• U.S.

How TV Failed to Get the Real Picture

4 minute read
Richard Schickel/Los Angeles

TOM BRADLEY’S ONLY VISIBLY SHREWD MOVE DURING THE RODNEY KING RIOTS was a request for an hour of crisis counterprogramming. Last Thursday he encouraged Channel 4, the NBC-owned and -operated Los Angeles outlet, to air The Cosby Show’s farewell broadcast as originally scheduled. Maybe the mayor was just another fan of Bill Cosby’s who did not want to be denied closure. Maybe he thought the Cos would calm the populace. Maybe he wanted to give the anchors a chance to repair their hairdos. Or maybe he just wanted to make at least one pair of them shut up for an hour. And shut out the edgy shrillness that kept creeping into their voices. Shut down the spectacular, but profoundly disinformative, helicopter shots of burning buildings. Shut off the correspondents standing on disarrayed street corners, describing what had happened there or might soon be going to happen there — and, oh, in the meantime, how about some more pictures of the looters going brazenly about their business?

Some of those images were, in their grotesque way, priceless: a woman staggering down the street trying not to scrape her new, no-down-payment dining room table on the pavement; another lady attempting to jam her stolen sofa onto a pickup truck already overladen with loot. Modern America’s great guiding principle, shop till you drop, was in process of revision; steal till you kneel was more like it.

But after you’ve seen three or four such bleakly comic moments, you — if not necessarily the news directors back in the studio — get the joke. And perhaps the sociological point. Time to show us something else, something completely different, if possible. But no, Los Angeles television just kept pouring raw footage from the remote units onto the screen. It was roughly the equivalent of dumping raw sewage into Santa Monica Bay. In effect, intelligent life-forms — those organisms struggling to make sense of tragic chaos — found the oxygen supply to their brains cut off.

Television’s mindless, endless (generally fruitless) search for the dramatic image — particularly on the worst night, Wednesday — created the impression that an entire city was about to fall into anarchy and go up in flames. What was needed instead was geography lessons showing that rioting was confined to a relatively small portion of a vast metropolis and that violent incidents outside that area were random, not the beginning of a concentrated march to the sea via Rodeo Drive.

More than that, TV needed to offer perspective. Anchors everywhere plied field reporters with Big Picture questions. But that wasn’t their job. Their job was to create a mythical city, a sort of Beirut West, views of which would keep many viewers frozen in fear to their Barcaloungers. And, incidentally, send a few of them out to join in the vicious fun. Their masters provided these journalists with almost no opportunity to do what many of them manifestly wanted to do: interrogate authority about strategy and timetables; question experts who knew something about the patterns of urban unrest; follow up a hundred human-interest stories.

Besides perspective, these assignments might have provided something else we desperately needed: respite from assault by imagery. And a reminder that the goons don’t rule the world. Not yet, anyway. TV itself needed such respites too — interruptions of its uninterruptedness, so it could sort out its information, make sense of it in sensibly edited and narrated reports. The basic function of journalism is selection. It is through that skill that a medium earns civic responsibility and achieves public trust. Just because we have evolved a technology that can create the impression of encompassing events instead of merely observing them — and a race of iron-bottomed anchorpeople to lend friendly authority to this illusion — does not mean that either should be employed without restraint.

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