Even though the debasement of local television news was a battle lost long ago, the death of Ed Ansin seems like an appropriate time to mark it. Mr. Ansin brought to Boston the “Miami News Style” he created—breathless field reporters who never stand still, lots of celebrity coverage, the ubiquitous “Breaking News” headline, screaming graphics, majority-blond, dressed-to-the-nines anchors and most importantly, “if it bleeds, it leads” programming.
Some might say that the success of bringing the ethic of entertainment into news reporting is its own justification and what’s wrong with that, anyway? I say that while it might be over-drawing the case to say that Ed Ansin’s style of news broadcasting led us to the Trump presidency, there’s no question they dovetail nicely.
The premise of “if it bleeds it leads” is to capture eyeballs through giving airtime to the most dramatic “news” events and putting the most dramatic spin on those events, no matter how irrelevant to a local audience. That means viewers in Massachusetts will be regaled by cyclones in Kansas, the latest fashionable billionaire retreats, lost dogs returning hundreds of miles to their bereft owners in Tallahassee and trucks spilling thousands of gallons of unpasteurized milk on the highways of San Diego. Such boring subjects as Congressional or local government budget negotiations, anything-but-brinksmanship diplomacy, global warming, non-horserace election coverage, health care, etc. are simply not sexy enough to get more than passing coverage-if at all.
The style of newscast pioneered by Ansin was a perfect precursor to the style of governance perpetrated by the Trump administration. Consider the rise of Trump himself. He was an early example of a media-friendly pseudo-celebrity par excellence, the forerunner of that pack of braying heads that appear daily on cable news with agendas that start and stop with self-aggrandizement and who themselves are often the perpetrators of violence.
Both the “Miami” news style and the Trump style call for simultaneous paranoia and a laissez-faire attitude. The tragic is either accidental, or a result of the Bad Guys—not systemic. Lowly civil servants are stealing your money. Hidden dangers in your home, but don’t worry, the daily lottery results will soon put money in your pocket. Sorry about all those dead people in the Middle East, but let’s end this broadcast with the latest supermodel on the beach at Cannes. And, for Trump: We will soon have zero cases… The warm weather will stop the virus and in any case, the Chinese are to blame… Immigrant-rapists are coming to take your jobs, but don’t worry, we’ll stop ‘em with the wall… I have the “best people,” so leave it to me.
If there is a call to action in these newscasts, it is to participate in a “Walk for______.” Nothing wrong with that, of course, but a far cry from empowering the citizenry to take political action on those issues that affect their lives. And, on Trump’s end, voting-rights actions are wrong-headed, I’m not sure I’ll leave office if mail-in votes make me lose the election and who cares if the census isn’t accurate.
Ansin bought Channel 7 in 1993, two years after I left the station. I was a segment producer/editor on a children’s show called Ready To Go. RTG was a one-hour show, initially on 5 days a week. It was very popular, but with a demographic considered not very desirable to advertisers, so it was cut back to one day a week then cancelled and I was laid off. So, I’m not one to get teary-eyed about the economics of television. Station owners have never been in it for their good health. Neither in radio nor television is the FCC licensing dictate enforced that says a station must operate in the public interest, convenience and necessity. It’s an accepted tautology: you’re on the air, so you’re operating in the public interest.
Flip through the channels of your local stations and you will see that Ansin’s strategy has been successful probably even beyond his own imaginings and has become the norm. The local news (such as can be sandwiched in between the incessant commercials) is an appropriate accompaniment to the appeal to emotionality, us-versus-them-ism and paranoia that guides current White House strategy.
Mr. Ansin seems to have been philanthropic and a nice enough chap. You can say he was ahead of his times, that he was a prime mover of his times or simply a vehicle through which large, unseen cultural forces manifested. In any case, the passing of Mr. Ansin should cause us to reflect on the role media itself has played in degrading its own independence. In resorting to the empty calories of emotionality, celebrity-worship and the reduction of complex issues to glib headlines, the media becomes easy prey for a government happy to abet the reduction of the media’s watchdog status to that of a supercilious lap dog.
Mr. Provizer worked in radio and television for many years. He didn’t need a doctor’s advice to stop watching local news (except the weather).