The Week of Living Ignorantly
All your local news from 30 minutes of TV a day
by Al Diamon
From Sunday, Dec. 9 to Saturday, Dec. 15, I pretended to get my news the way most Mainers do. I acted as if the Internet, radio and newspapers didn’t exist. I received all my information by watching a half hour of local television news each day.
I rotated my daily 30 minutes among the three Portland TV stations that produce their own newscasts: WCSH, WGME and WMTW. I also sampled the news at different times of day: morning, noon, evening and late night. Then I compared what I’d learned from TV to what I would have found out if I’d turned to other media.
To my not very great surprise, I discovered that relying on the tube as your sole source of Maine news would quickly turn you into an ignorant boob.
Not that television was completely inadequate at covering anything.
When the Connecticut school-shooting story broke on Dec. 14, TV did what it does best: throw tragedy in your face. WGME’s 6 p.m. cast opened with President Obama’s moving statement on the deaths. Then, on to a rundown of what was known to that point. Instead of offering network stories, Channel 13 edited together a mess of video and interviews from its national affiliates and had its own reporter narrate it.
That didn’t make the story local. I suspect the reconfiguring was more of a marketing move than a journalistic one (I could almost smell the consultant who recommended the idea). But I still got sufficient information. It was one of the few times all week I could say that.
WGME did offer some self-produced content on the mass slaying. There were clips from a Maine State Police news conference assuring the public the state’s cops and teachers were trained for “active shooter scenarios.” No details, though, about what that training involves, whether it would have prevented deaths in a similar situation or whether this incident would prompt revisions.
Next up was a reasonable piece about how to talk to your children about the killings, featuring an expert from a counseling program.
What was missing from the show was the first thing virtually everybody I talked to all that day mentioned in connection with this incident — namely, gun control. Some people hoped the killings would spark legal changes making it harder for potential mass murderers to get weapons. Others feared a crackdown on law-abiding firearms owners. The next morning, the Portland Press Herald had a sizable article on the political implications for gun sales.
Everyone was talking about it — except TV news.
Twenty-four hours later, WGME still had not caught on. Its 6 p.m. cast opened with over two minutes of a grieving parent’s news conference — compelling and painful to watch. But even when the station got around to a segment on local reactions, from a couple of firefighters and a veteran, none of them mentioned gun control.
These kinds of blind spots weren’t uncommon in my week of TV dependence. In general, matters of politics and government policy were notable by their absence. On those rare occasions when they made it on air, they were usually limited to brief pieces of what was probably wire-service copy that lacked context and, often, coherence. The feuding between Republican Gov. Paul LePage and newly chosen Democratic leaders in the Legislature fell into this category, but that was an improvement over coverage of other stories.
Not a word on efforts to develop new teacher evaluation standards, and millionaire philanthropist Roxanne Quimby’s confusing statements indicating she might be backing away from her plans for a national park in northern Maine never came up.
Instead, I was subjected to nearly continuous coverage of the Wreaths Across America convoy as it made its way from Maine to Washington, D.C. At most of its stops over several days, at least one station was there and, sometimes, all three — even though neither reporters nor participants had anything new to say.
Fires and accidents got heavy play, even when there were no deaths and little damage. So did all sorts of happy holiday stories (WMTW seemed to think it newsworthy that the Portland Ballet Company was staging The Nutcracker, something it does every year, and that some tree farms let people cut their own Christmas trees).
All the stations spent a lot of time on the approaching one-year anniversary of the disappearance of 20-month-old Ayla Reynolds from her home in Waterville. Channel 13 quoted a Maine State Police official as saying the case had resulted in the “largest criminal investigation in state history,” but other than that, there was nothing fresh. To be fair, the rest of the news media were equally thick with teary-eyed coverage of this case, nearly all of it consisting of rehashes.
On Dec. 12, just before noon, Forbes magazine released its annual list of states ranked by how business friendly they are. Maine again came in dead last. WGME and WCSH ran perfunctory stories (probably from Associated Press copy) that included a statement from Gov. LePage, but not from anyone else, even though print journalists found significant disagreements about what was causing the state’s miserable showing. WMTW waited an extra day to do a real piece that at least included comments from local businesspeople suggesting changes that might improve Maine’s standing.
In three-and-a-half hours of TV news-watching over the week, I saw 26 weather forecasts and six sportscasts (seven if you count a network story about the controversy surrounding a giant mechanical dinosaur on a golf course in Australia). If all I needed to know was whether it was going to snow and how the Portland Pirates’ season was progressing, I’d have been fine.
But if I’d wanted to be informed about an environmental group raising concerns about the ties between the mining industry and the consultant Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection had hired to develop mining regulations, I’d have been out of luck. I didn’t catch anything on Lewiston’s mayor and his oddball claim that limiting welfare would solve his city’s problem with school overcrowding.
It’s possible some of these stories showed up in other newscasts I didn’t watch. But even if that’s the case, the concept heavily promoted by all the stations, that a half hour of viewing provides a complete look at everything important that’s going on in Maine, is bogus. (WMTW claims it offers “The top stories and a complete forecast in the first 8 minutes.”)
Forget about the criticism that TV news lacks depth (which it mostly does). As my week of watching demonstrated, the tube isn’t even an adequate headline service.
Al Diamon can be emailed at email@example.com.