KSDK caught this image of the Ferguson, Mo. police dept. throwing tear gas at another TV crew. (KSDK.com)
What can you say about the coverage of the Ferguson, Mo. disturbances from the broadcast networks and cable news networks?
They dropped the ball, of course, with the lack of live coverage of the events unfolding in the St. Louis suburb over the last few nights.
And if you were a journalist, you sure as hell didn’t have an easy time covering the chaos – which actually turned chaotic.
This all began last Saturday with the police shooting of an African-American eighteen year-old man named Mike Brown in Ferguson, who died on the scene. His death sparked outrage nationwide, especially on social media. Protests took place in Ferguson Sunday night, but took a violent turn and became an orgy of rioting and looting. Pictures of the mayhem were posted on social media.
On Wednesday night, Ferguson cops basically became the Barney Fife Police Force and started arresting citizens at will, including journalists. Reporters from the Washington Post and Huffington Post were roughed up by police and detained. Police shot a canister of tear gas at a Al Jazzera America crew during a live shot. And a news crew from local NBC affiliate KSDK was confronted by police “with guns drawn” and was told to get out of the area.
All of a sudden, Ferguson, Missouri became Ferguson, North Korea. Only in a communist country is where you would find someone trying to squelch freedom of the press. And the last time I checked, the United States of America did not fall under that jurisdiction. Not surprisingly, the Barney Fife police chief defended his actions in Ferguson.
Once again, the Internet and social media is where people turned to for a breaking news story.
But what about cable news you ask?
Ha Ha Ha. Don’t make me laugh. Did CNN find the Malaysian plane yet? Is Fox News through blaming President Obama for everything? Has Rachel Maddow of MSNBC developed a personality? I guess CNN would like to bring you live coverage of the Ferguson protests but would have to cut in to show that Rahm Emanuel infomercial called Chicagoland. Cable news has become irrelevant – is it little wonder why those looking for information on Ferguson sought it out on the Internet – especially on social media?
And don’t even mention Chicago’s local news. Looking for information on Ferguson there is like looking for a physics book at Wal-Mart.
But let’s talk about St. Louis media for a moment. I found this message from someone named “Sick Simoni” on KMOV’s facebook page (click here for a larger view:)
It helps to note there’s not much choice in local TV news in St. Louis, as media consolidation hit the local newsrooms hard. Last year, Gannett (the owner of NBC affiliate KSDK) bought Belo, the owner of CBS affiliate KMOV and tried to sell the station to a “shadow company” that would’ve given all of the profits to Gannett. (KMOV – a former CBS-owned station under the KMOX calls – is now owned by Meredith Corp.)
The newsrooms of Fox affiliate KTVI and CW affiliate KPLR merged a few years ago, and now share a single owner in Tribune Media.
And Sinclair-owned ABC affiliate KDNL-TV doesn’t even have a news operation.
What this means is those watchdogs put in place to check St. Louis government have lessened. Like Chicago and Cook County, St. Louis City and County are notoriously corrupt, with high taxes and residents fleeing the area. In 1989, St. Louis ranked eighteenth in market size. Today, it ranks 21st.
Even worse, the St. Louis market ranked 25th with a mere $151 million in revenue (according to BIA/Kelsey in 2009 – the latest year I can find online), ranking it behind the smaller Charlotte and San Antonio markets.
And most recently, the last locally-owned station in St. Louis – My Network TV affiliate WRBU-TV – was recently sold to ION after Roberts Broadcasting went bankrupt (Koplar Communications, another locally-owned outfit, sold KPLR to ACME Communications in 1997, which was swallowed by Tribune in 2003.)
At one time, there was five choices in local TV news in St. Louis. Today, there are only three, tying financially-troubled Detroit for the fewest of any major market.
Look, its about time local stations start earning their FCC licenses. I know the discussion of issues like racism and police brutality isn’t going to send viewers into the entrances. But there are those who are looking for this type of discussion – civic-minded people who are looking for meaningful discussions. Unfortunately, Madison Avenue and Wall Street don’t value these audiences. Instead, you get the same shootings, fires, and accidents you always get on Chicago and St. Louis TV news, and elsewhere because its easier to serve local news like a Big Double at Happy Burger.
As the picture above states, social media is starting to make news outlets useless, on all levels, as proven the last few nights. TV news need to get their act together. And quick.
[Edited at 11:23 a.m. on 2014-08-18: corrected KTVI's network affiliation]