It is the profit motive which has elevated statistically anomalous rapes, murders, and mayhem to lead status every night on the 6 o'clock news. Fear and violence sell. Reflection and analysis do not.

Repeated images of death and destruction amount to a very dangerous distortion of daily life. The whole world is not on fire being raped, murdered, flooded, and headed for a train wreck every night at six. Those are life's accidents. Making them appear routine for the sake of ratings or profits is obscene.

Worse, it diverts attention from where the real action is, the banks, the corporate boardrooms, the legislative bodies, and other institutions which quietly make the big decisions affecting all of us. The corridors of power are the places news cameras should be racing to every day, and it doesn't take helicopters to get there, just some old-fashioned shoe leather and some well-trained minds.

What can Memphians do? Start with your local television stations and take back the airwaves. They are a public resource and belong to you! Insist that more natives populate top management positions and that reporters understand something about Memphis and government in general.

If the stations fail to respond, hit them where it hurts the most their bottom lines. Local advertisers should hold back advertising spending, particularly the car dealers who are the mother's milk of local television stations.

Finally, make a political issue of tabloid news and sleazy media. Lobby the FCC. Better yet, get out in front of the stations with pickets and start making some noise. That's what democracy is all about.

And you know what? If you yell loudly enough, they'll have to put you on the air, and you will have sold them the rope with which to hang themselves.

(P.S. To the car dealer bold enough to pull his television ads first, fear not. It's news! Your protest will be duly noted by the print media, whose coverage will more than make up for the lost ad time.)


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