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Film at 10: Whose News Judgment?

WHEN Paul Klite talks about cutting down on TV violence, his target is not "NYPD Blue" or "The X-Files." It's the local nightly news.

For decades, many people have bemoaned the images of shootings, disasters, and car wrecks that nightly sweep across television screens throughout the country. But like complaints about the weather, such criticism has produced little in the way of discernible change.

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Yet now a grass-roots rebellion growing out of the West over what comes across the local airwaves. In an unprecedented move, a Denver watchdog group called Rocky Mountain Media Watch is petitioning the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to deny relicensing of Denver's four commercial TV stations, saying that their local newscasts are "harmful to viewers."

It's a significant strike at what, for many Americans, is their primary source of news. And, ironically, it comes in Denver, where the news programs are successful and relatively well respected.

Still, the move is representative of the disgust many here have for what local stations broadcast, and it may hint at a growing gap between the values of newscasts and the people they serve.

"If it bleeds, it leads - absolutely," says Mr. Klite, a former public-radio journalist. "Disaster, crime, war: All these stories get an emotional reaction, and viewers have been conditioned and seduced to watch. To deliver eyeballs to advertisers, it's great. But local TV news is not an accurate mirror of real life. It gives the public a distorted view of the world."

Night after night, according to Media Watch, the public is being force-fed an unhealthy and unbalanced news diet of violence, crime, and sensationalism. At the same time, viewers are cheated of informative and meaningful news about their communities, Klite adds. And many other media observers agree with him.

"What has happened to American journalism is a tragedy," says Michael Tracey, director of the Center for Mass Media Research at the University of Colorado, Boulder. "It's not just immoral, it's amoral. There are no values." He cites the highly publicized murder of JonBenet Ramsey as an example: "The brutal murder of a little girl is entertainment for viewers.... That is simply wrong."

Based on Media Watch's analyses of hundreds of local newscasts from 55 cities, on average, about half of local nightly newscasts are devoted to violent topics. Nearly 75 percent of lead stories deal with crime or disaster. And roughly half the airtime devoted to crime involves murder.

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But within the broadcast industry, most defend coverage of violent crime as a legitimate public-service obligation. "You try to reflect your community, and unfortunately, crime is part of our community. You have to cover it," says Roger Ogden, general manager of KUSA-TV - one of the Denver stations whose license renewal is being challenged by Media Watch.

Even so, Mr. Ogden says that the group's petition has given his station food for thought. "We're always open to constructive criticism and self-analysis," he says. "We begin with the notion that we're not perfect, and we can improve." Yet considering that KUSA holds Denver's largest market share for late news (and in fact has the nation's highest-rated 10 o'clock newscast), Ogden adds that viewers do like the product he delivers.

Meanwhile, Gene Amole, a columnist for the Rocky Mountain News, and longtime television newsman, is less sympathetic to Media Watch's agenda - stopping just short of calling this watchdog rabid. "If we don't hold a mirror up to violence, it will just increase. And I think this whole thing is a First Amendment issue. We can't have people telling the industry what it can and can't report," he says. "If people don't like what some TV stations are doing, then they shouldn't watch. They are the ultimate censor."

But Klite counters that the effects of "toxic newscasts" permeate broader society. "You can't turn off the TV. It's all around us - it's like secondhand smoke," he argues. He also maintains that viewers have few alternatives to television for local news. And while he doesn't advocate censorship, he does believe that TV stations have an obligation to serve the public's interests.

Moreover, studies have shown that after being exposed to TV violence, viewers are less-empathetic to victims, and more likely to resort to violence themselves.

Media Watch also takes issue with the fluff and triviality that tend to go hand-in-hand with violence - providing the necessary comic relief for overwrought emotions: the bears eating Popsicles at the zoo, the attack of the giant tumbleweeds, the anchor chitchat. This shrinks the news hole further, Klite says, supplanting coverage of weightier topics like politics or the environment.

All the same, the FCC hasn't declined to renew a TV station license for more than 20 years - and that occurred before the industry was deregulated. Not even Media Watch expects the stations' licenses to be yanked.

Still, the group does hopes to give stations across the country pause. "I think our whole society has to come to grips with this issue," says Klite.

Indeed, Mr. Tracey adds, the job of reining in the news media is entirely in the public's hands: "Citizens need to take back the media and demand a certain level of decency."

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