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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