Saturday, February 13, 2010

RIP: The Baron of TV News Banter

You may not have noted the death of Frank Magid earlier this month. He’s responsible for what passes for news on local TV ­— and hence your distorted perception (and that of your neighbors) of what’s going on around us.

I’ve known of Magid for years, ever since I became fascinated by the potential of broadcast news in graduate school. Fred Friendly, Edward R. Murrow’s producer (see “Good Night and Good Luck”), was my professor and inspired my belief in the high calling of broadcast journalism.

Murrow and Friendly, of course, famously lived up to that calling.

Not long after I graduated, Magid came along and took a wrecking ball to journalism on local TV news. As a high-paid, itinerant TV consultant, Magid was the nemesis of responsible journalism. He advised profit-fixated station owners that the news should be entertainment pandering to the lowest common denominator and the largest possible audiences ratings, ad revenues and profits.

His Dickensonian name seemed made to order for his contribution to our collective awareness.

Magid came up with the ubiquitous “Action News” format with its “happy talk” between “news teams” of affable, young “personalities.” Local broadcast news, which has always been highly competitive, became know for show not substance.

The Magid formula was, and is, heavy on fear and frivolity. The news is defined by noir accident scenes, baby giraffes and orangutans, muggers and molesters, ominous weather fronts on animated maps, goofy home videos, whiz-bang gadget reports and mindless banter between carefully-coiffed Ken-and-Barbie anchors.

Civic news about schools, government, political campaigns, taxes and the environment gets short shrift.

Audiences have been subjected to and shaped by Magid’s innovations for 35 years. In fairness, they worked. Media executives credit Magid’s recommended dramatics and phony chatter with “saving” local news — and generating massive profits.

“Action News” also made Magid, a former sociology professor, into a rich man. The New York Times obituary noted that when he died at age 78, he owned homes in Santa Barbara, Cedar Rapids and Montana.

The unhappy talk is that in departing this world, he left his largess behind.

What he left us was TV tabloid twaddle without end. Just flick through the local TV news to witness his legacy.

For the majority of the public, which, alas, still relies on television to learn about the world outside the front door, the Magid-esque perception is as pervasive as it is perverse.

Life gives us one shot at making this world a better place. Frank, you blew it.

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