Diary of the American Nightmare

The Book of Revelations does not say
whether the apocalypse will
be
televised. But if it is, WSVN in Miami will not have to interrupt
its regular programming.

It's July 18 -- the day of a visit by President Clinton to Miami
--
and WSVN, the nation's most notorious tabloid station, is leading
its ten o'clock newscast with yet another lurid murder story.
"Let
me let you take a look at the body of Carmen Rodriguez, still
laying next to her car," reporter Glenn Milberg says as the
camera
zooms in on a white, body-shaped shroud with a pool of blood at
one
end. "That's exactly where she was shot a few hours ago." WSVN
cuts
from Milberg to film of the victim's son arriving at the scene
and
bursting into tears, then to taped footage of the body that shows
the arm of Carmen Rodriguez extending out from under the
canvas.

WSVN manages to get five more bodies on screen within the next
seven minutes, including the partially uncovered corpses of four
teenagers killed in a car accident. We also see the accident's
one
survivor, bloodied and with an amputated leg, being lifted from
the
wreckage. A subsequent sequence shows a man, who was shot in the
head while minding a local store, sitting in an ambulance with a
bandage on his bleeding wound. He lived, so it wasn't "Top Story"
material.

Nine minutes, six car wrecks, and one beating into the broadcast,
the words "ROADSIDE RAPE" swoop on screen like a spacecraft. A
reporter explains that over a period of several months, three
women
have been attacked while driving through the city: "This type of
car crime is happening all too frequently." Reenacting one such
incident, a driver bumps a woman's car, and when she pulls over,
he
jumps in her car and drives away. (Both drivers are actors.) "The
criminal element is out there," intones a Florida highway
patrolman. A passerby frets that "You just never know when it's

going to happen."

Finally, fourteen minutes into the show, WSVN mentions that the
President visited today to talk about health care and promote the
upcoming pan-American summit in Miami. The two-minute segment is
presented sans analysis, MTV sound-bite style.

A rough tally for the newscast: excluding sports and weather,
WSVN
has devoted 22 out of 34 minutes of broadcast time to stories
about
people being attacked, robbed, injured, or killed. That includes
15
minutes on murders and other crimes. There has been no political
or
other so-called institutional news, save for the segment on
Clinton
and an update on the crisis in Haiti. The rest has consisted of
celebrity stories, health news, and a piece on the Levy-Shoemaker
3 comet hitting Jupiter.

For residents of South Florida, WSVN has become the daily diary
of
the American nightmare. Shootings. Stabbings. Rapes. More
shootings. With every broadcast, WSVN tests the limits of
decency,
feeding Miami's social divisions and caustic political atmosphere
along the way.

Critics have taken aim at WSVN's journalistic ethos before, with
mixed results. Newsweek dubbed WSVN "Crime Time Live."
Locally,
leaders of Miami's African-American community have attacked WSVN
for promoting racial stereotypes. Yet while WSVN has tamed its
programming in recent months, such notoriety may serve primarily
to
enhance the station's bad-boy reputation. High-minded criticism
is
no match for high ratings and the advertising it brings.

But what's most worrisome here is not the lack of taste or
judgement at one television station but the reaction of the
audience. While 69 percent of South Floridians think local news
contributes to a "climate of fear," more than three-quarters say
they still rely on it as their primary source of community
information.

As a result, the triumph of the tabloid format in South Florida
may
say as much about the nature of Miami's community as it does
about
the values of WSVN's owners, managers, and reporters. Like palm
trees, indifference to public life flourishes in South Florida.
Since the same could be said for many other cities, concerned
citizens on both sides of the newsdesk should consider what it is
about South Florida that promotes disinterest in public affairs
-- and
what role the more responsible media might still play.



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'If It Bleeds, It Leads'

Ten o'clock rolls around on another sultry South Florida evening,
and tonight WSVN is leading with a story of a suburban boy who
accidentally set himself ablaze while trying to construct a
Molotov
cocktail. The show needs a good visual, but there's no footage of
the boy on fire. Ace reporter Milberg improvises. As she explains
to viewers how to make a Molotov cocktail, the broadcast cuts
intermittently to a show-and-tell sequence: a hand holds a glass
jar, pours clear liquid into it, and splashes it on the camera
lens
to demonstrate how the gas leaked out and set off the explosion.
Accompanied by sound effects, the sequence's blurred
black-and-white shots are reminiscent of an Oliver Stone
movie.

The fast cutaways, reenactments, artsy cinematography, and music
are the trademarks of WSVN news and the chief legacy of Joel
Cheatwood, the architect of its news format. After WSVN lost its
NBC affiliation in the 1980s -- NBC decided to buy one of WSVN's
competitors -- WSVN owner Ed Ansen and Cheatwood dreamed up the
tabloid scheme as a way to save the station from extinction.

At the time, the move was considered risky. But Ansen and
Cheatwood
figured that if they made news entertaining, they could build a
solid audience. They were right. In the five years since it
turned
tabloid, WSVN news has climbed from fourth to second place in
South
Florida's highly competitive television market, with occasional
spells in the top position. In 1989, it signed on as a Fox
Television affiliate. According to Newsweek, WSVN made $20
million
in 1993, making it one of the most profitable local stations in
the
country.

Already, imitators have sprung up in Chicago, Los Angeles, and
other markets. In Boston, backyard of the nation's
intelligentsia,
WSVN's parent company recently bought station WHDH; its tabloid
transformation is underway. Could the formula work on a national
scale? Fox TV seems to think so. A Fox executive recently hailed
WSVN as the future of network news, though she hedged on whether
WSVN would be the model for Fox's planned entry into the national
news business.

In Miami itself, WSVN has increasingly set the tone for local
news,
except for one station that adopted a "family-sensitive" format
and
now sits at the bottom of the ratings heap. When University of
Miami scholar Joe Angotti sampled a week of programming in
November
1993, he found that WSVN had devoted nearly 50 percent of its 6
o'clock broadcast to crime, more than double its closest
competitor. In a similar test six months later, that number was
down to 30 percent on WSVN, apparently because tourism-sensitive
advertisers raised a fuss. But on WPLG, Miami's most popular and
well-respected station, crime coverage had risen to 30 percent,
placing it in a virtual tie with WSVN.

In an interview, an assignment manager at WPLG acknowledged that
despite his station's reputation for integrity and firm grip on
the
top ratings spot, it was becoming "more sensitive to crime. We
had
to make sure we weren't falling behind." They haven't, and
neither
have most others.

Ansen and Cheatwood have insisted that they perform a public
service by appealing to an audience that might otherwise not
watch
any news at all. (Both turned down requests to be interviewed for
this article.) The station does appeal to younger viewers. But
given its emphasis on glitz and contempt for responsible
journalism, the motive seems transparent.

Of course, free-market journalism is an old story, as is South
Florida's obsession with the macabre. In the 1980s, when Miami
became the terminus for the nation's cocaine traffic, violent
crime
did rise sharply. Nary a week went by when some low-level drug
dealer didn't show up on the front pages with a blindfold and a
bullet in the head.

But WSVN has taken the obsession to an extreme, at a time when
violent crime in Miami is actually declining. According to the
Federal Bureau of Investigation, the incidence of both murder and
forcible rape fell steadily from 1982 to 1992 (the most recent
year
for which data is available). In 1982, Miami officials reported
190 murders and 349 forcible rapes; in 1992, they reported 128
murders and 272 forcible rates. (Actually, the incidence of rape
peaked in 1983, not 1982, at 365.) However, in an NBC survey of
South Floridians in January 1993, 73 percent said they thought
the
murder rate had increased. This mirrors the trend across the
country: crime rates are down nationally, but public awareness
of
crime continues to rise.

Ironically, most residents seem to recognize that the media image
of Miami is distorted. In the NBC survey, 66 percent of the
respondents said local news shows pay too much attention to
crime.
Hal Boedeker, the Miami Herald's television critic,
figures that
for most viewers WSVN and its imitators are "a guilty pleasure, a
quick thrill. You laugh at the things you think are outrageous."
But if the discrepancy between crime rates and crime perceptions
is
indicative, tabloid coverage may be contributing to serious
distortions of public understanding.


A Tale of Two Cities

When word spread that WSVN's Ed Ansen planned to add a Boston
station to his broadcast portfolio, civic-minded New Englanders
greeted the news with the same enthusiasm they might muster for a
new toxic waste dump. Broadsides filled The Boston Globe.
Michael
Dukakis, a part-time Floridian, campaigned against the sale. A
local nonprofit group even tried -- unsuccessfully -- to organize
a
buyout of the station before Ansen could get his hands on it.

Today, WHDH does look increasingly like WSVN -- albeit in some
subtle
ways -- but Boston's other stations haven't changed all that
much. For
the most part, WHDH has the tabloid niche to itself.

It is still too soon to know for certain whether tabloid news
will
play in the Boston market. Perhaps Boston's journalistic
traditions
of responsible, staid reporting are stronger than Miami's. The
Globe
barely responded when Rupert Murdoch took over the
rival
Boston Herald and gave it a tabloid makeover. And Boston
is home to
PBS's flagship quality station, WGBH.

More importantly, though, Boston may prove to be less susceptible
than Miami to tabloid TV because the two communities are so
different. As a former resident of South Florida (for 15 years)
and a current resident of Boston, I've observed the differences
first-hand.

For starters, most Floridians do not have a deep attachment to
the
state. Less than 20 percent of Florida's people were born there;
only Nevada has a smaller proportion of native-born inhabitants.
Because many residents have only recently arrived, they are not
likely to know the state or its government well.

South Floridians, in particular, feel more than a geographical
distance from the doings of state government in faraway
Tallahassee. They don't have much stake in what the state does,
and
a lot of them want to keep it that way. Unlike Florida's Latin
American immigrants, who came seeking political haven, many of
the
refugees from up north were in search of a financial haven -- in
other
words, a land free of income and inheritance taxes. Taxes, of
course, don't usually enamor citizens of state government. But
they
do make them a lot more interested in what the government does.
Even Florida's many retirees, who do depend on government, look
to
Washington, not Tallahassee, for Social Security and Medicare
benefits.

Granted, people with weak ties to a state may still have strong
ties to a city or town. In South Florida, however, most of the
newcomers have recreated miniature versions of places left
behind -- Little Havana, Little Haiti, and all the little
Brooklyns
that constitute Florida's retirement communities. Miami as such
does not evoke their loyalty. Ask a typical South Floridian where
he or she is from, and you're apt to hear "Havana" or maybe "the
Upper West Side" -- even from Miamians of 10 or 20 years.

What South Floridians do share, of course, is mutual hostility.
Not
by chance did Miami erupt into riots four times within ten years.
All were sparked by direct clashes between Miami's Cuban and
African-American communities, the most antagonistic pair, while
more complicated ethnic passions simmered beneath. "The
extraordinary division of Miami along ethnic lines continues to
define its reality," Alejandro Portes and Alex Stepick advise in
City on the Edge: The Transformation of Miami. "Anglos,
Blacks,
and Jews, Nicaraguans, Haitians, and Cubans, tend to stay within
their ethnic circles and to greet calls for intermingling with
skepticism, if not hostility."

In such an environment, news of crime and violence play well,
because it both entertains and validates stereotypes, while
public
or institutional news about the region doesn't stand much of a
chance, since it's not likely to be relevant to many viewers.
What, after all, does a suburban Miami commuter care about a
Metro-Dade bus strike? Less than 6 percent of South Floridians
use
public transportation.

Contrast this situation with Boston's, where for all of the
legendary racial tensions, city news still matters to many
citizens. Relative to Miami, Boston has strong civic traditions,
thriving social networks, and popular public activities. (The
share
of the population using public transportation is twice as large.)
As a result, Bostonians are more likely to reject tabloid news
and
demand information about their city and state from their nightly
local news.

Trouble is, the rest of the nation looks more like Miami and less
like Boston every day. What the 1994 Almanac of American Politics
says about Florida is particularly true of the Miami area.
"Florida's lack of community traditions and mediating
institutions
are part of the problem -- and one that threatens the nation too
as it
becomes increasingly like Florida."

Indeed, cities across the Sunbelt and West, the nation's youngest
and fastest growing regions, all share Miami's defining
characteristics: high rates of immigration, a rapidly changing
population, and growing class divisions. Cities such as Houston,
Denver, or Los Angeles don't have vibrant downtowns to serve as
economic anchors or cultural centers that might foster common
identity. Instead, they more strongly resemble what Joel Garreau
calls "edge cities" -- clusters of strip shopping centers and
office
complexes surrounded primarily by walled-off housing
developments.

The political profiles of these cities are familiar, too. As in
South Florida, many of America's new growth centers have paved
the
road to prosperity with low tax rates, undercutting social
services
in the name of attracting business. Public opinion in these
cities
mirrors South Florida's: generally conservative, particularly
when
it comes to issues related to crime, poverty, and tax levels. (Is
it any surprise that Florida and Texas lead the nation in capital
punishment but rank behind other large states in quality and
quantity of social services?) This political culture creates an
environment in which people feel little connection to government
and, as such, little interest in news about it.

These cities are missing what Robert D. Putnam has described in
these pages as "social capital" -- the networks and traditions
that
bind members of a community together (see "The Prosperous
Community: Social Capital and Public Life," TAP, No. 13,
Spring
1993). That is why these cities are such fertile ground for
flashy
but ultimately inconsequential tabloid news. News about the
community, region, or state seems much less important to people
who
are less likely to have roots in its past, connections with each
other, and a deep sense of place as part of their personal
identity. If the nation's cities continue to look more like
Miami,
we can expect to see more WSVNs, and continued deterioration in
public dialogue, for years to come.


When All Politics Is Individual

One can imagine Ansen, Cheatwood, and their comrades at WSVN
arguing that Miami really is different -- and that people there
really
want to watch their programming. Indeed, they have. "Maybe in a
perfect world everybody would be watching `MacNeil/Lehrer,'"
Ansen
told Newsweek. "But we can't afford to be boring."

Still, recognizing a social ill is one thing; reinforcing it is
quite another. If tabloid programming thrives because the sense
of
community has shriveled, responsible journalists ought to be
thinking about what they can do to replenish it. If there is any
hope for the informed public discussion that is the basis of
democratic self-government, journalists need to seek out stories
that tap into broadly felt interests. Remarkably, in Miami that
week of July 18 -- despite a presidential visit and ongoing
discussions on Capitol Hill -- neither WPLG nor WSVN, the two
benchmark stations, aired substantive local stories on health
insurance. Dramatic health care stories, of no small consequence
to
South Florida's populations of both the retired and the
uninsured,
would not have been hard to find.

It was Tip O'Neill -- a politician from Massachusetts, not
Florida --
who famously remarked, "All politics is local." O'Neill was just
acknowledging the power of parochial interests, which are bound
to
be strong in a state where people are intensely interested in
local
issues. The shift to tabloid television news may be a symptom of
the waning of local public life and the onset of a more extreme
parochialism -- the secession into private life. The old variety
of parochialism seems so much more attractive now that we see the
alternative.



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