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News Splits Along Cultural Lines

By Amanda C. Pustilnik

Is it just me, or have you noticed a break between two sorts of news geared for two different audiences?

When we lived in a more culture heavy time, we had high culture and low culture--you know, the former was "kultur," and the latter was for the great rabbles who drove the Model T.

Today, we have moved from a "Culture age" to the Information Age, instead of high and low culture, we have High TV News and Low TV News. NO joke. I work in a TV newsroom, and I see it happening.

The station where I work puts on 24-hour news, every day of the week. We do national, international and regional news, nut mostly our focus is local. We give you weather, sports, 30 seconds on the Liberal Democratic Party losing its majority in Japan, and six minutes on some court case in Brockton. So despite the range of the stations' focus we're essentially a local operation.

Do you know what goes on the local new? Last week we had:

Boy, 12, shoots father in head with hunting rifle;

Man arraigned for raping boy scouts, a repeat offense;

Boy shot--accident or crossfire?

Eleven year-old girl molested by boys;

Fatal car wreck;

Sex offenders in prison and out--still a threat?

Family dies in fire.

I doubt this rundown raised an eyebrow. the tawdriness of the local news only becomes an interesting issue when one considers who watches this news. It is not the public who watches MacNeil/Lehrer or the Nightly Business Report, or even 60 Minutes. They cater specifically to the more affluent and the more educated--not always the same people, but one viewership.

These shows have no violence. They never do re-enactments. The very style of camera work is more stable, more staid. Why does this style appeal to the educated viewer?

I think we have to look back in American history to understand the difference in appeal and in style between high and low TV, right back to that emblem of American civilization itself; Coney Island.

Coney Island, the Ferris Wheel, the Diving Horse--these are the roots of American entertainment. Vaudeville and midgets, the woman who dances with snakes... These were the first art forms to capture the mind--and dollars--of the working public on a massive scale.

While the Jane Addamses of the country gasped, the public poured millions of dollars into the hands of the men who knew that the working man and woman craved to have their passions excited, not their minds informed. P.T. Barnum was filling the halls and making money off it. While Andrew Carnegie was endowing public libraries that most of the public never used and Olmstead was building public parks the public never saw.

Today, television news is the P.T. Barnum, the Coney island the dancing lady and the diving horse, step night up, ladies and gents, it's live, it's true, it's too disgusting to believe. The viewer can release his or her passions, desires in the comfort and safety of a half-hour, non-interactive, for your-pleasure-only freak show.

Is it Great Adventures or nightly news? Does it make a difference? I would argue the two grow from the same tradition and have the same appeal. Only now instead of paying cash, the viewer sits through commercials.

The same folk who had their high kultur now also have their high news. It is drier, more civilized and urbane--it does not pander to the passions, but engages the intellect.

And just as culture for the elite is so often public, like museums and libraries, the very highest of high. TV news is public access programming. NPR, PRS, WGBH and BBC have great merit, but narrowly circumscribed viewer appeal this is why they are always scraping for support from viewers like you.

As a reporter at my station would say. "So what's the news here?" The distinction between high and low culture has existed in the United States for a very long time, but it is only now appearing in TV news. And that's news.

John chancellor spoke recently of the "Broad river of information" the used to flow over the wire and into this country's consciousness. We all agreed what was important, he said--it helped define as a people, a nation.

The invasion of "high" and "low" into TV news is yet another force working to erode even a semblance of a common American culture. I don't know how we can fight it, but we should.

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