Where TV Fails

It may be unseemly to say it, but it's true: Tragedy is telegenic.

Within hours of the school shooting in Littleton, Colo., television news crews from across the nation arrived to capture the aftermath of what has been called one of the worst massacres on a school campus in U.S. history. As soon as the news crews descended, you could almost hear the tick of the timer before the inevitable chorus of critics and others chimed in to blame The Media as the cause behind the actions of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two youths who unleashed an attack against their Columbine High School classmates. Violence, promiscuity, and nihilism on the big and small screens is the cause of all evil, the critics wail. But wait. Can it be true that viewers' relationships to all entertainment media is a passive one? Are viewers merely empty vessels waiting to be fed with what spurts out of TV, movie, and video game screens?

Shaking one's fist at the entertainment media for causing the Littleton incident is like suffering a seizure, falling to the ground, hitting one's head on a table, then blaming the table for the seizure. At the same time, the media is extraordinarily pervasive. Media images, especially those in advertising, can be insidious in how they create, then target, the desire to be attractive, rich, and successful, or how they anesthetize reactions to violence and death. Perhaps young people are more susceptible to the lure of these images, but blaming entertainment media for the breakdown of the family, community, or even an individual's internal psyche avoids the larger, less tangible, but very real, social forces that create injustices, poverty, racial tension, class divisions, and even mental illness.

The failure of television -- to single out one of the more criticized media -- is not in its agenda to sell and entertain, but in its persistent effort to explain "reality" through that curious piece of programming called "the news." The so-called golden era of TV journalism, led by Edward R. Murrow, the patron saint of television news, is long gone and dead. Some critics would argue that it never occured because the very nature of television is to convert reality into entertainment. If there is any doubt of that these days, all one need do is tune into MSNBC or the Fox News Network.

The pageantry of a crisis (be it the Iranian hostage crisis, the Davidian Ranch standoff, the Oklahoma City bombing, and now, the siege of public schools by angry teens) is played out with near-perfect predictability on the nightly news. Participants know how "to play" the crisis storyline, which is now as familiar as the variations of

what comes after "Once upon a time ... ." Eyewitnesses know that tears are acceptable when talking to newscasters, as long as they do not choke out the speaker's ability to tell their part of the story. Parents and teachers know they must ask the existential question, "Why did this happen?" Mourners know that the laying of flowers or other tokens of remembrance at the site of a death is a necessary, healing ritual. The media, and television in particular, did not create the current school shooting crises, but it does provide a familiar, narrative map with which to try to make sense of it.

The most disappointing element of the TV network news coverage of the Littleton incident is its narrow focus. While the scope and spectacle of the Littleton shootings and others like it is certainly something to consider, violence and rage has plagued inner-city schools for well over two decades. Yet most network news coverage does not delve into the issue of teenage anger and rage in a broader context or in a meaningful way. Instead, raw footage is replayed over and over. Experts, especially psychologists, are called in as adjunct talking heads to decipher the behavior of Harris and Klebold -- young men they

will never meet. Ted Koppel hosts a televised therapy session linking the still-shocked members of the Littleton community with the still-grieving Jonesboro, Ark., community, where a similar incident happened last year. All this parades as an effort to get at a deeper understanding. In reality, this "coverage" picks at the fresh wound again and again, counting on the dramatic rush to keep viewer interest.

The fact of the matter is, the media, and in this case, television news, does not create the news as much as it reacts to what viewers will buy. As long as viewers are unwilling to distinguish fact from the trappings of fiction, and do not flex their muscle as consumers of the medium to demand more, TV network news will continue to be the dramatic workshop for every public trauma that occurs. As for myself, I say "never again" to TV news. I prefer my fiction without the talking heads.

Thank goodness NBC moved the buoyant comedy Will & Grace from its near oblivion on Tuesday night to the more visible 7:30pm spot on Thursday. With Friends as a lead-in and Frasier at its back, Will & Grace does its part to keep NBC's popular Thursday night lineup afloat. The only sinker of the evening is Veronica's Closet, but it's not a complete waste. Just as the guilt is starting to seep in for watching 90 minutes of nonstop TV, Veronica's Closet provides time to do the dinner dishes, throw in a load of laundry, or read the paper before ER begins at 9pm.

At the risk of casting bad mojo, I can't help but wonder where the anti-gay police are, and why they haven't targeted Will & Grace. Featuring not one, but two, gay males, and airing before 8pm, Will & Grace stars Eric McCormack and Debra Messing as the title characters who, by all indications, are married -- except for the fact that he's a gay man and she's a straight woman. Sean Hayes plays Jack, Will's flamboyant, self-absorbed, and very funny close friend. Oh yes, he's gay, too.

Have the gay police gone on vacation? You would think that at least Jack would cause some raised eyebrows. But nothing. Not a peep. Nada. And let's hope it stays that way.

Besides being a smart and funny reflection on the nature of contemporary adult relationships, Will & Grace earned kudos last week by moving away from the "isn't it funny, he's gay!" staple of humor to deal with the more complex issue of identity and self-acceptance. When Will admits he's embarrassed that Jack joined his health club because he "acts like such a fag," I had to ask, "Did he just say what I thought he said?" Sure enough, he did. The episode then spun around the struggle of a gay man being embarrassed at his gayness, but projecting it onto another gay friend -- who is hurt when he accidentally overhears the comment.

More kudos for the scene when Grace gently prods Will into seeing that perhaps he's more embarrassed about what he fears -- or maybe even loathes -- in himself. Sure, 30 minutes is too short a time to spin this topic to a satisfactory conclusion, and the make-up between Jack and Will at the end was much too pat. But that the subject was broached, from an "insider" perspective, was refreshing. If Will & Grace keeps this kind of scripting up, it may turn out to be one of the shows down the line that will be said to have helped shape television.

Take a station break at TVEye@auschron.com

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