TV News Revealed

K-EYE's Smoke and Mirrors Approach

K-EYE delivers autographed Terri Chappell photos, but not hard news.

Last Wednesday, no less than eight PR flacks from local CBS affiliate K-EYE lighted on the Chronicle offices to inform me of a week-long news special on
K-EYEWitness News
. The unannounced visitation of such an enormous contingent of publicity people prompted some curiosity on my part. What story could be important enough to merit air time on K-EYE's 10pm news every night for a week? A boondoggle at city hall? Toxic waste being dumped into Barton Creek? Perhaps an in-depth look at at the upcoming city council elections, which were then only a week and a half away?

No, the K-EYE crew was here to tell me that anchor Terri Chappell was going to blow the lid off a really big story. She was doing a five-part series exposing the secrets behind magic tricks. That's right -- magic tricks. Boy, now there's a crucial issue that's just burning a hole in my brain. Who cares about the fact that Austin is about to pick the next set of councilmembers who will determine the future of our city? What I want to know is: Doesn't it hurt when they saw that lady in half?

Overlooking the minor moral issue of whether K-EYE ought to be putting the jobs of already-starving magicians in peril, I simply must raise the question: What in the hell does this have to do with news?

I shudder to think of the mentality it takes to run a television station's news department these days. After all, K-EYE, like almost every television news department, only devotes about 12 minutes per half-hour program to news reporting, forking over the rest of that time to weather and sports. Why waste precious minutes explaining how magic tricks are done? Well, the main answer is pretty easy: the old network tie-in. It turns out that on Monday night, CBS aired a special by renowned magician David Copperfield. The logic was that TV-watching folks who liked that show would continue to tune in for the "news" special on K-EYE. (Never mind that the special was partly based on the publication of a book, Secrets of Magic Revealed, that came out weeks ago and has already been re-hashed on national TV and talk shows by the time K-EYE picked it up). The creation of a news segment to tie in with a station's prime-time programming is an all-too-common tactic among local news shows. In other words, the news has become little more than a promotional spot for the network's entertainment fare.

In fact, while waiting for the Thursday night "magic tricks" segment, viewers were treated to another glaring example of the network tie-in -- K-EYE devoted a whopping three minutes and 40 seconds to telling us about emergency animal hospitals, following up on an earlier report by the CBS network news magazine, 48 Hours. Yes, everybody likes stories about dogs, but there was something ridiculous about K-EYE's use of the marvels of modern television technology, with dramatic, slow-motion camera shots of animal surgeons that made viewers feel as though they were watching an episode of ER. K-EYE also had reporter Daniel Plante air a live report from the hospital, presumably in case something major suddenly happened, such as Eeyore being rushed in for a bad trip. At the end of this, Plante finally said what I had been thinking from the beginning of the embarrassingly overblown segment -- that if you really want info on this, you could just "look in the Yellow Pages under `Vet.'" Gee, thanks, K-EYE -- I never would have figured that one out on my own.

Then came time for the much-promoted magic segment. Chappell devoted almost a full three minutes to explaining levitation to us, and K-EYE spared no expense to make her investigation as thorough as possible -- they actually flew her and a camera crew to Montreal! That's right, Montreal, Canada, to interview Secrets author Herbert Becker.

The report took us around Montreal, showing us various sights and sounds of the city, apparently for no other purpose than to eat up a good minute of airtime. Then, Chappell exposed the devious machinations of the magician as Becker appeared to pull away the plank on which she had been sitting, while hiding another plank attached to her chair beneath the cloth around her legs. Oooh. What corruption!

That K-EYE would go to the expense of sending a crew to Canada to find out how magicians pull rabbits out of hats when there's perfectly good roll-up-your-sleeves journalism to be done around here is fairly humorous. That the station spent good money to give me free stuff to get me to write about its series is almost sad. The army of flack that descended on the Chronicle delivered a promo package (two days after the segments had begun airing -- good job, guys) which included: a coffee mug, tote bag, frisbee, baseball cap, rain jacket,
t-shirt, water bottle, pen, and pencils, all emblazoned with the K-EYE logo; a plastic magician's hat, a dimestore magic trick, a box of Dunkin' Donuts (now, that was good), and a photo of Terri Chappell, personally autographed.

One has to wonder what might happen if
K-EYE were to reinvest the manpower and money that went into this insipid "report," and put it to use on something really frivolous, like, say, investigative reporters?!?

That K-EYE would waste resources on this light fare should come as no surprise -- K-EYE news director Jeff Godlis has openly come out against relevant news coverage, actively attacking a farsighted policy of rival KVUE which directed that station's news staff to deemphasize crime stories unless they had broad relevance to its viewership, i.e., if the suspect was still at large or if it represented a broader crime trend. In a letter to the Austin American-Statesman, Godlis blasted KVUE for being "conceited enough" to tell viewers "what is news and what is not." (Apparently he does not understand the job description of "news director.")

Not that K-EYE is alone in its inanity. Criticizing TV news is like shooting fish in a barrel. According to a 1995 study by the Rocky Mountain Media Watch that analyzed one day of coverage at news stations throughout the country, American television stations devote about 42% of their news segments to war, crime, and disaster, regardless of its direct relevancy to the station's community, and 39% to fluff such as the K-EYE report. (In fact, K-EYE's "Fluff Index" was 53.9%; twice as much as KVUE's 22.9% rating. On the other hand, KVUE's "Mayhem Index," before it instituted its crime-coverage policy, received a less-than-stellar 52.3%.) If you're counting, that leaves some 19% -- or about two and a quarter minutes -- for news that presumably does have direct relevance to the community.

Thanks to our nation's unrivaled freedom of the press, journalists can dig as deep as their zeal will take them. So how do TV journalists make use of that freedom? By giving us specials on magic tricks. And while the name of the game in broadcast news is ratings, not writing awards, it's worth noting that KVUE is currently ahead of K-EYE.

It's not that K-EYE doesn't know how to report. After all, it devoted more than two minutes to investigating Capital Metro, telling us that the transit agency has gone against the advice of its own lawyers and is pursuing the purchase of the Southern Pacific Mainline rail tracks.

Good work, and kudos to reporter Remi Barron -- too bad that only about 17% of the news segment, and less than 10% of the entire broadcast, was devoted to such coverage. The rest was filled with the Oklahoma bombing trial and the international chemical weapons treaty (news that could easily be obtained from a zillion other outlets, including the CBS national news report), an accidental shooting, a manslaughter trial, a kid in Bastrop with a pony tail (all news that has minimal relevance to most Austinites), and quick mentions of the legislature's tax bill (something which could have used more than 23 seconds of examination) and a Power Computing plant coming to town. Not one word was said about the city council elections.

Perhaps K-EYE could do a follow-up on its "Secrets of Magic" segment, and Chappell could reveal to us how local television news is able to use smoke and mirrors (sensationalized crime reports and non-news puff pieces) to magically make real news disappear from their coverage.

Looking a Gift Horse in the Eye

The Austin American-Statesman deserves commendation for its April 22 report on how state legislators and state officials are skirting around the state ethics laws (adopted in 1991) and are still accepting gifts from lobbyists, including things like Super Bowl tickets, pricey dinners, and expense-paid vacations masquerading as informational conferences. Reporters Mike Ward and Stuart Eskenazi named names of the legislators and special interests in question, and who gave what to whom. The dollar value of the gifts were detailed. And they sprinkled in plenty of good quotes -- the lawmakers were great at hanging themselves with their own ropes.

The main point of the article was well-made -- if you're rich, you're going to have better access to the people in power. Those of us in the lower 80-90% of the economic ladder aren't likely to bend a Senator's ear with an offer of hot dogs and lemonade in the back yard.

But I would offer caution to the Statesman's news team -- don't let this report end here. I encourage Eskenazi and Ward to keep an eye on this topic. Perhaps by the end of the legislative session, they could compile another report pointing out whether these gifts had any direct correlation to the way legislators voted (or, perhaps more importantly, whether campaign contributions have such a correlation). The answer to this would seem rather obvious, but mainstream news sources have consistently ignored such connections for years.

Got something to say on the subject? Send a letter to the editor.

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