In a year where dynamics of power and oppression could not be more clear, TV journalism fails to meet the moment.
In the late night hours of Thanksgiving Eve, as California Highway Patrol officers used a battering ram and rifles to forcibly remove housing-insecure families from vacant state-owned homes, independent reporters on the ground shared shocking images of police violence on Twitter.
Meanwhile, local news stations flooded the airwaves with helicopter shots of the scene, devoid of any context about the events leading up to the violence. As ABC7 prepared its 11 pm newscast, they blasted this alert through their mobile app:
With this brief clickbait, ABC7 didn’t tell its viewers who was in the homes or why they were there — just that they were not “supposed to be” there, as defined by some unstated ideological framework that viewers should just accept. They described the scene as a “wild confrontation” and invoked a value-neutral framing, as if conflict between the largest state police agency in the country and a handful of housing-insecure families was on an even playing field.
As the newscast went on air, the anchors cut to a live shot from their helicopter overhead, with a chyron blaring “VIOLENT NEIGHBORHOOD CONFRONTATION.” Chris Christi, ABC7’s helicopter reporter, launched into a biased, pro-police framing of the events occurring on the ground below, casually implying that the officers were “forced to hogtie people.”
Had Christi been reporting on the ground, and perhaps had he not worked for a tax-dodging, multi billion dollar corporate media outlet, he may have noticed that the person who was hogtied was a 17-year-old, excited to have her own bedroom for the first time. Christi also did not note who brought the violence, why the reclaimers were there, or how these events fit into the broader narrative of reclaimer protests throughout the city and state.
Coverage of Wednesday night’s events was far from the only time local TV media has missed the mark. NBCLA’s long running “Streets of Shame” segment, which reports on the homelessness crisis through a dehumanizing, fascist lens, sunk to a new low earlier this month. Their “award-winning” reporter Joel Grover’s segment on “McMansion Tents” showed the makeshift showers, cooling systems, kitchens, and other basic residential amenities installed by residents of encampments to make living on the street marginally more tolerable. Grover did not interview a single unhoused person for the piece, but he did speak extensively with a BID director, a landlord, and a former cop-turned-city-councilmember. What could have been a story on the resourcefulness of some of the most impoverished and oppressed Angelenos was instead yet another story meant to disparage the poor and pander to the unjustified fears of a wealthy and housed audience.
Local TV coverage of the Los Angeles City Council District 4 race was virtually nonexistent, despite the race drawing endorsements from Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and Dianne Feinstein, coverage from major national publications, and an unprecedented level of volunteer support for the challenger’s campaign.
CBS2 had no coverage of the race between David Ryu and Nithya Raman prior to October 20, when it ran a piece in which Ryu falsely claimed Raman’s team committed electioneering at vote centers during the March primary. NBC4 had no substantive coverage of the race or the candidates beyond reporting on the election results after the primary and general elections. ABC7 ran a “get to know the candidates” piece in February and a nearly identical one in October, in which the level of detail about the candidates resembled that of a third grader’s book report. Stunningly, FOX11’s first time mentioning the race or the candidates was on November 6, three days after the election, when Ryu conceded.
And last spring, local TV news coverage of the first protests following George Floyd’s murder focused heavily on property damage rather than the dramatic escalation of violence against protestors from law enforcement.
I am far from the only writer critical of the sensational type of TV news that is piped into the homes of millions of households each night. But it does bear repeating, because as working class peoples’ material conditions continue to decline, neoliberal politicians and inept governments tend to respond with comic absurdity or nothing at all. The results will inevitably be more TV-worthy clashes between victims and defenders of these oppressive systems. And these TV-worthy clashes are what form the media landscape to which millions of households cook dinner, fold laundry, or fall asleep to.
A Gallup poll last year found that 74% of Americans consider local TV news to be trustworthy, more than any other news source they polled. Local TV stations outranked all other news sources in trustworthiness among Democrats, Republicans, and Independents alike. That same poll found that 51% of Americans get their news from local TV stations at least several times a week, indicating the broad reach of the medium.
In other words, people really seem to like and trust the racist, classist, fear-mongering content served up by the likes of CBS2, NBC4, ABC7, and FOX11. The power and prominence that local TV news institutions hold make them serious impediments to highlighting the narratives of society’s most underserved and invisible groups. This underscores the key role of independent and alternative local media, which is less bound by the whims of corporate sponsors or pressures to flatter the ruling class.