By Lee Nichols
OCTOBER 13, 1997: It was, as KXAN anchor Robert Hadlock said, "a history-making episode." Indeed it was. The September 25, 10pm edition of KXAN's news was truly a landmark low in the history of the network tie-in. All week long, as NBC counted down towards its live episode of ER, KXAN flooded its commercial time letting us know that its news crew would be taking us "behind the scenes" on the Hollywood set of the popular hospital drama to let us feel the excitement of the no-holds-barred, one-take-only presentation. Interviews with actors, extras, and the film crew would put us right on the pulse of this "historic" moment.
What any of this had to do with Austin or the news, however, was a question that the local NBC affiliate failed to answer.
As this column has criticized before, the network tie-in is the most insidious perversion of local newscasts today. Rather than allowing reporters to be reporters, local "newscasts" (the word should be used loosely) squander what little newstime they have promoting the primetime product of the network, as if the main offices back in New York or Los Angeles don't have the capital to do it themselves. In other words, the news merely becomes a big commercial for entertainment programming.
KXAN at least had the decency not to lead with ER, but it ran through the top stories quickly -- let's get it out of the way, the broadcast seemed to say, so we can get to the fun stuff. After delivering a three-minute piece on an anti drunk-driving activist, Hadlock and crew whipped through stories on an execution, the "groper rapist," the reopening of the daycare where a shooting occurred, Marv Albert, the space shuttle, single-member districts, Gov. Bush's position on video slot machines, and President Clinton coming to Texas. Those stories, altogether, took even less than three minutes.
The zip through the single-member districts story was especially appalling. Single-member districts are an issue that cuts right to the heart of Austin -- a story that involves racism, complex political alliances, an important court decision that forced a charter election onto the November ballot, and proposals for several different options on how citizens can best be represented in city government.
But those issues weren't addressed by the intrepid journalists at KXAN. Here is Hadlock's entire report, verbatim:
Wow. Who says investigative journalism is dead?
The idiocy didn't stop there. Not by a long shot. Of course, local newscasts always try to find a local angle to big national stories, even where one doesn't exist. This is always embarrassing, as it merely highlights the laziness of local news departments who can't be bothered to do any digging on the hometown stories directly affecting their viewers.
But this was even more pathetic than usual, as KXAN couldn't find one, and offered up a lame substitute -- a "local connection" that wasn't even connected to ER! Instead, Hadlock's co-anchor Stacy Schaible, who had traveled all the way to Hollywood, desperately cast about for whatever she could find, and dug up Texas-born actress Peri Gilpen, who plays "Roz" on NBC's Frasier and spent two years studying acting at UT. One could almost feel sorry for Schaible, who was left to ask inane questions about Gilpen's lack of a Southern accent.
It only got worse, though -- KXAN wasn't through milking the "local angle." Reporter Jolene DeVito then gave us a tour of "News 36 Live." Yes, kids, it's staggering to comprehend, but KXAN's news broadcast is actually done live every night! DeVito took us all around the studio and showed us some of the technical gadgetry that is involved in bringing the so-called news to you every night. It would have been a fun and interesting grade school field trip; unfortunately, it wasn't. Instead, it was a waste of the precious little news time that local affiliates have available to them.
How little time? Generally, once you subtract sports, weather, and commercials from each 30-minute broadcast, TV stations have about 12 minutes to deliver the news. Total time devoted to this silly spectacle: seven minutes, 36 seconds.
Michael & MeIt probably didn't need proving, but last month's screening of The Big One confirmed beyond doubt -- Michael Moore is the most entertaining and effective spokesperson that the left has today. With all due respect to Austin's own Jim Hightower and Molly Ivins, no one can hold a candle to the ability of the filmmaker from Flint, Michigan to take a crowd's righteous anger and turn it into peals of laughter -- and not for the purpose of diffusing that anger, but to focus it on the proper targets, and to give people a sense of resolve to do something about it.
Moore, of course, is the creator of Roger & Me and TV Nation, and the author of Downsize This! (Random House, $12 paper). The first in that list, Moore's hilarious film about trying to meet with General Motors CEO Roger Smith, was the highest-grossing non-fiction film of all time; the second is his on-again, off-again Emmy-winning television series of populist pranks against all that is wealthy and corporate (the BBC will produce a new season of TV Nation next year). The book, which came out last year and has just been released in paperback, is the basis for the new film.
Moore easily held the Austin crowd in the palm of his hand on September 25. The preview screening of The Big One -- which will be released early next year -- packed every seat at the Texas Union Theatre and left hundreds of upset fans standing outside, and his following speech at the Union's enormous ballroom came close to filling that space, as well. People were there to laugh, rather than be bored or just whipped into a frenzy by the left's usual offering of ivory tower academics or thundering militants. And Moore delivered.
The Big One, which follows him on his book tour for the hardback edition of Downsize This!, is gut-bustingly funny. Many of the jokes were simply repeated from the book, but Moore's deadpan delivery makes them that much funnier -- his attempt to have then-California Rep. Bob Dornan committed to a mental institution was inspired (although you wonder why no one thought of it sooner), and his rather damning evidence that former presidential candidate Steve Forbes is an extraterrestrial alien had the crowd reduced to tears.
This was his first trip to Austin, but the observant Moore spent the six or so hours leading up to his appearance tooling around town and picking local hooks to grab the University of Texas crowd -- starting with the UT's Union itself and its endangered theatre program.
"Why are they closing this theatre?" he wailed.
"Because it wasn't making enough money," somebody replied.
"I thought this wasn't supposed to be a profit-making institution," he replied. "Oh yeah, I guess they need to build some skyboxes in the theatre!"
He also aimed at many of his student activist fans, needling those whose Spanish pronunciation suddenly turns perfect when the word "Nicaragua" comes from their mouths: "Look, you have a right to talk like that if you're Hispanic, but not if you come from Plano."
Moore, never a fan of too much political correctness, then turned his barbs at this oh-so-p.c. burg: "Welcome to a smoke-free Austin," he ridiculed. "That's the first thing you hear when you get off the plane!" That wasn't much of a civic motto for Moore: "I'd rather hear `Welcome to Austin -- we kick ass!' That's what Austin was always known for. You were the Ann Arbor of the South."
The Chronicle didn't escape criticism either, with Moore belittling the weekly's Best of Austin issue as more fluff than news. Alternative papers in general, he says, are tilting more towards entertainment news and thus neglecting to provide the tools for social change.
(Moore's book also has some hooks for Austinites -- locals will be enlightened to read about Samsung's illegal campaign contributions to U.S. political candidates, or to learn that Dell Computers uses prison labor to build and repair circuit boards. Perhaps you missed that amidst all of the local media's cheerleading about the two companies -- a search of the Austin American-Statesman's online archives turns up two very short stories about Samsung's malfeasance, and a 1995 story about the prison-labor company with which Dell contracts, but no mention of Dell itself.)
All of that was in keeping with his modus operandi -- to divide his attacks, shooting half at the out-of-control corporations who are turning the American Dream into the American Nightmare, and the rest at a political left that often gets just too damned snooty and disassociated from the common people it claims to champion. He especially criticized the overly intellectualized who turn up their noses at such lowbrow things as television and line dancing. "Go home after this and watch ER!" he demanded.
"We could organize if we weren't so busy meeting in the basement of the Unitarian Church in our little Green meetings," he said. "I've been going to meetings my whole life. Now I want to get out there and do something. No more meetings!"
When he suggested that Austin's highly non-unionized populace could benefit from organizing a chapter of the Labor Party here, local activist Cedar Stevens caught him in his contradiction: "But that takes meetings!" she yelled. "No meetings!" Moore barked back. "Line dancing!"
Hightower PowerIt was probably a disservice to radio host Jim Hightower to read his new book immediately after Michael Moore's. After the laugh-out-loud lunacy of Moore, just about anything else is going to seem rather anticlimactic. Hightower's humor is more in the folksy, back-porch vein of his idol, John Henry Faulk, intended to evoke a wry smile rather than shortness of breath -- as in the title: There's Nothing in the Middle of the Road Except Yellow Lines and Dead Armadillos (Harper Collins, $23 hard).
The two books have strong commonalities, however: They're both good comfort reading. While you may find a new factoid here or there, neither is revelatory in the same way as the investigative journalism of The Progressive or a heavily footnoted Noam Chomsky book. But they do offer reassurance that no, you aren't nuts for thinking that corporations are out of control, the U.S. government only gives lip service to democracy, the military spends an absurd amount of our tax money, and our supposedly gangbusters economy has left you behind. ("Sure Wall Street is whizzing," he writes, "it's whizzing on you and me.")
Hightower broadcasts a nationally syndicated show every weekday, 11am-1pm, from Threadgill's World Headquarters downtown (heard locally on KNEZ, 1530AM), just a few feet away from the tables where people are eating (in fact, Moore was his guest on the day of The Big One's screening). He tries to take the same approach to his writing -- rather than scare away Joe Bob Union with talk of revolution, he tries to reach out with simple common sense, pointing out that workers really do want and deserve more time off, the corporate-owned news media really is not liberal, and the Green Bay Packers really are the world's coolest football team (read the book; he explains it).
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