Rocky Mountain Media Watch Texts #12


Toxic TV News

by Paul Klite
Former Executive Director of Rocky Mountain Media Watch.


Democracy can flourish only with an informed citizenry. Rocky Mountain Media Watch has taken its campaign for better TV news to the Federal Communications Commission, challenging the unbalanced and unhealthy diet of information on Denver television stations. RMMW's action has sparked criticism from this newspaper that our petitions would result in government censorship of the news. Not so. Censorship is abhorrent to our objectives. Our arguments do not restrict broadcasters' First Amendment rights in any way. TV content is not totally off-limits to FCC purview. The FCC does require three hours a week of educational programming from TV stations as a condition of licensing and, in the not too distant past, under the Fairness Doctrine, required stations to air controversial issues and present both sides. We are asking the FCC to rule that stations have a responsibility, in the public interest, to warn viewers about the side-effects of their product.

TV is a central force in American life with enormous power for both good and evil. We want stations to educate viewers and news personnel about the manipulative influence of television. We recommend PSAs on newscasts, alerting viewers to the harmful effect of exploitive TV violence. Public health groups from the Surgeon General to the AMA, American Psychological Association and American Academy of Pediatrics have warned of the health effects of media violence, as have the National PTA, Council of Churches and Association of Attorneys General. Hundreds of studies have shown that, on a diet of TV violence, kids can become desensitized, less empathetic to victims and more likely to resort to violence to settle conflicts. Adults, too, become numbed by the steady diet of murder and mayhem in the local news. Even Ted Turner has decried the trend, saying "People are beginning to realize the total effect of watching so much sleazy, lousy, violent, exploitive television." It's bad for our society. TV violence is powerful medicine and both the industry and the public need to be warned. With a few exceptions, TV stations across the country are following the same profitable formula as the Denver stations. In Austin Texas, the number one rated TV station, KVUE-TV, elicited similar cries of censorship from their competitors when they eliminated exploitive violence from newscasts.

Of course, violence is part of life and a part of the news. But, in the U.S., where almost one hundred murders occur every day, along with thousands of other crimes, TV newscasters must balance this information with other news of the day. Otherwise, shows would be all crime, all murder stories, all the time. The challenge for TV news departments is to be our eyes and ears on the world, and to filter and edit massive amounts of information into a balanced package. An unbalanced information diet of mayhem and fluff in the news, over time, is unhealthy, even toxic.

A cardinal symptom of TV news dysfunction is excess. Journalist Arthur Kent calls it binge journalism. The media feeding frenzy. Over the last few years, as the competition for ratings becomes more feverish and profit motives subsume journalistic values, we have been subjected to more and more media frenzies, each breathlessly presented as earth-shaking news. Menendez. Tonya and Nancy. The Bobbitts. O.J. Princess Di. Jon Benet. Monicagate. Just when you think it can t get any worse, it does.

According to 60 Minutes Producer Don Hewitt, "News is news and entertainment is entertainment." We wish that were the case. The infotainment business model is capturing viewers attention, with all the tricks and tactics of tabloid journalism. Everybody likes to be entertained, but that is not why we watch the news. News is supposed to inform us objectively about issues and events. The soul of news is truth. Entertainment devices, like exaggeration, escape from reality and fantasy, are antithetical to the values of journalism and truth-telling. We expect manipulative showbiz techniques (exploitive violence, sex, hype and celebrity focus) in the movies and the sit-coms. News is another matter. Especially on the public airwaves.

You, too, can present your views on our local stations by writing to the Secretary, FCC, Television Branch, 1919 M Street NW, Washington, DC 20036 by March 2. RMMW's petitions are on our web site at: Please judge for yourself if the ideas we offer the FCC are asking for censorship.