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Most L.A. TV Stations Refuse to Set Aside Time for Issues

English-language ones say they can't afford to air ballot measures. Spanish-language ones say they already do it.

September 23, 1996|JOSEPH HANANIA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A coalition of civic, religious and business leaders representing 20 community organizations has formally asked local TV stations to set aside 10 minutes in every hourlong newscast through election day for "real news" on ballot measures. The reply from English-language outlets: impossible.

The TV Campaign '96 Coalition made the request in a letter to news directors of the nine major news stations here in late August. Campaign chairman Gary Greenebaum reports that while Spanish-language KMEX-TV Channel 34 and KVEA-TV Channel 52 said they were already providing that much coverage, the seven English-language stations replied that it couldn't be done.

"They've taken the worst-case scenario and used it as an excuse to turn down our request," Greenebaum said in an interview. He added, however, that six of the stations offered to sit down with coalition members to explain their position, so the group will be meeting with them to further explore the matter.

What irks coalition members is the discrepancy between what they believe is important and what makes headlines on the local news. The first half-dozen minutes of any local newscast are usually devoted to acts of violence, said Ray Remy, president of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. Meanwhile, he said, citizens are being asked to vote on issues translating into $2 billion in public investments.

On the Nov. 5 ballot, he said, will be more than 15 state and local bond measures and propositions on issues ranging from welfare reform to taxes and affirmative action. The region's future, including the number and types of jobs available, will be shaped in part by how the electorate votes on these issues, he said.

Greenebaum, a rabbi and executive director of the American Jewish Committee, believes that local TV newscasts feature "violence which is out of all proportion to reality. There's a sense among us that there is no real news on the news."

The lack of news that "people can do something about" feeds a feeling of public impotence, frustration and violence, he said.

Joe Hicks, executive director of Los Angeles Multicultural Collaborative, thinks the emphasis on stories of violence appeals to the lowest common denominator and results in "a general numbing out and dumbing down of society."

"Many people literally close their eyes in the voting booth and mark an X because they have no idea who the people on the ballot are and what they represent," Hicks said.

Largely because of this sea of ignorance, he added, "You have a major part of the population that doesn't engage in the system, and a small segment of the population making decisions in their own interest. And you effectively spell the end of the democracy we all claim to cherish."

Steve Cohen, news director for KCOP-TV Channel 13, agrees that "serious coverage of local political issues needs to be enhanced." But, he insisted in an interview, the coalition's efforts to force "a quota" on political coverage "is out of synch with the way people watch TV today. . . . There used to be three stations on the air, and their responsibility was overwhelming. Then came fragmentation of the market. Now there are a variety of news sources, making news available virtually on demand from 5:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m."

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Given all this, he said, "To force political coverage in a given time slot is an absurdity. . . . Imposing a fixed [formula], while a cute marketing technique, is basically a canard which has nothing to do with the way people view TV."

Cohen also called the belief that most Americans get their news from television "a misinterpretation of studies." The public gets its initial information from TV and radio "but seeks depth in other mediums, including print, which does a better job of listing the pros and cons of the issues. You can't use one medium to do the work of the other," he said.

Larry Perret, news director at KCBS-TV Channel 2, similarly argues that TV news is boxed in by "limited time," making it "unrealistic to think we can go real deep on every single issue." Nor, he says, can an arbitrary number of minutes be assigned to any segment of the news.

"We can't be told that we have to give 10 minutes per hour every day to certain political issues. What happens if that particular day we had an earthquake? Would we still have to give 10 minutes then?"

Counters Remy of the Chamber of Commerce: "Obviously, if we had something of major consequence, that would take precedence. But we don't seem to have major earthquakes as a daily occurrence."

Why were Spanish-language KMEX and KVEA already providing so much election news?

"It's very important for our audience to participate in the political process, and this election is going to be absolutely critical to us," said KMEX news director Jairo Marin. "Our station has the responsibility to inform voters not just in presidential and local elections, but also in school district elections."

Reacting to the passage of Proposition 187 two years ago, a record number of Latinos became citizens, he said. "One of the reasons was to participate in the political process. So they want to have this information, because it's relevant for them. . . .

"My reaction as a Latino to watching the [English-language] channels is that they are not covering what I want to see. So my concern as news director is to concentrate on what's important, to make a difference."

As part of that effort, he said, KMEX is helping a coalition of Spanish-language media in Vote '96, a voter registration drive. "We're sharing [public-service announcements] with other stations, including KVEA; and La Opinion [a Spanish-language newspaper] is running articles on the importance of voting.

"And we absolutely expect this campaign to have an impact. We expect it to have a big impact. That, after all, is why we're here."

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